Steve King Isn’t Just a Racist, He’s Completely Ignorant of the History of Western Civilization

Following a Monday appearance on MSNBC, Iowa Congressman Steve King is finally getting some of the attention he deserves. Although he supported Ted Cruz in his state’s caucuses, King is in many ways a forerunner of Donald Trump.

During a panel discussion segment led by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, King was challenged by Esquire writer Charlie Pierce about the fact that delegates at the Republican National Convention were overwhelmingly older and white. The congressman took umbrage at and mounted a strange and irrelevant defense over why black and Hispanic Republican politicians were avoiding the RNC this year.

“This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired,” King said. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Hayes stepped in to ask for a clarification: “Than white people?”

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King said. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

It’s quite clear that despite King’s later attempt to wrap his racial remark in a praise of Western Civilization, that he was originally talking about white people. Pierce pointed out the homogeneity of the convention and King responded by saying that white people are why Europe and the United States have enjoyed economic and military success in recent centuries.

I’m a fan of Western values. In my mind, there’s no question that Western civilization is morally and empirically better for overall human well-being and human progress.

But when somebody argues that race has anything at all to do with those achievements or those values, as if race was causal rather than simply correlated, that is racism. By definition.

Beyond King’s racism, however, his later remark that he was meaning to praise Christianity instead of white people is not only religiously bigoted, it’s also factually incorrect.

I don’t think there can be any dispute that Christianity has had a profound effect on western civilization and the world, but…what exactly does that mean?
  • You can argue that Christianity was compatible with western civilization and I’ll totally agree with you.
  • You can argue that Christianity was more compatible with western civilization than Islam and I’ll call it obvious.
  • You can argue that the infrastructure of the Christian (mainly Catholic) Church was responsible for preserving and developing a great deal of knowledge and I’ll agree, though I think that’s a little like crediting the government with the Internet and space travel. Those institutions did it because those were the only institutions at the time with the resources, structure and capacity to do it.
It’s pretty tautological that a large percentage of the world’s population has a major effect on civilization, and it’s doubly tautological when people basically think of “western civilization” as “nations that are now, or emerged from, Christian cultures.” (Note: “doubly tautological” is probably a violation of logic and maybe also the laws of space-time)
But many factors went into the development of what we call Western civilization, and it’s difficult to think of many (any?) that are uniquely Christian in origin.  Among the key elements of western civilization are:

  • The rule of law — The idea of the rule of law certainly predates Christianity and Judaism. The code of Hammurabi predates Judaism by 300-to-1,000 years (depending on how literally you interpret the OT). The concept or practice of the rule of law was not unique to either Christendom or the west. The Romans had their own set of permanent rules and decrees called the Twelve Tables hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.
  • Rights — This one is all over the board. The concept and practice of individual rights (to varying degrees) was present in many cultures all over the world throughout history. It’s often said that Christians pioneered the abolition of slavery in Europe and the United States, but A) other (non-western/non-Christian) cultures had outlawed slavery at earlier points (though, it didn’t necessarily last across different regimes/dynasties/empires), and B) pretty much everybody in Europe and the Americas was Christian. When pretty close to 100% of the population is Christian, then “Christians did [x]” is about as meaningful as “humans did [x].”  Not only that, the ancient, polytheistic Greeks and Romans had the notion of civil rights many centuries before the existence of Christianity.
  • Democracy — Democracy was pioneered by the Greeks over five hundred years before Christianity and during a time when Judaism had transitioned from hierocracy (“the rule of priests”) to monarchy. When the Roman Republican turned into the Roman Empire, democracy was mostly discarded in “the west” for more than a thousand years (with some sporadic exceptions, particularly in the Scandinavian countries). Democracy certainly did not appear to be a significant principle of Christendom. Modern democracy is the culmination of a long, sporadic and bumpy evolutionary process. That process largely occurred within Christian culture(s), but they also arose around the rise of the printing press, literacy, the enlightenment, and numerous other factors that all built upon past experience. And it seems rather significant that what we regard as “western civilization” wasn’t really present in Christendom for most of the history of Christendom, but arose or was embedded during/after the enlightenment.
My tentative conclusion is that both Christianity and western civilization are the product of syncretism. They have both been remarkably successful at absorbing elements from various cultures, religions, philosophies and traditions — and both Christianity and western civilization have been remarkably successful at then claiming credit for the successful elements and disclaiming credit for the unsuccessful elements that are eventually abandoned. Christianity does deserve credit for being a substantial part of the social, cultural, political and moral processes that led to what we now call western civilization, but it seems to me that western civilization was more of a product of emergence than a necessary outcome of Christianity itself.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

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