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“Old books” speak to the times, often in more profound ways than “new books.” Christopher Dawson’s “Beyond Politics” is just such a book. It diagnosed in 1939 the cultural situation in which the book appeared, and its diagnosis is apropos to the cultural situation today.

Here’s the front story followed by the more important back story.

He’s been dead now for a bit over a half-century; he’s been discussed and defended in The Imaginative Conservative for more than a decade. I should say “featured” since he’s likely the philosophical if not theological backbone to The Imaginative Conservative, while sharing equal space with the conservative heart and mind of Dr Russell Kirk.

One might note that he once held the Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard. I mention that since Harvard is much in the news these days and I would be curious to know what Dawson would have to say apropos the news and Harvard’s controversy about veritas and whether the recently resigned president’s claim to “her” truth is her attempt at a disambiguation.

I first came across Dawson about 1975 or so. I was teaching at a small Presbyterian College in Arkansas, an interim sort of position while preparing to return to university and write qualifying exams and then a dissertation.

In the basement to that little college’s library, and in a far darkened corner, were three or four sagging library bookshelves with yellowing and curling labels inked with the phrase “old books.” The librarian said I could browse and keep anything I wished.

And they were “old books,” and enough to pique my curiosity. I am greedy and so took advantage of the offer, which included the Frontenac Edition of Parkman’s collected works, volumes in which the pages often had not even been cut.

To shorten a longer story, then, I pulled down one “old book” titled Beyond Politics by Christopher Dawson with the catalog number BR115.P75D 32. It was a first edition published by Sheed & Ward on January 1, 1939.

“A bit of a treasure,” I remember thinking. I turned to the back pages to find, (1) that it had last been checked out on March 27, 1961, but that, (2) it didn’t belong in that Arkansas college library. It belonged to the Meadville Lombard Theological School.

Somehow, Beyond Politics had become a traveling book, having left Chicago and a Unitarian school devoted to educating progressive religious leaders and vamoosing to a southern Presbyterian college, which held, so to speak, strong Calvinistic convictions far removed from the committed Catholicism so dear to Dawson.

And coming to rest on shelves of “old books.”

The librarian again said I could have the “old book” and again any other “old books” on those shelves. She said they needed the room.

Well, it was a salvage operation, and some were beyond repair—“old books” having become dried out and desiccated, the pages brittle and turning to dust.

It’s true that as the paper in some books age, the acids form and sap the strength from the paper, turning it brown and crumbly. Old books become brittle books, and pages will break apart and crumble when turned.

Note to self: Don’t read such books at night in bed.


Beyond Politics has traveled from that small Arkansas college library back to Salt Lake City to Hillsdale College, switching offices five times, and now has retired to Greer, South Carolina… retired along with me. What years we have remaining is up to God and my health, and what might happen to this traveling book depends upon whether what I have in my last will and testament will be up to my wife or my wife’s brother to facilitate.

Why bring all of this up in a smallish essay?

“Old books” speak to the times, often in more profound ways than “new books.”

Beyond Politics is just such a book. It diagnosed the 1939 cultural situation in which the book appeared and is a diagnosis apropos to the cultural situation today. Dawson wrote at that time that if we “go the whole way and attempt to base our [cultural] organization on the positive creed of a political party, we shall run the risk of producing a social conflict which will divide the nation instead of uniting it” (4).

And so it seems the 1939 prophecy has become reality. Or so I worry.

If I may editorialize, as a population we seem to be caught in a conundrum in which there is nothing beyond politics, the latter word once defined by a student of mine as the academic study of government and the state. It’s the way in which the state makes rules and laws to manage human society properly.


And again I worry about public opinion and the public philosophy and that student who was anxious to graduate and get into politics.

So, I queried, politics is the study of how the government educates people either for their own good or to teach them what the government wants them to know; in other words, an elite group of people, called the government, who for unfathomable reasons can tell other people what to do and if they don’t do what they are told, there will be consequences.

And then I posed a question to the entire class as to whether a rule and a law are one and the same.

They thought so… at least at age eighteen.

Ah youth….

And again I worry.

My sense, however, in re-reading this little wandering book, is that Dawson would recognize my young student’s argument as “the growing inhumanity of our civilization…. It is the system itself which is indifferent to humanity” (5). There is, in the words, nothing “beyond” politics but ideology, which has left a cultural attitude of passive resignation and a transformation of civilization such as the world has never seen before.

Which is likely an overstatement, but which comes about from worry.

That, on the other hand, was Dawson’s argument as of January 1, 1939, at which time he argued that the problem was not merely a conflict between Democracy and Dictatorship or between Fascism and Communism. It was, rather, a change in the whole social structure of the modern world, which affects religion and culture as well as politics and economics, such that we might expect to see the rise of a democratic totalitarianism.

The phrase is not a paradox.

In other words, it’s not either/or, democratic versus totalitarianism, since the usual thought is that one is the opposite of the other. Here the argument is that we have the democratic right to vote, but after that right is exercised, very little or no participation in the “rule-making” processes of the of the government. Those who have popularized the term tend to argue that the process is akin to an electoral autocracy, which in the simplest terms argues that a single person when elected has subsumed all legal power and makes all decisions by himself: an autocratic boss, in other words, and this is what happens when the White House becomes the grand duchy of Washington, DC.

Few should question Dawson’s diagnosis of the totalitarian trend in 1939 as the most vital and urgent problem of that time, and how this trend could be reconciled with the traditions of liberty and individualism, on which the whole constitutional fabric of our culture and social institutions has been built.

Turn we then to Dawson’s belief that there is a “beyond” to “politics,” which is also an attempt to turn away from a pessimistic view of the situation.


What does the wandering book have to say to us in 2024?

There are five chapters to this slim book. The first is titled “Beyond Politics” and begins with the suggestion that Beyond Politics is a “follow-up” to a small book Dawson wrote in 1936, three years earlier, and titled Religion and the Modern State. It was Dawson’s first book on the modern political scene, which he noted was “an attempt to reconsider the relations of Church and State as they were affected by the rise of the new political ideologies. His objects of criticism? Capitalism, Communism/Marxism, and Fascism, three forms of what he called the “same thing.”

This was in 1936 and written with the threatening notion that human life was rapidly becoming completely subordinate to the State.

But carefully argued.

With Capitalism, well, the tendency is to subordinate the individual to economic processes, which in turn mechanistically breaks up the “moral organism” of society, with its deification of competitiveness which leads to chaos.

With Marxism, an uncompromising denial of any spiritual consciousness or transcendental reality coupled with a desire to eradicate religion,

As for Fascism: Dawson’s point here is that Fascism will result when a democratic state becomes incapable of deciding fundamental issues, and the result is a government in which the legislative and judicial branches become weak and inept.

Fascism and Communism owe, then, their triumph to a policy of revolutionary action that restores to the state a single will and purpose while narrowing the basis of citizenship. He has in mind here German National Socialism, which takes unto itself a divine absolute right to override legal and constitutional restrictions and, he goes on to say, uses the state as a means of realizing its supra-political ideals—those ideals found in the leader of the party and in whom resides the authentic and whole embodiment of the will of the people.

In a matter of a few years millions would die, murdered.

Here he analogizes by writing that these totalitarian parties become more like a church than a state since membership requires professing a creed or ideology. Unlike a religion, however, this party ideology will ruthlessly sacrifice some of the highest cultural values the world has thought, seen, and known, to the cult of power, which as we are likely to say, corrupts.

The result?

There will be no distinction between the “political party” and the “government,” the upshot of which is an immense increase in the power of the state’s range of its activities. Power, too, is like an immense battering ram, and what’s at stake are the principles of personal liberty and tolerance.

Here’s Dawson confronting the problem in more detail in Beyond Politics:

And it is a problem on which the future of the world depends, for if the… great western democracies fail to preserve and maintain their tradition of freedom, no other powers in the world will be strong enough to do so, and the whole spirit of of western civilization will be changed (11).

He advocates strengthening the role of religion in public life.


Turn we then to the second chapter, “Politics and National Culture.”

Dawson’s opening comment reads as follows: “The growing complication of modern mechanized civilization, especially in the more highly industrialized countries demands a correspondingly higher degree of organization” (35 ).

He’s quick to add that such is not limited to the material elements.

He would be aware, however, of how something like the invention of the Ford Model T extended itself into a process by which the entire country adapted itself to that machine, which is an economic process as well as a sociological process since of necessity the invention led to the American road system. But such also extends inevitably into the psychological life of individuals.

He broadens his argument but noting that public opinion is not yet fully aware of the change since society far too often adapts itself unconsciously to the new conditions.

The difficulty that emerges is the lack of our inherited stock of social traditions, which ordinarily allows us to square the complex modern mechanization with political theories and social doctrines to which we consciously adhere, but which to a great extent are irrelevant to the modern situation.

That salient point will emerge a bit later in this essay.

If I might editorialize for a moment, I miss my old IBM Selectric and have no idea what is meant by Artificial Intelligence. I have a good deal of trouble adapting my psychological life to my Apple something-or-other, which needs an upgraded operating system, and I worry (perhaps without foundation) that AI will sweep away (dare I say “liquidate) the debris of past institutions and ideas to build instead a unitary social structure on new (if not untested) foundations.

Did I mention there’s an “app” for almost everything.

Did I mention that AI is now writing mysteries that can be purchased on Amazon, which arguably brings discussion on the nature of author-ship, authority.

That might be a simplification, but Dawson is prescient in chapter two as to how the high demands of organization contain an ideological element, which require immediate harmony with the dominant one-sided creed.

It’s a bit like this:

Every four years, including the one we are now in, 2024, the day-to-day circumstances create pressure under political and economic necessity and come forward with new forms of government and corresponding systems of ideas which in turn will provide the basis for social reorganization (36).

So writes Dawson. He did not have in mind border walls and bundles of razor wire strung end to end for miles.

A totalitarian regime would do so by making a clean sweep of all the debris from years before only to build a unitary social structure. The problem, again, is the unpreparedness of public opinion and the lack of any solid foundational knowledge. The result might be less tyrannical than either Communism or National Socialism but could also result in (as mentioned above) a “democratic” totalitarianism” and which could still lead to an authoritarian tradition in government. Or should I say “more authoritarian government.”

The result Dawson predicts is that there would be no “beyond” to “politics.”

He concludes this second chapter in the following way:

We cannot make the political party or the bureaucratic system the whole basis of organization. We must crate a new institution or new institutions for the organization of national culture and these institutions must be no less free than our traditional political institutions (57).

Point well-taken in 2024.

He fears the dictatorship of political parties and the degeneration of our culture into a mechanized mass civilization.


He could have left the argument there but begins his third chapter, “The Totalitarian State and the Christian Community” with this notion:

A fruitful consideration of the problems of the Christian community is only possible if it is grounded on a full awareness of our own social situation, for that situation not only inevitably determines our historical perspective but also conditions our conceptions of the spiritual problem itself (61).

He first makes the argument that, historically, the spiritual problems in St. Augustine’s time were different than in St. Paul’s time. What satisfied men and women in those times is far different than the material prosperity of our times, during which the “sense” of spiritual community has reached its lowest point. The consequence is a growing secularization of culture which shifted the “centre of men’s interests from religion to practical affairs, and the traditional religious orthodoxy was felt to be no longer in harmony with modern needs” (62).

His critique is serious, as he wonders whether the whole conception of a Christian community has become so faded and so remote that the great words and images of the Christian past have lost their vital significance, if not iconographic significance.

What was once “beyond politics—as, for example, the very familiarity of English-speaking peoples with the language of the Bible—was now a gap between the universality of the ancient Christian community and the narrowness of the modern sectarian world.

A point well-taken.

Dawson adds, pointedly, that the “trend” towards community in the modern world has left the Christian tradition on one side and found secular, or at least non-Christian forms, in which to express itself on the other side.

The result?

The Christian tradition of community has become increasingly isolated and segregated from modern economic and cultural life ruled by the bulwark of politics. The cult of nationalism that emerges is thus inspired by a thoroughly religious ideal of the nation as a spiritual ideal best exemplified by Volksgemeinschaft, German national and racial community producing a new creed, National Socialism (66).

Dawson argues near the end of this chapter his fear that the greatest danger thus threatening modern civilization is the degeneration of mass civilization, in which the family and the nation dissolve into a human herd without personality, or traditions, or beliefs (79).

Near the conclusion this chapter, and again about the time that Fascist and Nazi legions are marching down the boulevards, Dawson remarks that at one time in history the city populace thronged to the countryside, where the unknown Son of Man sat apart and spoke words of a new life and with new words of a different order than the philosophies or ideologies of man.

These new words recreated the world from within.

Dawson asks whether this miracle can be repeated in a world that has for the second time grown old?

To be a Christian is to answer “yes,” but to acquiesce with some facile synthesis into some dominant ideology is dangerous. It is no less dangerous is to go to the other extreme and preach “a kind of Christian totalitarianism which would make the faith a rival to modern social ideologies on their own ground.” It’s still “politics” with no “beyond.”

The state exists for politics, but the church exists for what is beyond, for the “Divine Word and Spirit of which it is the organ” (90-91).


What then becomes interesting in the mystery of this wandering book is the fourth chapter following: “Considerations on the Coronation of an English King.”

The chapter intimates that a coronation is a consecration of the State to Religion and is thus “beyond” politics. In 1939, however, Dawson wonders whether a consecration means what it says, or is it a gigantic piece of fluff, “a faith that no longer exists, [or] to a faith which we no longer believe” (95).

He queries by wondering whether the English mind is willing to face whether there is a “conception of the State as a holy community and of political power as a sacred God-given office which transcends the limits of utilitarianism and “binds man by a gold chain to the order of heaven” (95).

Dawson realizes that as he introduces the “golden chain” metaphor he’s running up against the lights of reason, which will bring about emotional reactions.

There is, on the other hand, wisdom in the metaphor which should not be sacrificed to utilitarian logic, to a shallow and impoverished rationalism. So much is lost when a Coronation is treated as an example of organized hypocrisy, when the rite itself was created as a natural and organic expression of the ideal Christian State.

Something, then, is missing and Christians should feel a sense of loss and discomfort, something disordered in the contemporary state of society. Such a loss is also characteristic of the whole of European society, divided as it is with Russia on one side—officially godless and with its cultural and social life organized on atheistic principles. On the other end of the scale is England (or English-speaking peoples), still representing the traditional form of a Christian monarchy.

Dawson continues by presciently stating that the “one” solution to “the spiritual conflict of the modern world.. is suggested in the Coronation rite—the consecration of the city of Man as the temporal representative and organ of the City of God” (100).

And he adds this word of hope:

 “[The] secularization European civilization if still incomplete. There is [still] an inherited tradition of Christian thought and morality which [admittedly] has become weakened… but which is still far from negligible” (110).

The established churches are still present, and their concordatory relation is not based upon a legal fiction that ignores the secularization of modern society. The Church’s task, however, is not to become a competitor with the State but to find the means to use the language of the Divine Word and the channel of Divine Grace. Even Leviathan, he argues, who rules over all the children of pride, is “not impenetrable to the influence of the Word and Grace.”


Those words coming near the end of Chapter Four prepare the reader for the final chapter, “Christianity and Politics,” about which, if I may editorialize, is prescient surrounded as we are by plethoras of politics and with little “beyond.”

The introductory paragraph reads as follows:

Nothing could be more discouraging to the man or woman who believes in the need for applying Christian principles to social and political life than the present state of the world and the present political outlook (119).

That sounds disparaging. And there’s good cause, he notes, for Christians to despair by the failure of Christian ideals to work out in practice, in political practice.

What might, then, appear odd to the reader is the next sentence in which Dawson writes that Christianity has never accepted these postulates, and the Christian ought to be the last person to lose hope in the presence of the failure of the right and the apparent triumph of evil (127).

What then is “beyond” politics?

Christianity, to a far greater degree than any other historical religion, is bound up with the living processes of history.

The qualification, however, is that the processes of history are part of a duality and what is beyond is a divine providential progress in history, which is to be realized through the Church in the Kingdom of God. There are two orders. The political order is natural; the Christian order is supernatural.

All well and fine, as we observe the machinations of the political order, which daily seem be too much with us.

As for the Christian order, Dawson writes, we “see the whole thing manifested clearly and perfectly once and once only, i.e., in the life of Jesus,” which in comparison to the political order is the pattern of the Christian life and the model of Christian action. (127-128). “The life of Jesus is profoundly historical, the culmination of thousand of years of living historical tradition.”

The sectarian historian and/or politician may wish it to be invisible since it concerns a mere Galilean peasant who lived a mere thirty years.

But as Dawson remarks, after Pentecost, after the outpouring of the Spirit, came the infant church, the result of an event as unforeseen and inexplicable as the Incarnation itself.

If we look back on all of this, however, from a rationalist point of view, well, it becomes no easier to understand, and in fact, inexplicable if we look at all of this without faith.

Still, the Church lives again and again and again the life of Christ. It has its periods of obscurity and periods of manifestation. Fascism, German National Socialism, and Communism,”democratic totalitarianism” are all examples of dynamic forces in history and are abortive manifestations of political orders with which Christianity contends and has contended throughout history.

We call it totalitarianism, but if we believe the Gospel message, Christ came to cast fire on the earth, and that message will attack and repudiate. There are no shortcuts, and with that in mind it’s important to note that human impatience has always stood in the way of the slowness of spiritual action to stop social change.

Dawson then adds this: “The new social forms offer new opportunities—new openings for the action of grace” (134). Not, however, where politicians find them but where Christ found them.

What’s “beyond politics,” one should conclude, is not one more strange philosophy of history but an age-old authentic philosophy of Christ, which should not cause us to wring our hands and hang down our heads, but lift them up. We can think and wonder whether all the signs around us are emblems of a world that is ending, but it’s wiser to think that every historical crisis is a rehearsal for the real thing.

Such a well-traveled little book with such a large “quotient” of wisdom discovered in the sagging shelves in a darkened corner of an Arkansas college library laded with “old books.”

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The featured image, uploaded by Michael Rowe, is a photograph of the Altar in St John the Baptist Church of England church in Tideswell, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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