In this little hardcover book (only 97 pages from Preface through Conclusion), Herbert London argues that Judeo-Christian culture, American values, and scientific truth play a vital and positive but currently unappreciated role in our world. He also argues that those who can be loosely categorized as secularists blind us to the serious threat Islamism poses to western civilization, excusing Islamist aggression as a response to exploitation of third world populations by the western countries, denouncing as “Islamophobia” any attempts to hold Islamists responsible for their crimes, and denying the reality of death threats against the United States.
As his title implies, he is particularly critical of those who, in the name of separation of church and state, strive for “the wholesale removal of religion from public life,” while simultaneously romanticizing Islam.
The book is, of course, brilliantly written. In the right hands, it could be a fine jumping-off point for group discussions, and an excellent choice as assigned reading for entering college freshmen. Unfortunately, not many colleges have faculty who would lead seminars about the book without bashing it for its conservative bias. Perhaps instead, churches and synagogues could conduct the seminars for students who are about to leave for college, to prepare them for what they will face when they get there. But even those seminar leaders would probably need help beyond the book.
I am in agreement with 90% of London’s argument. Like him, “I, a Jew,… appreciate the role that Christianity plays in buttressing Western democracies.” And I have fond memories of the public elementary school I attended in New England in the 1950s. Every morning we read a psalm and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. In a school system where 80% of students were Jews, 90% of teachers were Christians, and they made glorious events out of Thanksgiving and Christmas. To this day I know more verses of carols than most of my Christian friends, and my sister and I embarrass our children every Thanksgiving by singing the hymns of our Puritan “forebears” at the dinner table.
In the 1960s, the college I attended had an assembly called Convocation every Tuesday at noon. Attendance was taken, and I somehow got a job as an attendance taker; perhaps the distraction of taking attendance accounts for my failure to remember anything of what must have been nonsectarian sermons. I did learn that Convocation had previously been called Chapel and that failure to attend had been penalized in some way. The name change is evidence that secularization had already begun, even in elite institutions that originated as seminaries.
Previously, and elsewhere in the United States until quite recently, more aggressive expressions of Christianity were common. Jews, Christians of the wrong denomination, and others were insistently proselytized, expected to conform to the dominant form of observance, and shamed, persecuted, or otherwise placed at a disadvantage if they did not. Compulsory attendance at Chapel was probably the least of it.
In other words, contrary to what London implies, the pre-secular era was no Garden of Eden. But it did not occur to me that the benign forms of Christianity to which I had been exposed could be perceived as threatening until one December in the 1970s. The Israeli mother of one of my children’s friends started complaining bitterly about having to listen to Christmas carols in department stores. When I tried to point out how beautiful the music was (in the 1970s, we heard more Bach and Adam and less Alvin and Rudolph than now), her face froze; our relationship was never quite the same.
Flash forward to 2007, when the placing of a ham on a table where Somali Muslim students were eating lunch in a public middle school in Lewiston, ME, was designated a “hate incident.” The perpetrator, who had been dared to place the ham on the table, was briefly suspended from school and made to apologize. A parody of the incident was widely reported as fact, and the ensuing public uproar gave clear evidence that living in a pluralistic society is not as easy as we thought.
At best, we are bound to get on one another’s nerves. Can we at least live together without infringing one another’s rights? Secularism is a mindless response to that problem. Another response is to display menorahs and Kwanzaa candles alongside Christmas trees. But how far are we willing to go in the direction of multiculturalism? Are we prepared to have Mohammed’s daddy come to school and slaughter a lamb for the edification of first graders? If not, are we Islamophobic? Can we somehow find our way back to the pre-secular era, but purge it of its oppressive and discriminatory features? London does not really address these questions, nor do I have answers for them, but they badly need to be addressed.
London also does his case no service by off-handedly equating late-term or partial-birth abortion with infanticide. He seems not to be aware that a rare medical procedure intended for use only where the birth of a non-viable hydrocephalic fetus would endanger the mother’s health and future ability to bear children has become politicized by anti-abortion activists. Unwanted or high-risk pregnancy in general is a unique case of rights in conflict, one that deserves principled and detailed consideration but does not receive it in this book.
London raises important issues, but many of them cry out for more substantive treatment. The book is too short. I am glad he wrote it, but without something along the lines of a seminar leader’s manual, it is largely a sermon for the choir.