I picked up George Weigel’s Against the Grain in the Denver airport last night and read it straight through to Dallas and again for far too long before turning out the hotel light. It is a fascinating and serious series of essays on the urgent tasks before Christianity and especially Catholicism in the world today. While Weigel ranges over many particulars, he does so aware that his readers are almost certainly not up to speed on key philosophical debates of the past century and so takes the time to set up the key arguments.
The book is a complete refutation of the absurd attacks by the secular absolutists on the “dangers” that Christianity allegedly poses to the freedoms we enjoy in the West. In one critical chapter, Weigel argues that while there is “no Christian agenda for the politics of the world,” there are a “number of causes for which the Christians are bound to contend.” He continues:
The most important of these is religious freedom.
Here we return to the first thing the Church asks of the world. The Church cannot be the Church if it attempts to put the coercive power of the state behind its truth claims, or if it acquiesces in the state’s assumption of that role. Coerced faith is no faith. As the Letter to Diognetus put it, the God of Christians “saves by persuasion, not by compulsion, for compulsion is no attribute of God.” The Church’s defense of religious freedom is thus not a matter of institutional self-interest. Religious freedom is an acknowledgement, in the juridical order of society, of a basic truth about the human person that is essential for the right ordering of society: a state that claims competence in that interior sanctuary of personhood and conscience where the human person meets God is a state that has refused to adopt a self-limiting ordinance essential to right governance (not to mention democracy). Religious freedom is the first of human rights because it is the juridical acknowledgement (in constitutional and/or statutory law) that within every human person is an inviolable haven, a free space, where state power may not tread –and that acknowledgement is the beginning of limited government. In defending religious freedom, therefore, the Church defends both the truth about the human person and the condition for the possibility of civil society.
Last year Weigel published Faith Reason and the War Against Jihadism, which made it on to my “necessary bookshelf” of a baker’s dozen reads that any serious participant in conversations about the war will have read.
Now with Against the Grain, Weigel is widening his focus to other crucial but of course connected subjects. Weigel introduces each essay with a note on its origins and its recent revisions, and the impact of long years studying and writing about John Paul II and Benedict XVI show through on every page.