The Watchmen and Consequentialist Christianity

Regina King in Watchmen(Mark Hill/HBO)

I enjoyed the HBO series Watchmen and the earlier film based on the same comic book (which I have not read; my nerdery goes only so far.)

But one of the elements of the film that was of the most interest to me was changed — or, rather, un-changed, restoring an element of the comic-book story that was changed for the film.

In the comic book, the hero-villain Ozymandias executes a plan to save humanity from nuclear annihilation (the story takes place during the Cold War) by giving the Americans and the Soviets a new common enemy in the form of an alien invasion: a gigantic, squid-like monster is dropped onto Manhattan, killing half of the city’s population and terrorizing the Cold War combatants into cooperation. In the film, the apocalyptic event that unites the world is, in my view, more intelligently chosen: The godlike superhero Dr. Manhattan has grown increasingly indifferent to earth and its inhabitants, and Ozymandias destroys several major world cities in such a way as to make people believe that Dr. Manhattan had committed the atrocity — a nuclear assault, in effect — as an act of divine judgment on the human race for its blood lust. The fraudulent new peace (“But peace, nonetheless,” as Ozymandias insists) is kept by the superstitious belief that Dr. Manhattan remains up there in the heavens, watching over us, ready to smite us if we return to our sinful ways. The gigantic alien squid is bizarre and without context, whereas the divine judge looking down on us, ready to strike, is a familiar part of our moral culture, most prominently in the consequentialist view of Christianity.

The consequentialist view of Christianity, which is common among non-Christian conservatives (and also among some Christian conservatives) is that what matters is not the truth or falsehood of Christianity but the consequences of Christian belief — i.e. that it will make people happier, make them better citizens, make them more likely to lead moral lives, make for happier families, etc. Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, often advances this view of Christianity. I do not doubt his good intentions or the sincerity of his beliefs in that matter, but I do not think that the consequentialist view of Christianity is intellectually coherent — or indeed that it is any more desirable than the moral settlement that prevails at the end of the Watchmen film, in which the happy consequence of belief in a lie helps to sustain that “peace on earth” we talk about this time of year.

T. S. Eliot (who wrote things other than the poems upon which Cats is based) addressed that line of thinking in The Idea of a Christian Society, in which his major points of political comparison were the totalitarian states that were on the march in the 1930s. Many intellectuals of his time considered those totalitarian states the future; Eliot considered them pagan.

What is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial. Towards the end of 1938 we experienced a wave of revivalism which should teach us that folly is not the prerogative of anyone political party or anyone religious communion, and that hysteria is not the privilege of the uneducated. The Christianity expressed has been vague, the religious fervour has been a fervour for democracy. It may engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress towards the paganism which we say we abhor. To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality — the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

About twice a year, the New York Times or some other liberal newspaper will run a column with a headline such as “To Take on the Religious Right, We Need a Religious Left,” which was the headline over Bianca Vivion Brooks’s entry into the delusion sweepstakes, published in November. That essay contained such amusing sentences as: “Today, the decline of organized religion is having a particularly pronounced impact on the Democratic Party.” Well. A letter in response to the column argued that what is needed “to foster open-mindedness, compromise, and tolerance is less religion, not more.” The American Left historically has been blisteringly contemptuous of Christianity, with a few notable exceptions such as Dorothy Day. The civil-rights movement was led by Christian ministers, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. most prominent among them, which was a source of tension with the more radical left-wing activists steeped in the Marxist views that the Reverend King could be so scathing about.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Brooks’s faith, but she is caught up in Eliot’s “dangerous inversion” when she writes: “The church was my earliest exposure to effective social organization, people rallying around collective belief to create lasting material change in the lives of those who needed it most. Collective belief demands social cooperation and interdependence bound to a principled obligation with expectations of self-sacrifice. These values have been the foundation of many previous American progressive social movements.” If you squint your eyes and stand on one foot, those English words in that order express an attitude that might almost be mistaken for an idea.

The most energetic expression of American Christianity is, for the moment, yoked to an updated version of that pagan nationalism that Eliot identified. But, in another context, it might be yoked to some other kind of political enthusiasm. Politicians are wily creatures, clever men who do not have very great powers of imagination except when it comes to imagining what people might be used for. But with all due respect to Dennis Prager et al., the question is not whether Christianity can be used for good ends — of course it can, as can vegetarianism or the belief that an all-powerful blue man on Mars wants us to be good and will hurt us if we are not.

What matters is whether it is true.

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