One of the most controversial topics today is the definition of what Western values are. While some associate these values with, among others, equality, rights, and the freedom to determine what is true, others see these values in more material terms, as equating to nothing more than a high standard of living. 

Todd Huizinga, the president of the Center for Transatlantic Renewal and a former U.S. diplomat, visited Ukraine a few years ago and addressed these themes, as part of the “Building Democracy: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Political Institutions” program run by the Political Science Department of the Ukrainian Catholic University. We spoke to him during his visit about the idea of Western values. 

What are ‘Western values’?

When I talk about Western values, I mean the traditionally Western Judeo-Christian worldview that is behind the development of democracy in the West, and the development of stability, human rights, etc.

Until the 1960s, society in the United States had a single Judeo-Christian cultural consensus. This did not mean that the majority were Christians, but rather that there was an agreement in society that the values ​​we have come from this worldview.

This worldview is about understanding human nature, and is reflected in the democratic political system. It looks at the human person as a being with a paradoxical, two-sided nature. On one hand, we have an inherent and equal dignity for all, and therefore we have rights that no state can take away. On the other hand, all people have flaws; they are imperfect and inclined to do the wrong things. That is why the US Constitution provided both a system of checks and balances and a distribution of power, to keep power from being concentrated in one person’s hands.

The founding fathers who wrote the Constitution realized that if one person or one group of people had too much power, they would inevitably begin to abuse it, and the result would be tyranny. Therefore, the presence  in a democratic system of human rights and freedoms is a reflection of our dignity, and restraints and balances are a consequence of the fact that we are all mistaken. This obviously comes from the Christian view of the imperfect man: we are created in the image of God, therefore we have inherent dignity, but we are also prone to sin. And you do not need to be a Christian to see this dual nature; it is enough to be a person with an open eye on other people and yourself. Anyone who is honest with himself knows that he is wrong and selfish. He does not idealize himself and others.

Despite this simple explanation, many academic elites and ordinary people nowadays do not agree with it. The consensus on values ​​that has existed thus far is being corrupted by the worldview of postmodern secularism. This process began in Europe with the emergence of German theological liberalism in the 19th century, and has intensified since the 1960s, or perhaps even before that, with the end of the Second World War. Europe has since become even more secularized. In America, these changes emerged in the 1960s.

What are the origins of this new worldview?

To understand the difference in the interpretation of Western values, it is necessary to identify the main players. Among the ideologies that influence the development of these values ​​are conservatism, liberalism and progressivism.

Conservatives are generally more respectful of tradition, more suspicious of change, and more realistic about human nature and its flaws. Progressives believe in progress and change; they are often not religious, and question the traditional vision of human nature. Liberals now represent a more center-left camp in democratic politics, but are not as opposed to Western values ​​as progressives.

Therefore, in essence, the main conflict in determining Western values ​​lies between the conservative and progressive camps, which define freedom differently.

In the traditional Western worldview, conservatives and liberals both defined freedom as the freedom to do what is right, and to act in a way that leads to the prosperity of humanity. Progressives, on the other hand, now define freedom as the right of everyone to decide and determine for themselves what is the truth.

The traditional notion of freedom meant doing what was right, and not doing evil, so that humanity could flourish, and human nature become better in all its manifestations. The new worldview suggests that people can change according to their will and decide what is true; in short, it is a worldview that says there is no God. It is not necessary to be a Christian to agree with traditional Western values, for it is enough to see what role they played in the formation of the West. However, if a person is anti-religious, he or she will find it difficult to accept this concept.

For democracy to exist, there must be a balance between these views. Politician Steffen Heitmann, a member of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, noted shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the progressive worldview began to put pressure on the conservative one. But despite his commitment to conservatism, he added that democracy requires both camps to function, because the power of one party is not democracy.

What are the greatest dangers of the twin ideologies of secularism and postmodernism?

If conservatives did not oppose the ideology of progressivism, it would have done more harm. However, there are currently two major dangers. 

The first danger is loneliness. If you decide what is true, you mean that you do not accept the limitations of traditional relationships, traditional beliefs in terms of what is true. You do not accept restrictions on communities, families, religion. And the result of this post-truth mentality was unexpected! People are more lonely, fewer of them get married or have children – so this is one of the main problems of society today.

Another problem is the loss of freedom. Unless there is a basic cultural or social agreement on what is right and true, if everyone resolves these issues by themselves, ironically, it falls to the state to decide which truths among many should be recognized, and which rejected. And that is why the strengthening of the state and the growth of obligations to follow certain “truths” is happening in Western Europe, Canada and the USA. The progressive version of “truth” is imposed on the rest of society, often promoted by the country’s authorities, and the traditional version of truth is rejected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly all suffer. Non-discrimination laws are becoming more widespread, so you are not allowed to express your views, but are accused of breaking the law and discriminating against someone.

This is a phenomenon that is very discouraging to most people. For example, when I was a diplomat, the United States and Somalia were the only states that had not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and people think—who can be against the rights of children? But the reason is that American conservatives are worried about the UN putting the state between children and their parents. In addition, it is unclear in the UN convention whether parents can say that a child needs to go to church, because the child has “freedom of conscience.” However, it ignores the fact that children learn from their parents, and are not yet able to make such decisions on their own! It is also unclear whether a minor child can have an abortion without the parents being informed It seems strange to me that all other countries have ratified this convention. Of course, we are not against children. This ideology simply takes things that are good and completely distorts them. 

Whither Western values today? Are we seeing their total destruction or their partial restoration?

At one time, the traditional worldview began to fade as the Christian faith faded away. Nevertheless, although its adherents did not always believe in God, they saw a connection between Judeo-Christian values ​​and what they called Western Europe. Because people in the US were more religious and more influenced by the traditional Christian faith, they began to decline later.

But now the movement for traditional values ​​is reasserting itself! This is largely due to European “populism.” Many previously established parties in Western Europe, which are historically center-right, conservative, are not really conservative at all. They are simply more moderately progressive than the left. Therefore, the phenomenon of the conservative movement has become a form of populism.

Populism in Europe is a very erratic and instinctive interference with a conservative outlook in politics. This is an instinctive reaction from people sensitive to conservatism. They respect the traditional way of life, and at some point they realized, “Wait a minute: our interests are no longer represented by the existing parties, so we will create our own political movement!”

Conservatism is now re-establishing itself in Western Europe. The media describes it as radicalism, so the situation is definitely rather messy. There are some elements of right-wing radicalism in populism, but it is mostly not radical—it is average people with a sensitivity to conservatism who talk about it through politics. Despite the opinion of many progressives, it is difficult to destroy conservatism.

Barack Obama has said many times that someone or something is on the “right” or “wrong” side of history! He believes that history is moving in his direction. But history is much more complicated than progressives and conservatives believe. For example, who would have thought that Britain would leave the EU? Despite opposition from all elites, all media and others, they still did.

What words of advice do you have for Ukrainian conservatives, and how they might best resist the ideologies of today?

First, Ukrainians should feel free to be Ukrainians. You are definitely Europeans, but first of all you are Ukrainians. You must feel free to build your society and political life as you want them to be. And one should not be influences too much by the current confusion that exists in the modern world. Be Ukrainian, not American … Why would you want to be American? Being Ukrainian is fantastic!

And don’t listen too much to the US, Europe or anyone else! Have a free and open discussion about how you want to build democracy in Ukraine.

Second, read the works of great people, the great thinkers and builders of modern democracy. Read the Federalist Papers, which were written in defense of the US Constitution when its ratification was being discussed, and are also respected in Europe. There you can find the treasures of realistic thought, human nature, and human beings that are true.  You should also read Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on democracy.

For example, at the European Conservative, we want to build a culture of debate and reflection among conservatives. We do this to help conservatism in the current context of postmodern progressivism that is emerging in Western society. We want to give conservatism the best way to formulate a conservative worldview in a context in which many people do not understand conservatism, and most elites reject it, and to formulate a Western Judeo-Christian worldview that can be effective in a postmodern context.

“The Procession to Calvary” (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569). Located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

What role should Christians play in the context of these Western European values?

Christians need to be confident in participating in public debate and saying that the Christian view of man is right and true; to be bold and resolute, humble and loving; to speak the truth in love and not to give up in the face of opposition, because everything is in the hands of God.

All we can do is humbly speak the truth and continue to do so, giving success to the Lord. People who disagree with us have the same dignity that we do, and although we see defects in others, our faults are our responsibility. So love others as yourself. However, the Bible says, “Love your enemies”—that means you have enemies! Love does not mean that you do not see reality. 

It is not always necessary to express traditional Western Judeo-Christian values ​​using biblical categories. It is not necessary to say, “We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sinners.” You can say, “We all have dignity and rights, and we also have disadvantages.” And if someone disputes this dual nature, one can explain it to them through a series of arguments without directly referring to God.

However, the central understanding of Christianity and conservatism is that faith is more important than politics. It is worth resisting the politicization of everything. Faith is more important. It is much more efficient to spend less time talking about politics, and more time talking about truth and human nature, as part of interacting with people.

People should be allowed to live lives free of ubiquitous, assertive politics.