A Theological Response to Progressive Christian Politics
Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas depicts a libertine utopia of peace, orgies, and drugs — Omelas — whose bliss is made possible by the perpetual suffering of a single child. Even though LeGuin herself was a committed pro-abortion activist, her critique of ideologies predicated on the suffering of children was insightful. Contemporary America, especially post-Covid, is built upon the exploitation of the suffering of children. And one of the chief causes of this suffering is the humanitarian vision itself.
The humanitarian society prioritizes comfort and desire over morality. Suffering is imagined as a problem to eliminate, rather than a form of meaning and potential source of growth. As a consequence, humanitarianism becomes increasingly aggressive as it confronts the frustrating truth about humanity.
Isabel Paterson argues that the humanitarian destruction is inevitable: “The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others […] The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God. But he is confronted by two awkward facts; first, that the competent do not need his assistance; and second, that the majority of people […] positively do not want to be ‘done good’ by the humanitarian […] Of course, what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine.”
The history of revolutionary movements tells the story of this cycle. The dark side of humanity is also part of the reality of human nature. Humanitarianism rejects reality in favor of delusional idealism, whose inevitable disillusionment leads to contempt for human beings. Humane societies, by contrast, grasp the nettle, and love man as he really is.
There is no escaping from the fact that human nature is severe and cruel. Farmers can distinguish between humane and inhumane methods for slaughtering animals, but animals must still be slaughtered. The justice system can administer humane criminal punishments, but punishment must be administered. Doctors can choose humane ways of prescribing or withholding medications and end-of-life care, but suffering, and ultimately death, is certain. Just because an action, institution, or society is humane doesn’t mean it’s pleasant: only that all other alternatives are worse.
Humanitarian societies affirm a doctrine of progressive utopianism, which includes a belief in the perfectibility of human nature. Progressivism can be theorized as a Christian heresy, which transformed the concept of imago dei into a humanistic apotheosis. The doctrine of human rights essentially secularized (and flattened) the Christian concept of imago dei to establish the humanitarian vision. But imago dei originally conferred responsibilities as well as rights. The original idea must be reasserted against the unbalanced and destructive pseudo-Christian progressivism which dominates the West today.
Christianity has not always spoken in one voice on the meaning of imago dei. Augustine, often credited for formalizing the doctrine, believed man to have been created in God’s image and likeness, and drew a distinction between them. Image is capacity for reason and free choice, whereas likeness is the natural tendency to use these capacities for good. With the Fall, man retained the image of God, but lost his likeness. Consequently, imago dei conceived as the model form of human dignity became the basis for the possibility of natural rights.
This view was undermined by the “total depravity” doctrine of the Reformation. In his Lectures on Genesis, Martin Luther called Augustine’s position “very dangerous” and maintained that man had also “lost the image through sin” along with the likeness. Following Luther, a major strain of German Reformed, English Puritan and Calvinist thought pushed Christian theology further towards a view that was neither humane nor humanitarian, but almost anti-human, rejecting any innate value in man or hope of redemption, except for a small group of predestined elect.
Nonetheless, before reformed theology could be adapted to political realities, it was blocked by popular demand. Hemmed in by majority and state-sponsored denominations, the Puritans and other groups needed to deploy a doctrine that could support the freedom of religion for minority sects. Instead of jettisoning man’s innate value, as Luther sought to do, political theologians reinterpreted imago dei as a doctrine of the natural right of liberty.
From the 17th century’s English Revolution emerged a “human rights” anthropology based on a reductive conception of the imago dei which has dominated Western political thought ever since. This doctrine was the founding axiom of progressive anthropology, and marked the beginning of an ever-expanding definition of rights that was gradually stripped of all responsibility. Finally, this idea would merge with secular progressivism in writings like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights advocated and influenced by the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain.
Because the post-Lutheran doctrine of the imago dei is where many of the problems of progressive theology originate, there is value in recovering the pre-Lutheran understanding of the term. This view holds that the imago dei may be imperishable, but it is not immutable. By acting either in accordance with the imago dei or against it, humans may either enhance or diminish the divine within themselves — never completely ‘losing’ it, like the loss of the likeness in the Fall, but obscuring it to the point of illegibility.
Maximus the Confessor stands out as the theologian most widely credited with the formulation of this doctrine. In his Four Centuries on Charity, Maximus argued that human actions cannot alter human nature, but can change an individual’s mode of being in the world such that the imago dei is buried beneath sin. This is today the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church as part of its definitive Catechism on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights. According to the catechism, the image of God can be darkened or illumined depending on the choices of a free individual, while the natural dignity becomes more apparent in his life, or obliterated by sin. A morally undignified life cannot destroy God-given human dignity, but it can darken it to the point of indiscernibility.
These two versions of the imago dei – the post-Lutheran conception of the imago dei as an innate natural right, and the pre-Lutheran idea of a duty to God-given human dignity – serve as foundations for two different types of societies. From a liberal perspective, one is repressive, and the other is tolerant. From an illiberal perspective, one is orderly, while the other is degenerate. In practice, the humane society will pursue the natural interests of most people in the society, whereas the humanitarian society generates the politics we have now: a religion of altruism for society’s “liminal members” that typically functions as an alibi for special interests.
Almost all of today’s economic policy debates boil down to the debate between these two competing anthropologies, and their respective socio-economic visions. This has never been more clear than in the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, where a concerted effort was made to demonize and suppress humane policies, in favor of humanitarian plans. But humanitarianism has been America’s dominant legislative approach for at least sixty years. As Christopher Caldwell argues in The Age of Entitlement, America’s originally humane constitutional governance was transformed in the ’60s to a new constitution based on humanitarian principles that subordinate political and social conflict to the legalistic language of civil or human rights.
The implications of this shift are today a systemic issue for social welfare, environmental protection, foreign policy, the justice system, and every other area of government. The problem is not simply that the humanitarian Left is ascendant, but that humanitarian anthropology is hegemonic on both the Left and the Right. There is no humane party in American politics.
The clearest example is with respect to the American welfare state. The prevailing narrative is that Republicans oppose the welfare state, but this isn’t true. Republicans and Democrats share a roughly equal legacy in social spending, despite the rhetoric their politicians use. During his re-election campaign, President Trump announced a $500 billion welfare package exclusively for black Americans, not because of COVID-19, but as a negotiation with black voters in response to the recent riots in American cities. The plan recalled President George W. Bush’s racially-earmarked “A Home of Your Own” (HOYO), which led directly to the mortgage bubble and 2008 crash. “Republicans believe that every child, of every race – born and unborn – is made in the holy image of God. Republicans believe that all human life is sacred,” explained then-President Trump. In short, Republicans are imago dei humanitarians.
The humanitarian welfare economy will eventually destroy the country, if it hasn’t already. Take the public school system, which grows closer to a combination of a daycare system and a prison system each year. As Robert Weissberg put it: “Fixing schools may well subvert the social peace […] ‘Reforming education’ has grown into an anti-poverty program in sheep-skin clothing.” Using the education system as a welfare system has triggered the massive growth of suburbs, as homeowners pay through the nose for the right to a crime-free neighborhood by extending their work commutes further and further from inner-city school districts.
Humanitarianism has also done considerable injury to America’s industrial, foreign, and immigration policy. Today, ten-figure incentives push corporate ESG policies and federal agencies to forcefully limit energy production, transportation, and other necessities of modern life. This is because the environmental movement has undergone a radical shift of focus in the last half-century from a humane purpose — clean land, air, and water — to a humanitarian purpose focused on a crusade against climate change. In reality, this crusade is not about the environment, but about maximizing the wealth and power of the crusaders. As former climate activist and independent candidate for Governor of California Michael Shellenberger explains in Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, the so-called “Green New Deal” has no clear goal except diverting hundreds of billions of dollars to connected special interests. This is not just an attack on taxpayers, but also on small business owners who cannot compete with the regulatory power of corporate lobbyists.
A similar story prevails in foreign and immigration policy. Both are now political lightning rods because Americans have begun to realize that the humanitarian rhetoric of politicians and experts is a reliable recipe for political chaos and violence. The “Bush Doctrine” that brought Americans into the endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars was humanitarian to the core. President Bush spoke of a “global democratic revolution” as the “right and capacity of all mankind.” According to a 2019 study by researchers at Brown University, this humanitarian revolution has so far cost $6.4 trillion in taxpayer dollars and caused 929,000 (mostly civilian) deaths. The most recent episode in America’s humanitarian foreign policy is the hundreds of billions of dollars (and counting) that our politicians are sending to defense industry contractors via the war in Ukraine. The tax-and-spend foreign aid giveaway has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, and its single mainstream media skeptic – Tucker Carlson – was summarily fired last week.
Humanitarian rhetoric also lies behind mass immigration policies. The mainstream immigration narrative is organized around slogans of “human dignity” and “seeking a better life,” covering for a mix of electoral ambitions to import new Democrat voters, sometimes stated explicitly, and a corporate demand for cheap labor. In his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell summarizes the hybrid capitalist and socialist argument for mass migration which now exists across the West, by saying that migrants take the jobs nobody wants, to pay for a social safety net that an aging population can’t support.
With mass migration to both Europe and America increasing as a result of America’s “humanitarian” wars in the Middle East, purging humanitarianism from foreign policy and immigration policy has become an urgent political necessity. But efforts to do so often remain caught in the humanitarian trap. The sociologist George Borjas, for instance, has argued that immigration never economically benefits the workers of the host country, while R. R. Reno has argued that mass immigration drains human capital from the country of origin, sometimes beyond the point of no return. Despite their border hawk stance, both Borjas and Reno use the same humanitarian arguments employed by their opponents, only in reverse. The humane position, that the well-being of foreigners should not weigh into a state’s political considerations, is rarely considered. Only fringe political figures now make this argument, such as when Bernie Sanders told Vox in 2015: “Open borders is a Koch brothers proposal. It’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States.”
The final and perhaps most destructive dimension of modern humanitarianism is the policy debate surrounding the criminal justice system. The anti-police, anti-incarceration reform movement that seeks to marry “compassionate” policing and corrections with cheaper prison spending is explicitly anchored in claims about rights, often supplemented with arguments about racial disparity and/or racial discrimination. Prisoners are at higher risk for disease and other health concerns. Do they not have a right to health? Sometimes, it is claimed, they are no danger to society. Do they not have a right to free movement? Thanks to the humanitarian impulse, our major cities are now overrun with violence and lawlessness. Society’s ‘liminal members’ (aka criminal members) now occupy their own sovereign territories such as autonomous zones, sanctuary cities, and homeless encampments.
Welfare, education, industry, war, immigration, prisons — the full spectrum of US policymaking is dominated by humanitarianism – and the results are clear to see. True, ideal Christian societies must attempt to alleviate human suffering. But Christianity does not imply humanitarianism. The Christian societies of the past were prepared to defend their borders, punish criminals, humiliate corrupt politicians, and build monuments to greatness and to God. We should learn from their example to present a moral vision of what could be built on a humane foundation.