The hippies of the 1960s didn’t kill Christianity. Adolf Hitler did. Let me explain.

From the 1960s onwards, discussions of the decline of Christendom and the cultural influence of the church gravitate toward a number of topics of moral controversy. The pill, abortion, youth culture, and the sexual revolution are all usually viewed as flash-points that precipitated Christianity’s decline. The Beatles (so to speak) are to blame if the youth did not go church, and the subsequent liberalizing of the churches only exacerbated the decline. Or, if you believe the narrative of mainline Protestantism, the church failed to keep up with the changing times. Christianity was simply too Victorian, and its fossilized ethics and beliefs collapsed under the weight of the rising cultural tide.

Both these explanations for the rise of secularization seem to recognize that the cultural pressures facing the church lay outside its walls. While one side sought to barricade the defenses, the other opened the gates and welcomed them in as allies.

Depending upon the narrator one hears, the story of secularization can have a number of different starting points. Many have contended its seeds were planted centuries ago, from within Christianity itself. Nothing comes from nothing, and the Christian origins of secular thought are undeniable. The specific configuration of beliefs that have come to dominate western culture — gender and racial equality, sexual freedom, and individual human rights (to name a few) — are unparalleled in western thought. Something else must account for the moral viewpoint of modern secularism.

In his book, Unbelievers historian Alec Ryrie contends that the moral revolution of the 60s arose independently from both Christianity and the imaginations of pure reason. Modern secularism instead rises to prominence precisely because of the atrocities of the Second World War. Adolf Hitler was evil incarnate, and therefore the fixed reference point against which all modern ethics became measured. The closer an idea is to Nazism, the more immoral it becomes. Likening a politician to Hitler may be logically absurd, but the moral force of such an argument is amplified by the visceral feeling of disgust. In this way, Hitler has become the anti-Jesus of modernity. He writes:

Once the most potent moral figure in Western culture was Jesus Christ. Believer or unbeliever, you took your ethical bearings from him, or professed to. To question his morals was to expose yourself as a monster. Now, the most potent moral figure in Western culture is Adolf Hitler. It is as monstrous to praise him as it would once have been to disparage Jesus.

The Second World War has gripped our cultural imagination to become the story we tell ourselves time and time again: Whether it be Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Darth Vader in Star Wars, Voldemort in Harry Potter, or the Night King in Game of Thrones. With remarkable consistency, these stories all narrate the process of secularization. Rivalries and squabbles amongst disparate factions give way to a united opposition against a personified, murderous evil that spreads like a pestilence across the universe. Compared to mass genocide, cultural differences seem trivial, religion included.

The atrocity of the Holocaust cast a long shadow over western culture, providing the ethical contours around which notions of human rights were developed — Ryrie deems modern humanism to be “almost a precisely inverted image of Nazism.”

Ryrie’s argument rests upon a great deal of speculation, but it certainly illuminates much of modern life. It accounts for the near ubiquitous acceptance of notions of freedom, rights, and human autonomy but also for the increasing polarization of society and the life-and-death rhetoric around moral questions.

If Hitler is the only prototype of evil available to us, then all socially accepted moral failings share in his guilt and are thus irredeemable. A reformed Nazi was still once a Nazi. Shorn of a redemptive framework for expiating sin, the world becomes a (secular) apocalyptic battle between good and evil that requires the annihilation of one’s enemies. When Nazism is the photographic negative for what qualifies as morality, the process may yet preserve Hitler’s silhouette.

And yet, while Hitler may provide the parameters for what counts as sin, the broader questions of human flourishing and social good remain contested and undefined. This indeterminate space doubles as a blank slate upon which nearly any ideology can claim moral authority. The limitless freedom to choose how to live has led to an infinite number of ethical frameworks that either bless or curse. Amid it all, the modern individual is seemingly caught in the crossfire of judgments and further damned by the latent incapacity to live up to one’s own ideals.

The Christianity that stands a chance of surviving the post-war decline is not one that either accedes to or rejects the humanist moral framework, but evades the culture wars altogether. It will offer a compelling moral vision informed by self-sacrificial love and an empathetic understanding of human weakness. But above all, it will provide the world the escape hatch it desperately needs: undeserved mercy. Secularization is here to stay, for good and ill, but the message of unconditional grace has not yet lost its potency. The light of the gospel shines brighter than the darkness of Hitler’s shadow, and its radiance has not been overcome: giving comfort to the weary, hope to the afflicted, and joy to the sorrowful.