If the foundations are destroyed … Descent into barbarism

Peter Barnes Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
31 May, 2011 6 min read

If the foundations are destroyed … Descent into barbarism

Democracy cannot long survive without moral foundations. The second president of the United States, John Adams, is noted — and sometimes resented — for his observation in 1798 that ‘Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other’.

In 1807 he commented that ‘without national morality a Republican government cannot be maintained’.1 In the 1940s T. S. Eliot warned: ‘If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made … You must pass through many centuries of barbarism’.2

That is about where we are up to. Democratic values are nebulous and shifting, and can become quite dangerous without the restraint and realism exercised by a Christian underpinning.

We can be thankful if the nation’s laws are right and good in the sight of God. The reign of King Josiah in Judah (640-609 BC) was characterised by justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 22:15-17). Josiah turned away decisively from idolatry and evil and to God and his law (2 Kings 22-23).

Partial reform

So far as it went — indeed, so far as it could go — Josiah’s reformation was right and good. The filthy sex cult of Baal and Asherah; the burning of incense to the sun, moon and stars; and child sacrifices to the god Molech were all curtailed on the orders of the king.

Yet, twenty years after, Josiah was killed in battle, and everything was in ruins. By 587 BC the Babylonians had swept into Jerusalem and razed it to the ground. The prophet Jeremiah claimed that, in spite of Josiah’s reforms, Judah was treacherous, and had not returned to God with her whole heart, but in pretence (Jeremiah 3:10).

The political, social and moral reforms instituted under Josiah were steps in the right direction, but may even have disguised the reality that Judah was deeply corrupt, and close to disaster.

Patriotism is, said Dr Johnson — that most English of men — ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’. The problem is that the West has descended into a huge moral and spiritual vacuum. On 12 October the British nurse, Edith Cavell, was executed by firing squad by German authorities for the crime of helping hundreds of Allied soldiers to escape occupied Belgium.

On her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar   Square in London, are inscribed the words she spoke to the Anglican chaplain the night before her execution: ‘Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’.

Democracy will not save us, nor will education schemes to promote multiculturalism and interfaith harmony, nor will secularism, and nor will campaigns to bolster Western values.

Gadarene slope

The Roman Empire was praised as one that would last for ever, although its predominant policy for keeping the populace contented was simply one of — to cite Juvenal — ‘bread and games’.3

It created a people dependent upon the state for their livelihood, and looking for state-sponsored entertainment. It all has a familiar ring to it; decadence is the opiate of the people.

In his much-criticised speech of 8 June 1978, delivered at Harvard University, the towering Russian novelist and dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, accused the Western world of having lost its civil courage and instead embarked on a hasty, superficial and destructive use of freedom, to achieve evil.4

In July 2004 Alastair Nicholson retired as Chief Justice of the Family Court in Australia, and in September delivered a blistering attack on what he referred to as a ‘shameful piece of legislation’ that rejected same-sex marriages and same-sex adoptions.5

Rodney Croome, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003, asserts that if gay marriages are not sanctioned, ‘Gays and lesbians will join Aborigines and refugees as people whose claims on justice inspire the kind of hatred and deep division that winds back Australia’s tolerance of diversity. The genie of gay marriage is out of the bottle. How we handle its escape will demonstrate our maturity as a nation’.6

One might compare these views to those of Mary Slessor. She devoted her life to the evangelisation and upbuilding of the people of Calabar in West Africa. She saw much degradation in the area of relationships between the sexes, and commented, ‘How wholesome are God’s own laws of freedom and simplicity’.7

Promiscuity — be it in the lives of Roman emperors or modern gangster-tyrants such as Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin — seems to go hand-in-hand with the abuse of power.8

Many of the early Roman emperors, including the mad despot Nero, were bisexual — as was maybe Adolf Hitler of more modern times.9 Moral breakdown in Berlin in the 1920s was the prelude to the rise of Nazi tyranny in the 1930s. The onset of tyranny comes via a sordid lifestyle.10

Private religion

In November 2002, as the Australian parliament discussed the issue of embryonic stem cell research, Senator Amanda Vanstone claimed that religion had no place in the debate: ‘Let me turn to some of the objections which have their basis in a religious view held by their proponents.

‘My own position is this: if you lead a good life, any god worth knowing will accept you into his or her heaven. I do not think … that there will be any St Peter at some set of pearly gates dispatching infidels to another place, smirking behind his hand that this sucker made the mistake of going to a Roman Catholic, an Anglican or a Baptist church or of being a Jew, a Hindu or a Muslim.

‘If in fact the basis for getting into heaven is that you pick the right church now, then frankly I’m not terribly interested in getting there; it could be a very boring place.’

She went on: ‘Your religion is your business and no one else’s. My personal view is that, when you make your religion an issue, you drag it into the political domain and you tarnish it. It follows that I attach very little importance or interest to arguments over religions’.

Finally: ‘My point is quite simple: each to his own religion … The State should never be used as God’s enforcer … I simply ask those who, because of their religious beliefs, have a very genuine concern about this bill to accept that they are entitled to follow their religious beliefs; they are not entitled to demand by legislation, that everybody else does the same’.

Senator Vanstone even quoted Clarence Darrow from the 1926 Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’, who stated that: ‘The realm of religion … is where knowledge leaves off, and where faith begins, and it never has needed the arm of the State for support, and wherever it has received it, it has harmed both the public and the religion it would pretend to serve’.11


Alan Ramsey, one of Australia’s foremost political commentators, made the extraordinary lament: ‘If only, in Australian public life, people like Amanda Vanstone were the rule rather than the exception’.12

The truth, of course, is that the kind of lazy and intimidating thinking behind Senator Vanstone’s outlook is the prevailing one in the West. When France banned Muslim head scarves and large crosses in schools and government offices, President Jacques Chirac claimed that, ‘Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe’.13

In reality it only protects the freedom not to believe; and it conveniently sidelines all Christians — and, theoretically at least, all adherents of other faiths — from the political arena, leaving it available only for the humanists.

Recently, Janet Folger has spoken not of marginalising but the ‘criminalisation’ of Christianity.14 In many parts of what used to be called Christendom, it can now be illegal to quote certain parts of the Bible.

All kinds of perversions are permitted and pandered to, while it is open season on those who believe that in his inerrant Word the Lord of the universe has spoken clearly and finally to the people whom he created.

To be continued

Peter Barnes

The author is minister of Revesby Presbyterian Church, New South Wales


1. Cited in James H. Hutson (Ed.), The founders on religion: A book of quotations, Princeton University Press, 2005, p.231.

2. T. S. Eliot, Christianity and culture: notes towards the definition of culture, A Harvest Book, 1976, p.200.

3. Juvenal, Satires, X (The sixteen satires, translated by Peter Green, Penguin, 1970, p.207).

4. A. Solzhenitzyn, ‘A world split apart’, 8 June 1978 in Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks to the West, Bodley Head, 1978, pp.77-100.

5. A. Nicholson, ‘The “reform” that shames Australia’, The Age, 20 September, 2004.

6. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 2004.

7. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: pioneer missionary, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918, p.203.

8. E.g. Jung Chang, Wild swans, Flamingo, 1992; Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: the unknown story, Jonathan Cape, 2005; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, Phoenix, 2008.

9. Cf. Lothar Machtan, The hidden Hitler, translated by John Brownjohn, New Basic Books, 2001.

10. Cf. Rainer Metzger, Berlin in the twenties, Thames & Hudson 2007; also Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, 2009. Weitz, however, misses the point of his own evidence and applauds what he sees as the healthy naturalism of the sex reformers — Wilhelm Reich, to name one — of the 1920s in Germany (e.g., p.330).

11. Australian Senate Hansard, Monday 11 November 2002, pp.5860-5861.

12. A. Ramsey, ‘If only the seats of power carried more backsides like this’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2002.

13. Ted Olsen, ‘Misfires in the tolerance wars’, Christianity Today, http://christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/003/24.70.html, 24 February 2004.

14. Janet Folger, The criminalisation of Christianity, Multnomah, 2005.

Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
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