|The first time I met Paul Johnson was 25 years ago. He eloquently explained how the war on life and culture was being fought on various levels, one of them being in arts and letters. He argued that it was liberals and atheists at the end of the 19th century who solidified the campaign against faith and family and predicted that by the opening of the 2lst century, Christianity would be the only organized and powerful voice left to stand against moral darkness. As in so many areas, he was bitingly correct.
Paul Bede Johnson was born in 1928 in Manchester, England. He went to Stonyhurst College, a private Catholic high school that was also attended by some of Britain’s greatest authors and public figures. After Stoneyhurst, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford. In the 1950s, he made his reputation as a journalist and author, often writing from a leftist standpoint. He edited the New Statesman, a socialist British magazine, and covered European and Middle Eastern affairs for various newspapers.
It was his experience analyzing politics and culture that obliged him to rethink his poltics. He came to see that it was invariably not the will of the people that was shaping culture and society, but the fashionable attitudes of small elites. “Nothing appeals to intellectuals more than the feeling that they represent ‘the people,’” he would write. “Nothing, as a rule, is further from the truth.”
It was this conviction that led him to write a series of history books that are, without doubt, some of the finest and most important in print. His history of Christianity, Judaism, the 20th century, the Renaissance, the United States and several others are essential reading as independent volumes. As a collective account of world history, his more than two dozen books are simply unparalleled.
As he records the progress and unraveling of the modern world, he illuminates deep and revealing truths about our current problems. Of the rise of Nazism, for example, he writes, “It is worth remembering that Hitler was voted into office, quite lawfully and constitutionally, by what was then the best-educated people in the world, and that he and his Nazis always scored higher ratings among the educated young and among university students and graduates – and professors – than among the population as a whole.”
Applied to the chattering classes and the academics who have carved out our abortion, contraception and sexual perversion culture, this is a central statement. Establishment wisdom and the ideology of those in power in media and higher education are seldom to be treated as reliable truth.
When Johnson was on the political left, he was praised as a great historian and a compelling journalist. When he began to oppose the liberal status quo, he was accused of being malicious, bigoted and simply insane. His meeting with the black, homosexual novelist James Baldwin is typical. “Let me assure readers I am totally without prejudice. I do not prejudge. I have formed my dislikes on the basis of long experience. I tried explaining this once to James Baldwin, who complained to me that it was sheer race prejudice and homophobia which made people dislike him: ‘No, James, it is not prejudice, it is actual experience of how awful you are.’ He said, ‘What experience have you had of prejudice?’ I replied, ‘Listen, old sod, if, like me, you were born in England red-haired, left-handed and a Roman Catholic, there‚s nothing you don’t know about prejudice.’ At this point, he stumped off in a rage.”
Stumping off in a rage. The style of so many when presented with pro-life arguments. It’s to his enormous credit, however, that Johnson doesn’t appear to care. He has been marginalized and attacked for decades, but his response is to write, speak and broadcast as much as ever before.
If anything has characterized Johnson’s sense of history and politics, however, it is not anything as meager as left and right, but the clash between pagan and Christian. He is, in the best and purest sense of the term, a Roman Catholic historian, seeing in the emerging lines of history the hand of God and the influence of the church. As such, he is an unconventional historian. “Every good historian is almost by definition a revisionist,” he has said. “He looks at the accepted view of a particular historic episode or period with a very critical eye.” He also said, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once bur many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”
The most colossal human cost, of course, being the mass slaughters of the 20th century, when atheist regimes centred in Germany, Russia, China and Cambodia murdered hundreds of millions. It is such social engineering that Paul Johnson was explaining long before mainstream history was prepared to tell the absolute truth.
Johnson remains one of the loudest and finest voices in modern journalism and history. It is to his credit and our triumph that he a man of life who writes about what is all too often a chronicle of death.
Michael Coren is a Toronto Sun columnist, host of Michael Coren Live on CTS television and a host on CFRB radio in Toronto.