Ben Shapiro and the West’s Moral Vision
One might expect a book by Ben Shapiro to be about the task of “owning the libs” or “drinking liberal tears.” In fact, the reader comes away with a starkly different impression. In The Right Side of History, Shapiro argues that the cultural and political malaise of contemporary America is due to its being severed from its Judeo-Christian roots.
Ben Shapiro is one of the most influential conservative voices in America. His podcast is one of the most downloaded in America, and he has over a million followers on Twitter. YouTube clips of Shapiro taking campus progressives to task and exposing their shallow thinking have gone viral. He has become a go-to voice for conservatives who rely on digital platforms to advance their movement.
After graduating from Harvard Law School at the age of twenty-three, Shapiro first became notorious for his shock-jock bombast. I became familiar with Shapiro when he was with Breitbart news, the controversial right-wing news website. I feared that Breitbart’s incendiary brand portended more bravado than substance from Shapiro.
Why is Shapiro so popular with conservatives and why is he, an Orthodox Jew, also a favorite of conservative Christians? One observes in Shapiro similar traits that conservatives saw in William F. Buckley, Jr. He possesses a fearless tenacity to do battle in the war of ideas. Yet, like Buckley, Shapiro is no scold. He’s a happy warrior who ventures into spaces held sacred by progressives. His courage is infectious and inspiring to a generation of conservatives who are told to hide their convictions.
Religious conservatives are drawn to Shapiro because he anchors his worldview in an unapologetic Judeo-Christian worldview. He has become an apologist for Western civilization while castigating a figure like Nietzsche as a super-villain and Hitler as his heir-apparent. His understanding of morality pairs nicely—though incompletely—with a Christian understanding of the world. He offers clarity and acerbic irreverence to a culture held hostage to trigger-warnings and micro-aggressions. Where the regimes of political correctness and grievance stifle free speech, Shapiro attacks both with a vigorous wit and a brain that sometimes processes faster than he can speak. While Shapiro can certainly speak in tones that make me wince, overall, his trajectory has been one of increasing intellectual rigor and seriousness.
This comes through in his new book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great. This is not a book of punditry, but of political philosophy. In fact, owing to the large role that God plays in Shapiro’s worldview, the book is as much a moral cosmology as it is a treatise on what has gone wrong in the West. Whereas one might expect Shapiro’s book to be about the task of “owning the libs” or “drinking liberal tears,” the reader comes away with a starkly different impression. In The Right Side of History, Shapiro argues that the cultural and political malaise of contemporary America is due to its being severed from its Judeo-Christian roots.
The Roots of Western Civilization
What are those roots, according to Shapiro? Jerusalem and Athens.
That may, at first, seem reductive. What Shapiro means is that these two cities capture the heart of civilization: they were fused together to forge the Western tradition—a tradition that treated humanity as more than just a material byproduct. It should be noted that this taxonomy for the roots of the West’s philosophy—“Jerusalem” and “Athens”—is not original to Shapiro. The division is a shorthand for what many philosophers have understood as the unique combination of both cities’ political and religious moorings that forms Western civilization.
The Judeo-Christian tradition told the world that humanity is made in God’s image, and that God’s moral law—revealed in both general and special revelation—is intelligible and binding on individuals who possess reason. From the Greeks came a tradition of natural law—the idea that a universal morality stands behind the universe, accessible to the human mind. According to Shapiro, it is the Christian and Aristotelian traditions’ accounts of morality and purpose that have infused our moral order with a sense of obligation.
Shapiro then builds on this philosophical framework to argue that happiness—or flourishing— requires four elements: individual moral purpose, the individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and the communal capacity to pursue that purpose. In short, individuals and communities need a sense of moral purpose and the freedom to see that purpose fulfilled. For individuals and societies to flourish, people must have the ability to act on the ethical duties that instill purpose in their lives. This framework also provides a buffer to keep individualism from collapsing into libertarianism, and communitarianism from morphing into statism. We are individuals in community and a community of individuals. Any framework that erases or collapses one into the other will lead either to moral relativism or to tyranny. And it’s the genius of Jerusalem and Athens that negotiated this balance in proper proportion.
From these twin pillars came the fruits of Western success: a principled account of freedom, scientific discovery, limited government, human rights, and entrepreneurialism. This stands in contrast to a worldview that depicts man as a mere cog or animal grappling with existential dread, meaninglessness, and radical subjectivity. Shapiro laments the drift of America away from the roots of its order: “We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion.” Abandoning the Judeo-Christian and Greek tradition means a regression to base human instincts—tribalism, barbarism, hedonism.
In the latter half of the book, Shapiro gives an account of the West loosening itself from this framework. From Hobbesian relativism to the outworkings of Intersectional theory, the West has splintered into conflicting moral accounts. The idea of objective morality has given way to moral systems that reduce truth and meaning to the distribution of power. The careful balance between the individual and the community has given way to the growth of the state. The vacuum created from the absence of a common moral vision and the growth of the state has produced a society without a common moral purpose, and increasingly defined by a contest of tribal comeuppance.
Strengths and Weaknesses
What does Shapiro get right? A lot.
Evangelical Christians like me will find much to admire in Shapiro’s account of moral foundations. Shapiro’s morality is God-authored and thus God-centered. Any account of morality that hopes to be binding needs God and a God-mediated nature as its backstop, or else morality is determined by mere consent. Shapiro defends this theistic account, and sees the moral revelation of the Judeo-Christian tradition as the best anchor for stabilizing society.
From a history-of-ideas standpoint, Shapiro has an impressive understanding of the philosophical trends that have shaped the West. For that reason alone, this is a book I would put in the hands of any bookish student seeking to understand Western exceptionalism.
Speaking as an ethicist, I want to commend Shapiro for explaining both the biblical and classical traditions’ accounts of morality and happiness. In particular, the fourfold framework he develops (mentioned above) for morality and freedom helps explain the ethical architecture or meta-ethic for how ethics “work,” so to speak. It’s not just that Shapiro holds a lot of correct views about morality and certain moral obligations, it’s that he’s thinking about morality itself correctly through the lens of individual and communal agency.
Still, the book has its weaknesses. Because of what Shapiro tries to accomplish in this relatively short text, any historian (which I am not) will likely take issue with the pace at which Shapiro breezes through the history of ideas. This is not because Shapiro’s reading of the ideas that influenced the West is wrong or novel, but simply because there are too many contingencies present in any given age to make history as genealogically predictable or tidy as Shapiro presents it. Monocausal explanations for a culture’s demise should always be received with caution.
As for the prescriptions on how to recover the original vision of America’s founding spirit, Shapiro’s advice is pretty thin. A lot of his suggestions follow simply from conservative political philosophy. Though Shapiro probably does not intend it, the prescriptions verge into the self-help lane: “Your Life has a Purpose,” he writes, and “You Can Do It.” While I understand the sentiment behind these recommendations, I would have preferred a longer and more substantive set of prescriptions.
We Don’t Just Need Christian Morality—We Need Christ
This is where, predictably, the Christian prognosis of contemporary American culture will differ. It’s not that Shapiro’s suggestions for repairing the ruins are wrong; it’s just that they are incomplete from the perspective of a Christian. A Christian account of moral repair does not begin with moral self-improvement. Yes, Christians should stand for what is true, because what is true is grounded in what is morally righteous, but that’s not sufficient. On the gospel account, man, in his revolt against God, has revolted against himself. No amount of moralizing will correct man’s corrupt nature. The best thing for society, then, is not to call people to a better understanding of moral obligation. It is, quite frankly, to call people to repentance.
The church is not to be a signpost of morality. It is to be a signpost of the Kingdom. This entails a morality born of Christian righteousness. As the prophet Jeremiah states in Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” This is not a call to conservatism (as much I agree with its tenets). It is a call to understanding that the moral righteousness God demands is supplied by Him in Jesus Christ. Society will not land on the “right side of history” by morality alone—it needs repentance and a moral restoration born of the Spirit.
The Right Side of History is an excellent book. Students of history will love it, and conservatives will see a reflection of their deepest convictions in it. Christians, however, should be encouraged to draw the conclusion that the moral reckoning our society needs is not just the moral foundations of Christianity, but Christ Himself.