Paradoxically, now that humanitarianism has fully cut itself loose from Christianity, its categories and language have inserted themselves back into Christian thought. This infiltration prevents Christians at times from noticing that they’re arguing not in Christian categories but humanitarian ones. Almost every national bishops’ conference in the West, for example, speaks the language of humanitarianism. Mahoney sees this as the problem with much of Pope Francis’s language as well— too often, the language of mercy is emptied of theological content, and condemnations of “rigidity” seem to echo a rights-based view of the person. This trend is problematic because humanitarian language is antithetical to the Christian message, and also because it elides the sharp criticism of humanitarian thinking offered by, among others, Pope Emeritus Benedict. Benedict clearly distinguished between authentic Christian teaching and the “humanitarian moral message” in his Introduction to Christianity and his Regensberg lecture, both of which Mahoney discusses. Mahoney calls for the return of an older way of reasoning about our moral selves, which involves a transcendent dimension through which we can know our obligations to ourselves and one another.
Mahoney acknowledges that many of his co-religionists already accept his message—but why should atheists care that humanitarianism seeks to replace Christianity, when they reject the significance of the West’s moral collapse? Mahoney explains, using the powerful witness of Solzhenitsyn, that without a divine warrant, humanitarianism points to tyranny and the negation of true politics. We may already be seeing what a post-Christian politics might look like. The humanitarian religion of the twenty-first century will not be the same one as that of the twentieth; rather than Soviet Man, it will elevate the “woke” protester or Twitter provocateur. Both the authoritarian and racialist Right and the identity-obsessed Left offer glimpses of a post-Christian politics, and neither is a model for a healthy democracy.
Indeed, as Christianity fades, we don’t see a decline in religious fervor or doctrinal vigilance. Humanitarianism is itself a religion, and as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has argued, modern secularism has its own eschatology (the eternal overcoming of “hatred”), its own sacraments and holidays, and various prohibitions and commandments, usually centered around specific groups. Coupled with the rise of various would-be pagan religions and the cult of the self, these movements represent a retreat from rational reflection on politics.