Politics and the Doctrine of Original Sin
The true dividing line between liberal and conservative is not where you think. It is not the type of government you have or a particular policy, but rather, what you think about "original sin."
This piece is meant to stir the pot. It might be an outright “hot take.” Do you think that most people are basically born good? If you answer in the affirmative, you are pretty much a “liberal” and likely some stripe of “progressive.” You might have a pro-business tax policy or believe in freedom and liberty. You might support the military and vote republican (substitute your own local version of “republican” here). You might be pro-gun and anti-abortion. You might be for strong borders. You might oppose the big bugaboo of the day: “critical race theory.” You might be against the sexual revolution. But, if you believe in the basic goodness of human beings, you are at heart a liberal, and likely a progressive.
Now that I have thrown a grenade into the room, let’s unpack this a little.
One of the guiding, fundamental, foundational stories of our society, of the modern west in general, is the “Myth of Progress.” Turn over almost any rock in the west and you will find some example of the Myth of Progress at work. To many, “progress” is as obvious as the air we breathe or the water in which a fish swims. Human progress is self-evidently obvious. Look around at our material prosperity, our science and technology, our modern medicine, our democratic political institutions. The computer upon which I am typing. The phone in my pocket. The vehicle I drive. The hospital I go to when sick. All of them are a testimony to the the power of human ingenuity, cleverness, intelligence and superiority. My goodness, we put a man on the moon! The difference between us and some dark ages barbarian are manifestly obvious. Only a fool would argue against the idea of progress.
This is how the idea of progress, the Myth of Progress, maintains its hold on us, our thinking and our culture. “Progress” has created a society so obviously better than any other era that has gone before us that it is almost inconceivable not to accept the idea of human progress.
I use the term “Myth of Progress” here in a technical way. A “myth” is a what is known as a “foundation” story. To a history of religions scholar, for example, the first 11 chapters of the biblical book of Genesis are considered a “foundation myth.” A foundation myth operates to answer the questions of how the world works. Why are we here? What are the basic problems? What is the answer to those problems? Foundation myths establish the basic narrative which guides a culture. In the west, that story is now the Myth of Progress.
Pretty much every aspect of our society, our culture, is built around this myth. And most, even most self-proclaimed conservatives, even most Christians today, operate with the Myth of Progress operating in the background of their lives, directing their thoughts and actions in ways they are often not aware of. The Myth of Progress is the social air we breathe. To be frank, this is why today’s self-proclaimed conservatives fail and their messaging fails. They fail to go after the root ideas. For many of us, we are progressives ourselves, just more reticent progressives. This is why progressive messaging works so well. It is in harmony with the core myth of our culture. True conservatism is not. That is why true conservatives always feel like they are swimming upstream against the flow.
Where did this come from and how did we get here? How did we become a “progressive” society? There were a number of elements that came together during the Enlightenment to produce our society today. Things were already happening in terms of scientific discovery, new areas of learning, experimentation with new forms of government, with new forms of commerce and trade, and even changes in terms of the role and influence of the Christian church in people’s lives. What the “Myth of Progress” did was give all of these developments a story, a narrative, that allowed people to understand for themselves what was happening. It was a “metanarrative” that drew together all of these currents and forged them into an easy to understand and easy to believe story.
In the late Middle Ages, when people did their thinking and explored the world around them they did it largely as part of their devotion to God. If God is rational and made the world intelligible and understandable to our minds, then it could be an act of devotion to use the brain God gave us to reason out problems and to explore and understand the world we live in. We could draw closer to God by being intellectuals and scientists.
This led to many new discoveries. Many great works of philosophy and theology were written. New machines were developed. Human knowledge was growing in leaps and bounds. Our ability to harness the power of nature for human benefit was also expanding rapidly. At the same time, our society seemed to be changing for the better. New freedoms were being realized. New forms of governance were being developed. People began to challenge the authority of the church.
They started to search around for ideas to explain what was happening. The thinkers of that era picked up an idea that was just kind of lying around, the Christian idea of linear history, and made it their own. In a nutshell, the Christian teaching was that the world had a beginning and is working its way towards an end. This is in contrast to the pagan idea of a cyclical history, that there are great cycles that repeat themselves over and over again.
The Christian story is that that in the beginning, God created the world. Mankind rebelled against God. This rebellion brought evil and misery into the world. As a result, humans were “unclean” and could no longer enter the presence of God. They were cut off and alienated from him and condemned to a life of misery, hardship, and death. But, we were given a promise. A savior would come, given by God, who would restore us once again to God, ending the alienation. This savior was Jesus, who lived and died for us, was raised again from the dead. He returned to God and is preparing a new heaven and a new earth for us when he returns.
What is important in recounting in simplified form the basic idea of “salvation history” is that it provided a metanarrative for the world. It gave the west a story. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. But the key thing to note about the biblical metanarrative is that it is static, and human beings are not the main actors. God is the main actor. We as human beings live within God’s story. This is not a dynamic unfolding narrative with human beings at the center of all the events. It is a stable superstructure within which people lived their lives before God.
That began to change in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds through the work of several decisive thinkers. The first was Friedrich Hegel, born in 1770 and died in 1831. Hegel was instrumental in shifting the focus of history from a divine architecture, to something where human beings were at the center of the story. Not so much individuals, but rather human cultures were what drove history. He identified a three stage movement. A certain era would emerge with a particular character and direction that would play out for a while. This he called the “Thesis.” Then, as problems and challenges would mount, a “Counter-Thesis” would emerge and battle with the original “Thesis.” Out of this conflict, a new “Synthesis” would emerge. This cultural synthesis would then become the new “Thesis” and the process would be repeated. There was a general optimism that society, with all the new and exciting things happening, was coming close to the final “Synthesis,” the end of history itself. The idea is essentially utopian and placed mankind at the center of this historical process.
The second thinker, Carl Marx, born in 1809 and died in 1882, took Hegel a step further. Marx argued that the world was entirely “material.” There is no God and there is no fixed moral or social order. All of the rules that govern and shape society are all made up and generated by the society itself. His basic argument is that the structures of society and its morality are all produced - often without the participants being aware of what is going on - because of money relations. Those who control the means of production are the ones who control the governing narrative for society and determine what is and is not moral. Good and evil are a function of who controls the means of production. Religious belief serves the interests of those who control the means of production. Anyone who believes otherwise is living in a “false consciousness.” Those who control the means of production are inherently oppressors and everyone else is basically oppressed by them.
Marx argued that eventually there would be a workers revolution that would overthrow those who control the means of production and this would usher in a utopian society where no one controlled the means of production. It would be a completely egalitarian society. History, he argued, was moving towards this future.
The third figure, Charles Darwin, born 1818 and lived to 1883 - you can see all three of these thinkers living and working in the same cultural space - developed his famous theory that human beings were not created unique by God in the image of God; but instead, we evolved over a long process from simple chemicals, to animals, until finally we as humans emerged as the result of this whole evolutionary process. Darwin adds to the growing historical consciousness of the time, the idea that we “evolved” from simple to primitive to advanced. This marks a clear line of evolutionary progress. For him this progress is realized through competition out of which emerges the “survival of the fittest.” Competition brings about human progress.
The final thinker I want to bring up here is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born 1712 and died in 1778. In many ways, he is one of, if not the decisive thinker and the most important of Enlightenment authors. The two ideas of his that most deeply affected our culture are fairly simple. The first is that every person is born as a “blank slate.” They are born uncorrupted and basically good. And secondly, the thing that corrupts people is the society they are born into and the structures and institutions of that society. The cure, for Rousseau, is education. If we can properly educate our youth, we can prevent their corruption and thereby create a better, if not perfect, society.
All of these pieces, and more, come together to help create this story, this idea of human progress. Through science, reason, education, technology, economics, good governance and so forth it is possible for us to perfect ourselves and create for ourselves a perfect society. As the saying goes, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” You can see how easy it is was to believe this during the explosion of knowledge and technology that was happening in the 1800’s. It was not hard to look around and believe that we were the creatures of destiny, that we could “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” Generally speaking, almost all of us in the west believe the myth that we, through our society, are better people than any of those who have gone before us. We believe in the Myth of Progress.
At the same time, this creates a constant burden upon us. Because history must march forward, there is an undercurrent that calls us to continual revolution. Or, at the very least to constant reform. After all, we are on the cutting edge of human progress and we must push forward to realize the better future laid out ahead of us. Utopia is just around the corner. With the power of artificial intelligence, we will finally have the tools we need to manage all of the systems of humanity and realize the perfect society. It is just over the next horizon of human ingenuity.
When you look at the marvels of scientific learning, the power of technology, the prosperity of our capitalist economics, and what has been achieved through our governmental institutions since the end of the Middle Ages, it is easy to believe the narrative, the story, the Myth of Progress. It is seductive in so many ways. It really is the cultural air we breathe. Few of us ever challenge the story. And that is why the vast majority of us are progressives of one stripe or another. This is why our politics all feels the same no matter which party is in power. Our elites have fully bought into the narrative, the myth, of human progress and we along with them. Whether they emphasize economic progress or social progress they are working within the same basic mythological framework. Capitalism, classical liberalism, Marxism, feminism, the sexual revolution, all of it, they all operate out of a progressive frame. Even in the world of evangelical Christianity, things like the “church growth movement” are essentially born out of the framework of the myth of progress in that they focus on institutional systems, institutional planning and institutional growth. It is church as a technological system. It is a way of doing things that are born out of the Myth of Progress.
So what is the problem with this? From a truly “conservative” perspective, that is, one rooted in the Christian faith that gave birth to the west, it is a lie. This is not to say that all true conservatism is “Christian,” but rather to say that it is in orthodox Christian teaching that we find the key idea that exposes the difference between “progressive” and “conservative.” It is the concept of “original sin.”
Yes, this is essentially a theological and religious idea. I would argue that the best, highest and purest forms of the idea are found within Christian theology. But it does not have to be the case. Someone like Carl Schmitt, informed by Catholicism, argued that people were inherently “dangerous” or violent. No amount of political argumentation could get around this reality. Other formulations are possible. The key point is not so much a particular theology of original sin, but that you believe that people are born fundamentally flawed before they receive any influence from their environment or make a single moral choice of their own. They are born, not just with the potential for evil, but with an inborn inclination towards it.
Why does it matter? What difference does it make to believe this?
If we as human beings are born flawed with an inborn inclination towards evil, and this will always be the case no matter how sophisticated our technology, how wealthy we become, or the laws that we craft, the systems we put in place or the institutions we found, then none of that really matters in the end. We can send a man to the moon and cure cancer, but your baby will still be born with the same inclination towards evil that you were born with.
The problem is not with human society or with human ignorance. The problem is with us. This shifts the burden. The problem is not “out there” in society and its systems, even its culture. The problem is “in here” with me. The primary task for forging and improving society is to work on my own personal moral, emotional and spiritual formation.
You might say, so what? Why shouldn’t we be working on human progress? And the conservative response should be is that none of these social changes, these economic changes, these technological changes will make us better human beings. Your children will be born with the same inclination towards evil that you were. And your grandchildren. And their grandchildren, the same.
And always the response is then, “We shouldn’t do anything, then?” And the answer should be, “Probably not.” We should be doing the same spiritual and moral formation towards a virtuous life that always served us well in the past. It is far more likely that if we meddle with society and structures that we will make things worse rather than better. We all know that societies need to adapt or they will die, but change at the level of a society should be something slow and careful, something organic. The idea that we can engineer a society from scratch using reason alone is a fools game destined for disaster. The conservative would argue that flawed people with an inborn inclination towards evil are the very ones trying to engineer a utopian society. The progressive experiment has been run long enough that the evidence is in. Acting on the Myth of Progress has not brought us to utopia or the end of history. It is hurtling us towards disasters of a global nature.
Here at the end of the piece, I am going to add my conclusion that comes specifically out of my Christian faith commitment. The Christian faith argues that we as human beings lack the power or ability to fix ourselves on our own. I don’t want to get into theological wrangling over the specifics, but we need divine help to overcome our human inclination towards evil. The real crime of the Myth of Progress is that it places the burden for our condition upon us, for us to create for ourselves our own utopia. The Christian faith relieves us of the burden of having to save the world. God already did that through Jesus. Through faith in Jesus we are given the strength and power to make positive changes in our lives. That should be enough. This is also why discipleship and personal formation were much higher on Jesus’ agenda than getting your theology right or building wildly successful churches or the transformation of society. This is really the essence of what the community of believers is supposed to be about: helping each other towards our formation in the image of Christ.
Because Jesus has lifted the burden of salvation from us, we don’t have to save the world. Our task is not to end poverty, or racism, or injustice or any of the other progressive shibboleths. As long as people continue to be born with an inclination towards evil, there will always be greed, oppression, hatred and so forth. Our task, when we confront instances of these is to do the virtuous thing. We aid the poor because it is the right thing to do, not because we are trying to end poverty. We treat people who look different than us well because it is the right thing to do, not because we are trying to end racism.
How we get from a situation where we are a society obsessed with science, technology, systems, institutions, changing and managing society with the goal of creating the progressive utopia, to a place where the bulk of our energy is spent dealing with our own personal formation, our own spiritual and moral well being, I do not know. I do know that this would be a smaller world, a closer world, a more intimate world. We would have to invite others into “our business” because no one is truly capable of knowing themselves. This is a world very different from ours where so many of us have just the right plan to solve all the problems society faces. Don’t believe the lie.