A preliminary reply to Matthew Schmitz’s ‘Christianity is for Cucks’
by Gaius Marcius
The trend of embracing pejorative nicknames is getting out of hand. First the Tea Party considered adopting the tea bagger moniker, then the Alt Right began to own the accusations of racism and White supremacy, and now highbrow Catholics are jumping on the bandwagon. The religious right has often disavowed the Alt Right and occasionally affirmed their own cuckservatism, but Matthew Schmitz goes far beyond merely appropriating an insult in his First Things essay. On the rather slender evidence of a few Evelyn Waugh quotations, Mr. Schmitz elevates being cuckolded, both on the racial-civilizational level and in private life, to the level of Christian virtue.
I will only briefly address the fantasy of African Christians replacing Europeans as the guardians of the Latin Mass, pastoral England, and Scholastic philosophy. The differing aptitudes of the races have been dealt with exhaustively by numerous race realist and human biodiversity writers. Mr. Schmitz sets the words and deeds of a few Black outliers like Cardinal Sarah, acting within a White institution within a White society, against the whole record of African and European history. Waugh likely intended the image of an ignorant White flock and a black priest to act as a rhetorical goad to rekindle some pride in Europe’s Christian heritage, just as Victor Hugo’s Notre–Dame de Paris revived the flagging reputation of a great cathedral in the minds of French readers. Waugh was counting on the implicit racism of his readers to recoil from the notion of ceding Christian culture to Africans, but he has the misfortune of being taken at face value by 21st century readers.
Mr. Schmitz hedges his bets a little when he admits that perhaps Blacks will not bear forth the culture abandoned by Whites. It may be a purely temperamental difference between us, but I would change “perhaps not” to, “almost certainly not.” Careful observers of Africa have noticed Christianity often loses out to Islam, as Alan Moorehead described in 1960:
“It was not only paganism [the missionaries] were attempting to displace, but the Moslem faith as well, and Islam was entrenched in Central Africa by this time. It had strong attractions for the primitive tribesmen, since it could be understood and practised by the simplest mind. There was no complicated initiation, no elaborate ritual, not even priest or a church were required… Already the Africans comprehended in a vague way the concept of God, and Islam merely demanded of them that they should acknowledge the authority of his prophet Mohammed. It was enough to declare ‘There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet’, and the pagan illiterate was accepted into a faith that offered him all kinds of advantages…The status accorded to women by Islam also suited the Africans very well, since they were accustomed to polygamy; Mohammed allowed a man four wives who were all inferior to him, and divorce was easy. Best of all, perhaps, was Mohammed’s paradise, for it contained just those sensual delights that preoccupied the Africans here upon earth: a cool water-garden inhabited by beautiful women, the gratification of every physical want, and, by night, four houris to attend him in his square tent… As for the slavery itself (which the Africans had always practiced), it was condoned by Islam… Compared to these easy-going doctrines, Christianity presented a hard, uncompromising front. Its emphasis upon original sin and its dogma were difficult for a sluggish mind to master, and its prohibition of slavery and polygamy seemed to the tribesmen to be flying in the face of nature. The ethereal Christian heaven had very little appeal when contrasted with the sensuous Moslem paradise, and even the outward forms of Christianity were somewhat incongruous in this hot climate: the mosque had its graceful minarets, its great cool space beneath the rounded dome, its pleasant carpets to kneel on, and it harmonized with the landscape. But the severe lines of Christian architecture were alien to Africa.”
The White Nile , ch.16
Mr. Schmitz also glosses over the rather significant point that none of this displacement is necessary if Whites do not abandon Christianity. Many churches ill equipped to evangelize post-modern post-Christians turn in despair to the seemingly fruitful mission fields of Africa, mistaking great improvements in material culture and standard of living for successful conversion. These missions are the Christian equivalent of economic aid, and there is no more evidence that African churches could endure without constant subsidies, let alone sustain the culture that produced the Missa solemnis and novelists like Waugh, than that Africa could feed itself without foreign aid. Weighing the relative merits of Waugh’s fiction and Moorehead’s observations, I remain much more sanguine about the possibility of reconverting Europeans to Christianity, perhaps after a neo-Pagan interlude, than about the prospect of transferring Christianity to the global south.
Though I disagree with Mr. Schmitz’s conclusions, I do not mean to denigrate his use of novels to illustrate a philosophical point, because literature is one of the glories of Western Civilization closest to my own heart. Literature is both an intrinsically beautiful expression of the image of God in mankind, and an important tool for shaping culture. I notice that Mr. Schmitz draws his monumental conclusion that Christianity is for cucks from one story by one author from the last century; a century arguably already stepping into the post-Christian era when Waugh wrote. This hardly seems fair to the grand literary tradition of Christendom, so let us see if we can broaden the perspective a bit. I propose a trio of authors who span the genres of medieval poetry, Elizabethan drama, and 19th century novels. Few readers will be surprised to learn that these disparate writers are all in agreement about cuckoldry, and none of them agree with Mr. Schmitz.
In that most Catholic of epics, The Divine Comedy, Dante places traitors in the deepest circle of Hell. Traitors to kin, country, and guests (that’s invited guests only, not illegal immigrants) are frozen in an icy lake where their extremities drop off from frostbite and they cannot even weep without their eyes freezing shut (Canto XXXII). Traitors to masters, like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, are perpetually chewed up by Satan at the very center of the earth. Even the scourge of medieval Christendom, Muhammad, sliced in two with his entrails dragging on the ground, is not placed so low as traitors (Canto XXVIII).
The Alt Right’s use of cuckold as an insult is a recognition that the entire false complex of outgroup altruism that is the summum bonum of modern morality is actually a betrayal of kin, country, guests, and masters all in one. The adulterous, lustful wife who brings in an alien child is not so guilty as the man who abdicates all his responsibilities by accepting it. Everyone who has a legitimate claim on a family is betrayed when an interloper is accepted by the very person who is responsible for defending the family and that extension of the family known as the nation. This might not seem very important to people raised in an era when family and nation are arguably valued less than at any other time in history, but mass familial disintegration is integral to the general decline of Western societies even if no one can see it. In monarchical times the stakes were more obvious because the stability of a single family could determine the fate of the entire nation.
Shakespeare illustrates the defensive attitude toward the sanctity of the family in his Winter’s Tale, where the action is initiated because Leontes, king of Sicilia, fears that he has been cuckolded by Polixenes, king of Bohemia.
“There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in ’s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by
Sir Smile, his neighbor. Nay, there’s comfort in ’t
Whiles other men have gates and those gates
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves.”
Winter’s Tale, 1.2.240
Leontes imprisons his wife and orders the daughter she bears in prison to be carried into the wild and left to die. Critically, though advisors challenge the king’s decision, they do so only by protesting that they believe him to be wrong about the facts of the case. Every character accepts the legitimacy of the king’s anger and the righteousness of his harsh judgments if the queen has in fact been unfaithful. The queen herself tells her followers that wrongful imprisonment is preferable to actually being an unfaithful wife:
“Do not weep, good fools;
There is no cause. When you shall know your
Has deserved prison, then abound in tears
As I come out. This action I now go on
Is for my better grace.”
Winter’s Tale, 2.1.142
Dante and Shakespeare implicitly address the individual cuckold when they explore betrayal and royal responsibility, but Waugh writes at a much more personal and relatable level, so perhaps Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne is the story best juxtaposed with Sword of Honor. Doctor Thorne concerns the upbringing of a young bastard named Mary. Mary’s mother, Miss Mary Scatcherd, was seduced by Henry Thorne, brother of the titular doctor. Miss Scatcherd’s brother finds out about her disgrace and kills Henry in a drunken rage, leaving Miss Scatcherd and her newborn destitute. Doctor Thorne seeks some means to help the unfortunate woman and his brother’s illegitimate child:
“At twilight, one evening, Thorne was surprised by a visit from a demure Barchester hardware dealer, whom he did not remember ever to have addressed before. This was the former lover of poor Mary Scatcherd. He had a proposal to make, and it was this:–if Mary would consent to leave the country at once, to leave it without notice from her brother, or talk or éclat on the matter, he would sell all that he had, marry her, and emigrate.”
So far we are traversing the same territory that Mr. Schmitz does with Waugh, but here the revolution in morals that separates the Christian civilization of the 1800’s from the mortally wounded Europe of 1933 begins to tell. Miss Scatcherd’s former lover is no cuckold pushover:
“There was but one condition; she must leave her baby behind her. The hardware-man could find it in his heart to be generous, to be generous and true to his love; but he could not be generous enough to father the seducer’s child.
‘I could never abide it, sir, if I took it,’ said he; ‘and she,–why of course she would always love it the best.’ “
Trollope next adds an editorial comment that shows that despite his formidable imagination even he could not foresee the reduced morals of the 20th century, let alone the utterly inverted moral universe of the 21st century:
“In praising his generosity, who can mingle any censure for such manifest prudence? He would still make her the wife of his bosom, defiled in the eyes of the world as she had been; but she must be to him the mother of his own children, not the mother of another’s child.”
Doctor Thorne raises his bastard niece himself, the hardware man lives happily with Miss Scatcherd as his wife, and both men exhibit Christian charity without condoning immorality or compromising their principles. Waugh’s Sword of Honor also extolls commendable selflessness and mercy, but the ambiguity of the story allows Mr. Schmitz to take the sin and tragedy that Christians must endure in the fallen world and makes positive virtues out of them. Protestant readers, particularly American evangelicals used to exegetical preaching, may be put off by all this reference to non-Biblical literature, so let us compare Mr. Schmitz’s contentions to The Book. Mr. Schmitz could have dispensed with Waugh altogether and gone straight to Hosea, the Old Testament prophet ordained as a cuckold by God Himself.
“When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her…The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress.”
Hosea 1.2 and 3.1
Hosea’s marriage is intended to be a picture of the relationship between God and the children of Israel, who repeatedly betray the Lord and seek after false gods. The ultimate message of the book is one of hope, because God forgives and accepts the people once they repent and abandon their sinful lifestyle. The awkward part, from the forgiving cuckold point of view, is the biblical prescription for the unrepentant wife, which falls decisively in the Dante-Shakespeare-Trollope tradition:
“Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts. Otherwise I will strip her naked and make her as bare as on the day she was born; I will make her like a desert, turn her into a parched land, and slay her with thirst. I will not show my love to her children, because they are the children of adultery. Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace…. Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’… So now I will expose her lewdness before the eyes of her lovers; no one will take her out of my hands. I will stop all her celebrations: her yearly festivals, her New Moons, her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals. I will ruin her vines and her fig trees which she said were her pay from her lovers; I will make them a thicket, and wild animals will devour them.”
Do you detect the slight change in tone and emphasis when we move from God’s wrath toward an unfaithful wife to Matthew Schmitz’s description of Christian virtue?
“[Christianity] requires us to accept defeat in this life so we might enjoy triumph in the next. A Catholic cannot be certain that his line will continue or his country thrive. He only knows that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church.”
There is an unwarranted leap from “cannot be certain” to ” requires us to accept defeat,” that revels in tribulation and is the inverse of the prosperity gospel. The biblical injunction of James is necessary because the world is fallen and sinful, but the world was not made sinful in order to promote faith:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Sin is used by God to bringing about faith and virtue, which is part of the mystery of redemption, but Saint Paul specifically writes against the error of considering the sins themselves to be inherently valuable:
“But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”
Christianity offers eternal hope even to cuckolds, but the mission of the Church is not to promote cuckoldry as a pathway to virtue. The Church as a spiritual institution has a body of knowledge unobtainable by any means besides revelation, but as a social institution the Church has a choice in every age to either lead or follow the culture. Leading the culture means preaching the message that the world needs to hear but does not want to hear, while following the culture means preaching whatever message the world wants to hear but does not need. Exhortations to mercy would be appropriate for a bloody age like the 10th century; our permissive and emotive generation needs to be called to uncompromising rigidity in the face of sin and degeneracy. I am afraid that when Matthew Schmitz pressed the legitimate themes of Waugh’s story to absurd extremes, he was mainly concerned with joining the popular chorus of opposition to the Alt Right. The Christian acceptance of absurdity and the relegation of formerly uncontested truths to obscure reactionary and Alt Right circles is partly responsible for the declining social relevance of the religious right. By elevating the perennially unpopular and correctly despised moral failing of cuckoldry to the level of Christian virtue, Mr. Schmitz is, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to the very decline that he purports to oppose.