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What’s wrong with America? I debate Ben Shapiro.

Shapiro blames our woes on our retreat from Judeo-Christian principles. But history presents a more complicated picture.

Ben Shapiro speaks onstage during Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center on October 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Ben Shapiro speaks onstage during Politicon 2018 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on October 21, 2018.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon

Ben Shapiro is arguably the most popular conservative commentator in the country.

He’s made a name for himself as a lib-owning, fast-talking logician, the sort of pundit who thrives in the age of Twitter. Now 35, he rose to fame as a 17-year-old wunderkind columnist and has been a central part of conservative discourse for the past decade and a half. The New York Times called him a “provocative gladiator” and “the voice of the conservative millennial movement.”

His book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, is an attempt to rebrand himself as a high-minded intellectual, a kind of cross between Jordan Peterson and George Will. Unlike his previous books, this one does not take on an explicitly partisan tone. Instead, it’s a lamentation of the decline of religious values in American life.

The thesis goes something like this: Western civilization in general, and America in particular, is great because we’ve managed to balance religion and reason in a way that drives material progress and satisfies our deep need for purpose at the same time. But in the past few decades or so, we’ve gradually abandoned our “Judeo-Christian” roots, and that’s making us feel less fulfilled and less happy.

I’m sympathetic to Shapiro’s most obvious claim, which is that we shouldn’t cut ourselves off from our religious and philosophical history. You can’t make any sense of Western civilization without some knowledge of Judaism, Christianity, and Greek philosophy.

But the intellectual history Shapiro offers is incomplete, and obscures some important facts. He does caution readers at the beginning that he’ll be “giving great philosophers shorter shrift than they deserve, and simplifying issues for the sake of brevity,” but what he leaves them with is a nuance-free narrative that dismisses counterarguments and distorts 3,500 years of history.

I read the book closely and reached out in good faith to Ben to debate it. We were never going to agree, but the differences are, I think, revealing.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You open the book with a parade of statistics showing how bad things are — record drug overdoses, declining marriage rates, increased rates of depression, high levels of distrust, etc. And the reason for this, you write, is that we’re abandoning our “Judeo-Christian heritage” and that “facts have been buried to make way for feelings; a society of essential oils and self-esteem has replaced a society of logic.”

What’s astonishing to me is that in noting all of this, you dismiss material conditions as a relevant causal factor. Wages have been stagnant for 40 years, Americans are working longer hours for less pay, the vast majority of wealth being produced is going to ever smaller numbers of people, more people are facing economic precarity due to rapid technological change — you don’t see that as part of the story here?

Ben Shapiro

I think it’s part of the story. I don’t think it’s the main part of the story. The reason I say that is because we’ve obviously had much worse economic conditions in America with much less political polarization. And frankly, some of those stats you cite I just don’t agree with. I think some of the metrics that have been used, for example, to measure the growth in income inequality are not accurate. There are at least some questions about how these things get measured.

But in any case, I believe that economic inequality doesn’t matter nearly as much as poverty. I really don’t care if Bill Gates is making the lion’s share of wealth if other people are also increasing their wealth. By any historical standard, we live in the best available age. While there’s a truth in the claim that some people are being left behind, I don’t think that’s solvable merely through economic means.

The collapse of our social fabric, the collapse of communities, is a much graver crisis.

Sean Illing

Part of what I’m getting at is the overly simplistic story you want to tell about history. You write, “We used to believe in the Founding vision. We used to see each other as brothers and sisters. … We weren’t enemies. We were a community, forged in fire and tethered together by a set of values stretching back to the Garden of Eden.”

Who is the “we” in this American story? Because from the perspective of black and brown Americans, and of poor people generally, this reads like nostalgia for a target audience. The violence, the oppression, the long history of slavery and segregation, the bitter fights for labor rights — all of this was hard and contentious, and it all happened under the banner of Christianity.

Ben Shapiro

What I meant is that Americans used to have in common a belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were correct, that the principles of Judeo-Christian morality were correct. The story of America is the gradual realization of those principles over time. I obviously don’t mean that racists in the South agreed with the founding principles. In the book, I talk about the evils that have taken place in Western civilization.

The thing that’s lost, and this is particularly true of the last 10 years, is that there was a directionality to America — we were getting better. And I think that’s been reversed. So when I say we used to believe that we were brothers and sisters, if you look at the polls of racial polarization, you can see that it’s getting significantly worse over the past decade or so, and that’s a huge reversal. And I don’t think it’s justified by public policy alone.

It may be too broad a statement to say that we all used to believe we were brothers and sisters, but it was at least a principle to which we could appeal. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was able to do so effectively, for instance.

Sean Illing

MLK was also protesting the Vietnam War and American capitalism.

Ben Shapiro

Well, one of my bugaboos is that the stuff most Americans revere MLK for is not the stuff the left wishes we revered him for.

Sean Illing

I’d say the stuff the right wants to forget about MLK is the stuff the left thinks we should remember, and that the more inconvenient things he said are erased from history such that most people don’t even know about it.

But back to your book: There’s this sense that America’s moral clarity stems from its religious roots, that the founders were all Christians, and that the country could not exist without this religious ground. But America is a secular republic. The word “Christianity” does not appear in our founding documents. Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament erased all references to the divinity of Jesus.

To say that America is a product of religion and ancient Greece is at the very least woefully incomplete. We’re much more the product of Roman law and secular Enlightenment philosophy.

Ben Shapiro

Of course secularism is equally important. I think people are misreading the book as a rejection of secularism and the Enlightenment. My argument is that secularism and secular humanism are outgrowths of Judeo-Christian thought and Greek philosophy that has evolved over the course of several thousand years. The Enlightenment didn’t spring from nowhere, in other words.

I do concede that the Enlightenment that occurred in Europe was more aggressively secular than the more Burkean form of Enlightenment that motivated the American Founders, which was much more grounded in the Judeo-Christian heritage. People are missing the fact that the book is half about Greek reason, but they want to focus on the religious stuff because they’re upset about Christians and the Bible.

But the entire thrust of the book is that when you’re talking about Judeo-Christian values, you’re talking about values that are still undergirding the secular Enlightenment worldview. The belief that human beings are fundamentally equal, for example, comes from the Christian tradition.

Sean Illing

The issue here is your claim that religion was a moral anchor for the American founders. These same men, who you say knew that slavery was a moral crime, nevertheless refused to end it, and that was the original sin of America.

And yet you seem to think that woke progressivism is the great moral poison in our body politic dividing us along racial lines. I actually agree with you that identity politics on the left often does more harm than good, but this kind of revisionist history blots out a critical part of the story and ignores the causes of our social turmoil. There would, after all, be no need for racial justice movements if the country wasn’t founded on racial plunder.

Ben Shapiro

I’m pretty straightforward in the book about how evil slavery and segregation was. But I don’t think slavery and segregation are major problems today.

There are basically two visions of American history. One is that America was founded on great moral principles that we failed to live up to historically and we’ve been striving to fulfill. The other is that America is rooted in racism, bigotry, sexism, and homophobia, and that these great moral principles were the founders merely flattering themselves. Obviously I’m arguing for the former over the latter.

So I’m not saying we don’t feel the impact of slavery and segregation today; that’s obviously true. But I think the biggest problem in our politics today is not that people are stumping for slavery or Jim Crow.

Sean Illing

A lot of this comes down to what you choose to emphasize and what you choose to ignore, and what that reveals. For example, you claim that the Nazis rejected Judeo-Christian values, but here’s what you conveniently ignore: At the start of World War II, over 94 percent of Germans were Christian. Germany had a thoroughly Christian culture. Whatever it was that sent that Nazis over the moral abyss, it wasn’t a lack of Christianity.

Ben Shapiro

Well, I think the problem is that Christianity was rendered subservient to other principles, meaning this wasn’t a Christian crusade. This was a secular fascist crusade, a race-based crusade. This was not Christians deciding to crusade in the name of Christ. I was trying to be specific about the Judeo-Christian principles that I thought were being left behind there.

Sean Illing

The church was both complicit in and compatible with Nazism. You cannot have a country that thoroughly permeated by Christian culture careen into moral barbarism and absolve the faith that cleanly.

The original European fascism (Mussolini in particular) was largely a phenomenon of the Catholic right wing. This is slightly less true of Nazism, but Hitler never repudiated his membership in the church and the Vatican offered prayers to Hitler on his birthday until the very end. Hell, 50 percent of the SS [the armed wing of the Nazi party] were practicing Catholics.

All of these facts are conspicuously left out of your book.

Ben Shapiro

So I think those are definitely important details, and this is why I also suggest there has to be a proper balance between Judeo-Christian principles and Greek reason. Fascism is essentially an outgrowth of a European Enlightenment that decided to sever the bonds between certain Judeo-Christian principles and reason and then reason went off into a murderous direction.

The question is not whether Christianity is compatible with evil — of course it is. But I think the problem of political totalitarianism of the last century or two is the result of not overtly religious movements co-opting religion as a tool.

Sean Illing

I’m glad you went there, because this is another claim you make in the book that I think is just historically wrong. You say that forgetting our religious roots means losing the notion that history has meaning and direction.

But this is exactly what was wrong with the totalitarian political ideologies of the 20th century. It was the belief that history was simply the unfolding of some higher plan that provided the justification for the labor camps and the Gulag. These political ideologies replaced God with history and then sacrificed the present in the name of some future goal, only it was a communist utopia or a Thousand-Year Reich, not heaven.

From my point of view, whether crime is in the name or God or reason or history, it’s the totalizing impulse behind it that we should worry about; it’s the blinding commitment to ideas over people, abstractions over experience. So ideologies weren’t co-opting religion; they became religions.

Ben Shapiro

I agree with that. I think a lot of secular movements kept the utopianism of religion. That’s why my book is really an argument for fusing reason and religion, for balancing these things.

Sean Illing

Well, the problem is that fusing incompatible approaches is not that simple, but I’ll put it another way: The problem is movements based on unchallengeable assumptions about the way the world is, and how we should behave in it. This is something religion brought into the world, and political ideologies have replicated it. You think we can continue to do this without sliding into absolutism, and I think history shows we can’t.

Ben Shapiro

I’d say that all of human life is based on people making unchallengeable assumptions. So I guess that statement is just too broad for me to get on board with.

Sean Illing

Part of the reason I’m pressing you on this is that I think you fail to recognize that religions and ideologies are guilty of the same crimes and for practically the same reasons. The history of religion is the history of human beings using their faith as an unchallengeable excuse for the worst crimes imaginable. Slavery, conquest, misogyny, child slaughter — these all receive divine sanction in the Bible. God is a justification as much as a guide for human behavior — that American slaveholders and abolitionists both found scriptural support for their causes is the ultimate example of this.

Ben Shapiro

Of course that’s true. But just because people don’t show a proper balance between reason and revelation doesn’t mean that there isn’t a proper balance between reason and revelation. The real question I’m asking in the book, and I’m fully aware of all the horrible things done in the name of religion, is why do good things exist? Why do people favor human equality? Why do they favor justice? These things are unique, and I think they come from our religious heritage. A lot of people on the left think things will get better if we get rid of religion, but I don’t think that’s true at all.

Sean Illing

I want to pivot to some of your other claims about the relationship between religion and science. You write: “Without Judeo-Christian foundations, science simply would not exist as it does in the West.” I’m honestly not sure what that means.

So I’ll say this and you can respond however you like: that science emerged in the West long after Judaism and Christianity does not mean it would’ve been impossible without it. Like much of the early Renaissance art, science was supported and funded by religious authorities because that was the only game in town. But there’s nothing about science or the scientific method that requires religious presuppositions. And in any case, science in the West would not have been possible without the Arab world preserving Greek philosophy and revolutionizing mathematics for the European world.

Ben Shapiro

The argument you’re making, which is frankly a pretty good counterargument, is that everybody was a Christian, so of course the scientists were Christians. But the reason I say that science in the West has religious roots is that there are certain fundamental assumptions even scientists have to make that they’re not recognizing that they’re making.

For example, science effectively makes the principle of “sufficient reason” argument, which says there’s a cause for every effect and that we can investigate those causes and we’re capable of reaching an objective truth. There’s nothing in evolutionary biology that suggests that objective truth is even a thing.

So the idea that your mind reflects the universe to the extent that you can understand things, the idea that you have a mandate to explore nature, the search for higher principles — all of this doesn’t necessarily have practical foundations. I think it comes from our Judeo-Christian roots, at least in the West.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization of the scientific method, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole. I want to linger on the facts you overlook, because facts are so important to your approach to everything.

You write: “Contrary to popular opinion, new discoveries weren’t invariably seen as heretical or dangerous to the dominion of the Church; in fact, the Church often supported scientific investigation.” But that’s a strange claim since many scientists were burned at the stake.

I mean, the church was clearly hostile to science that undermined its dogmas — do you disagree with that?

Ben Shapiro

No, I don’t disagree with that. I guess the use of the word “invariably” there is important. The way the church is often portrayed, that it was a giant obstacle to science, is just not true. A lot of the persecution coming from the church was coincident with the Protestant Reformation, as I explain in the book. But yes, you’re right that the church was often hostile to inconvenient scientific facts.

The point I’m making is that there’s this simplified version of history, this one-sided version of history, in which the church is responsible for all bad things and reason segregated from religion is responsible for all good things. I don’t think either of those stories are true.

Sean Illing

I actually agree with that, but that’s not quite the claim you make in the book, and it’s a pretty important caveat.

Ben Shapiro

That’s a totally fair critique.

Sean Illing

I know you have to run, so I’ll just say this: there’s an argument you could’ve made in this book, an argument that defended the religious perspective, but I honestly don’t think you made it. To me, the book reads like philosophical catnip for your audience. They were primed to accept it before they read it, and they’ll feel even more passionate about it after. But you didn’t make an effort to challenge them in any way or wrestle with the critiques you very narrowly skim through.

Ben Shapiro

First, I hope that’s not true. If it lacks in that way, then that’s unfortunate. As I say in the introduction, this is a very brief book because I don’t think most people will read a 400-page tome on the history of philosophy. It’s meant to be an introduction to a lot of philosophers who we’ve forgotten about, and, in the main, an attack against an attitude in modern politics that’s dismissive of the foundations upon which we stand.

As far as being too dismissive of the arguments I discuss, that’s a natural byproduct of writing a 240-page book that spans 3,500 years of philosophical history. This book easily could’ve been 1,000 pages, but I didn’t write it to be 1,000 pages, nor did I want it to be 1,000 pages.

But I hope it’s useful for people who don’t have a background in philosophy, and I encourage readers in the introduction to go read more if they’re interested. Because ultimately, the book is an invitation to engage.