On 3 May, in collaboration with CASE, A/Prof Gordon Menzies launched his new book, Western Fundamentalism.
A/Prof Menzies' book asks the question, 'Is the Western world’s commitment to liberalism a dangerous kind of fundamentalism?'
At a time when Western economies and families are strained, Gordon invites us to a vision of intimate and economic relationships that demands higher respect for the human. He shares what he has discovered in his life: that, unexpectedly, religion may provide the humanising effect that secular liberalism simply can’t.
Prof Ian Harper, Dr Justine Toh, and Prof Patrick Parkinson also contributed to the conversation on the night.
You can find recordings and transcripts of the various addresses below:
This is the foreword of Western Fundamentalism, which Prof Ian Harper adapted for his address.
It is a cruel trick of human nature that we decry faults in other people that we ourselves display in a more exaggerated form. As Jesus once put it, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”. How galling to tolerant, liberal-minded Westerners, then, so quick to label others with firm convictions as ‘fundamentalist’, to see the ‘plank’ of fundamentalism jutting out from their own eyes in the mirror of this intriguing book?
I have known Gordon Menzies for nearly two decades. He is a wonderful teacher, who has the teacher’s gift of helping you see for yourself the implications of the things you say, while all the time appearing only to be asking innocent questions. No doubt his years as a tutor at Oxford University helped him to perfect his art but there is also something of the playful tease baked into the man. All of this and more is on display in this book. A mark of how much Gordon has poured of himself into his work is that you hear his voice almost eerily on every page. To spend time reading this engaging book is to spend an evening in Gordon’s company, having your views gently prodded and turned over, ever so politely, but often with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow. Is that what you really believe? Then let me ask you to consider this question …
Gordon and I share a profession and a faith. As Christian economists, we work at the crossroads of love and money. Our Christian faith teaches us clearly which of these is the greater force for good in human affairs but our profession teaches us that the lesser can still be a good servant, albeit a bad master. Our profession speaks the language of money in which everything has a price and where freedom of choice selects outcomes with the highest reward measured in monetary terms. Our faith, on the other hand, points often in a very different direction, where outcomes are valued beyond price and love is its own reward.
The languages of love and money are both spoken in this world and misunderstandings, wilful or otherwise, between their respective speakers often lie at the heart of political and cultural conflict. Gordon explores this tension in novel and surprising ways, in a book which is not primarily about economics. Nonetheless, the basic and often unstated assumptions that Gordon labels “Western fundamentalism” are easily translated into the language of money. This is why they cause havoc when applied in areas where, instead, human flourishing requires the language of love – where commitment, self-sacrifice and devoted service take the place of self-interested freedom of choice. Gordon’s analysis of the impact of Western fundamentalism in the arena of human relationships, especially sex and marriage, offers readers on the Left or Right profound and surprising – even disturbing – conclusions.
There is much of Gordon Menzies the man in this book and therefore much to admire, not least his courage and candour in laying bare his personal experience of the misapplication of the two languages in his own life. Settle in for an engaging, stimulating and, for some no doubt, occasionally infuriating conversation with Gordon Menzies, even if you are shocked by the sheer size of the plank you discover sticking out of your eye!
In Western Fundamentalism, you argue that the sexual revolution is a triumph of neoliberalism. Which is not exactly an argument that a liberal like myself wants to entertain—not least because the last thing a left-wing movement wants… is to have done anything remotely right-wing!
And yet, I agree that the effects of the sexual revolution have been uneven—especially for women.
Yes, it freed women from abusive and intolerable marriages—which Gordon acknowledges with great pathos. That has been its biggest boon, and the one that I am fully on board with. If the sexual revolution had just stopped there, that would have been ace.
But you remind us that deregulation always creates winners and losers—and we’re living with the effects of that today. As Gordon observes, if you’re highly attractive, or possess high erotic capital, sex is a garden of earthly delights for you. You have greater choice of who you want to ‘trade’ with.
But if you have low erotic capital, people aren’t as interested in buying what you’re selling. The ‘losers’ of this system might be incels (involuntary celibates), people with disabilities, people who are overweight, people who aren’t that good-looking. Or even just women over a certain age!
Gordon calls out the indignity and the cruelty of the sexual marketplace—and the way it prompts us to adopt a trading mindset.”
"You know, today I’ve been speaking to school students about human capital: the economic value of a person’s life, as determined by their achievements. And also body capital – meaning the worth and value we are assigned depending on how much we conform to (or depart from) our community’s sense of the good, the normal, the desirable body.
And look at us tonight: we’re talking about erotic capital. So much capital! Which makes me wonder: when did neoliberalism conquer the world – how did so much market creep happen? You offer an answer for that too: through your suggestion that Friedrich Nietzsche is an unofficial prophet of neoliberalism.
Nietzsche was nostalgic for the ancient world and its values where it was the calling of “the strong to do what they can and the weak to suffer what they must”. Nietzsche favoured a ‘survival of the fittest’ world where the dominant would lord it over others—because that’s how nature intended it.
Yet Christianity’s strange claim—that every human is made in the image of God, and so possesses infinite worth and value—seems a powerful check on any system that empowers the strong to dominate over the weak. This is why, of course, Nietzsche hated Christianity.
But it’s also why Old Testament scholar Iain Provan calls Christianity “seriously dangerous religion”: because its foundational commitment to human dignity makes it fiercely opposed to injustice or exploitation of any kind… including any survival of the fittest system, whether we’re talking the free market or the sexual marketplace!
Gordon, you seem the exact opposite of what someone might call a dangerous man. But in the vein of what Iain Provan calls “seriously dangerous religion”, you are a seriously dangerous thinker. One unafraid to call out the excesses of market thinking and the human toll it leaves in its wake.
I, for one, have benefited greatly from the way you share generously of your faith, intellect, and personal experience in this book.
And I greatly admire your courage in calling out the cruelties of neoliberalism—even though as a result, you might have dudded your chances of ever working for the RBA again. But if writing this book proves the death of your career, I hope you take comfort in the fact that it died for a good cause. Thank you.
One of Gordon’s theses is that faith in democracy is a fundamental tenet of western thought – one of those ideas that is taken for granted, whether at the Oxford Union Debating Society, in the press, or on talk-back radio.
Even if democracy isn’t perfect, even if at times it is seriously flawed, it is, as Winston Churchill said, the least worst form of governance. As long as the structures are right, as long as we have accountability of the executive to the legislature, as long as we have the rule of law supervised by an independent judiciary, we will live happily ever after – even if, from time to time there are bumps in the road, such as the election of Donald Trump, or the almost election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 – you can choose your example depending on your political preferences.
As the story of the three blind mice illustrates, an underlying belief in terms of our faith in democracy is that we are all basically good. In his chapter, Gordon explores the issue of what happens if majorities are bad, or deluded. Doug Murray has written a fine book recently called the Madness of Crowds, which explores some of the more insane aspects of our current preoccupations with sexuality, gender and race. What happens if majorities turn out not to be good, and seek to oppress minorities?
Now Gordon is an economist. We all have our faults, the burdens we have to bear. As an economist, Gordon cannot help but to look at issues through the lens of self-interest. And it is hard when you look at issues through that lens, to explain why minorities are looked after in democracies, why we care about the poor, those of minority races or the disabled. Why, for that matter, do we even care about sexual minorities, as we clearly do quite passionately. Economists have a lot of difficulty dealing with altruism.
Part of Gordon’s answer, quoting Prof. Robert Dahl from Yale is to suggest that minorities will band together in coalitions to achieve political goals. Majorities will also not oppress minorities, he argues, in such a way that a majority finds distasteful. So the rights of minorities are dependent either upon building a sufficiently strong coalition with other minorities, or by appealing to the morality of majorities not to do harm to them. He also notes that it may be sufficient that majorities in an earlier time passed laws restraining the oppression of minorities if those laws still have a controlling force. Constitutionally entrenched bills of rights have that kind of controlling force, although their interpretation does seem to change with the spirit of each age.
For myself, I don’t think that these explanations are sufficient to explain the altruism of majorities. Self-interest only goes so far. I may support a national health system such Medicare and a welfare state, because one day I will be old, assuredly will be sick, and may be disabled. However, I will never change race or gender and am unlikely to change sexual orientation. Why do we care for the rights of minorities when we will never be in that position?
Maybe because we will have other family members, or those we care for, in that position. I have a number of members of my close family who are in same-sex relationships, and so may many of you. Even that is not a sufficient explanation of our concern for those who are not like us and who we will never be like.
I suspect we care about others, including minorities with whom we share no common interests, because deeply embedded in the DNA of western civilisation is a belief in the fundamental equality, dignity and worth of all human beings. As Larry Siedentop showed in his majestic work, Inventing the Individual, this belief in the equality, dignity and worth of all human beings is derived from Christianity. Such beliefs were not part of the DNA of the pre-Christian world. They are not necessarily part of the DNA of other cultures. Even in the Christian West, we have honoured those beliefs more in the breach than the observance at many times in our history. Again and again, altruism has had to battle with self-interest, as it did, for example, in the long battle to abolish slavery.
What happens as that cultural memory of Christianity fades in western societies, as it is quite rapidly. Will our belief in the fundamental equality, dignity and worth of all human beings fade, as the worldview which gave it birth fades? Gordon, in his chapter on democracy, quotes Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, saying:
“When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident.”
For now, our altruism remains; people are passionately concerned about discrimination, about LGBT rights, about racism, about climate change. Little of that can be explained by self-interest. However, increasingly our altruism is taking on a dark aspect. You see this in the transformation of the civil rights movement in the US. Led by the Rev. Martin Luther-King in the 60s, the movement for civil rights and anti-discrimination laws was an appeal to our altruism, an appeal to live by our Christian values, to judge a person not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. These civil rights leaders appealed to the highest values of western civilisation, and called people to a greater good.
Now many civil rights arguments are being framed in terms of a struggle between the oppressors and oppressed, as a critique of western civilisation, rather than an appeal for it to live up to its ideals. The language is one of struggle, reflecting the Marxist call to class struggle of previous generations. It is a good versus evil struggle, a struggle between those who insist they are on the right side of history and those who most definitely are not.
And the question now beginning to emerge in some countries is whether democracy itself can survive if we have lost faith in the beliefs that undergirded it, a belief that for all our disagreements we will accept the will of the majority because fundamentally, we are all good.
We see this loss of faith in democracy most graphically in the United States where from the left of politics comes this strong critique of western civilisation, and from the right of politics a cynical desire to hold onto power by any means: baseless claims of voting fraud, riots on Capitol Hill, moves to restrict voting rights and so on. People are wondering whether democracy can survive if we don’t accept the fundamental values on which it is based.
It is not only the US. England with Brexit; Poland, Hungary, although these are much younger and more fragile democracies.
And so we return to the questions raised by Gordon’s fascinating book. Three fundamental, even fundamentalist beliefs: in democracy, in market liberalism and in sexual freedom. What does our faith rest in if we become disillusioned with any or all of these? What happens if the underpinnings of our lives prove to be unstable, if the things we believed in and have taken for granted prove not to be as we always thought?
We are in a time of shaking at present which is uncomfortable. The pandemic has shaken our belief that we could live to old age with good health, that prosperity would continue to rise. Gordon suggests that some of our other beliefs are also open to challenge.
I warmly commend to you this book.
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