It’s a fortunate quirk of our calendar that this year St Crispin’s Day, the day on which Henry V led the English to victory against the French in 1415 and made immortal in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” fell two weeks before the presidential election, a day on which a sizable portion of our nation’s evangelicals will demonstrate precisely the sort of cowardice Henry’s words so beautifully condemn.
I call it a fortunate quirk because it affords us the opportunity to indulge in a short thought experiment: Let’s suppose that all of the nightmare scenarios outlined by Trumpistas like James Dobson and Eric Metaxas are true. Let’s say the Clinton administration is as awful for religious liberty as they (reasonably) think it will be. Christian universities lose access to federal loan monies and many of them are forced to close. Churches lose tax-exempt status and are made subject to laws restricting free speech under the guise of creating “safe spaces.” Christian businesses continue to face heavy fines and worse over their refusal to provide services for same-sex weddings.
Let’s say all of that happens.
Now let’s get even more imaginative and say that all the things the people squeezing us from the left are saying also turn out to be true: We’ll lose a generation. People will write us off as bigots and backwards fundamentalists perpetually stuck on “the wrong side of history.”
In short, let’s say all of our worst critics are right when they prognosticate about what our intransigence (read: fidelity) will cost us. You know what our response should be?
If the cost of fidelity to the faith is the loss of universities and businesses and ecclesial institutions… that’s fine.
If the cost of fidelity to the faith is the derision of the millennials and the scorn of the sophisticated world… OK.
In “Henry V” Shakespeare takes us to the battle of Agincourt, a battle where the English were massively outnumbered and fighting on foreign soil in France. They were exhausted, hungry, and dispirited. As they prepare for battle with the French, morale is at a low point as one noble wishes that they had just 10,000 more men.
And this is when Henry arrives:
Proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
He then continues, and this section has become perhaps the most famous of all Shakespeare’s speeches:
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
You can see the full speech below:
Shakespeare’s Henry knows two things:
- First, he knows that there are causes worth dying for.
- Second, he knows that those with the courage to die are more honorable than those who lack the courage.
Of course, that line “the courage to die,” is an interesting one. Our faith teaches us that Christian discipleship can be summed up as taking up our cross and following our Lord. In the past we’ve said on these pages that the great question facing today’s Christians may be how we can die well, not only in the way that all Christians must die well, but how we can die well in the ruins of Christendom:
In one sense that question of how one can die alongside the thing one loves is the question facing all human beings throughout time, of course. Our families, homes, neighborhoods, and churches are ever dying, as is the fate of all places, and we live in the hope that we can die well alongside them and by the grace of God enter into their life again in the resurrection.
What is disturbing and striking when you read the arguments put forward by the evangelical Trumpistas is how completely oblivious they seem to be to these basic ideas. (I’ll only note in passing that many of these Trumpistas have dedicated much time and money to an alleged recovery of the classical traditions of the Christian west and yet, despite all that, have seemingly managed to completely miss what our tradition says about honor and noble sacrifice.)
Likewise the post-evangelical left, for all their bleating about the marginalized and solidarity and love, seem conspicuously unwilling to do the most difficult thing our Lord did on behalf of those lost and marginalized people: He died for them.
It is possible, of course, that we are on the eve of unexpected resurrection. Given the very nature of the throwaway culture that surrounds us, we may well be on the eve of such a revival. Wasteful, unnatural cultures like our own have a way of wearing themselves out rather quickly, after all. And if that is the case, then all the more reason to follow the way of Henry: There may be no greater joy than that which comes from winning a battle you were by all reasonable odds expected to lose.
For this reason I am, like Russell Moore, ultimately optimistic. This dark night, when faithful believers are squeezed by the Nazgul to our right and the Wormtongues on our left, cannot last. But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose my optimism is misplaced and we are now seeing the western church suffer the same fate visited upon the north African church nearly a thousand years ago. Even if it is as bleak as some claim and even if the night is as long as some think it will be, still that is no reason to surrender.
Rather, it should cause us to follow the lead of the men at Agincourt and prepare for a struggle that may well be our doom. But, as Tolkien teaches us, “doom,” does not necessarily mean demise. Rather, it means “judgment.” So as we march to our doom, whatever it may be, we should march like the ents to Isengard, singing and making a noise that proves the greatness that was, by the grace of God, once ours and may yet be again: