Plus Ça Change…

I’ve just finished an excellent book: The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. The author is Richard M. Gamble, who holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair in History and Politics at Hillsdale College.

The book covers the period leading up to, and immediately following, the First World War — a time when original Progressivism was in its fullest flower. For students of the evolution of modern Progressivism from the Puritans to our contemporary, hegemonic cryptoreligion, this is a fascinating period: an era of radical transformation in American Christianity. It was during this time that our holometabolous national religion began to pupate; it would in the latter half of the twentieth century complete the metamorphosis into its pestiferous adult form, with its God, and its soteriology, completely transformed and radically downgraded. The runup to the Great War was when the chrysalis began to develop.

It likely won’t be news to my historically literate readers on the Right, but something the average “Progressive” of today might not realize about this era was how thoroughly, and overtly, soaked in religion it was. So completely has the national religion become secularized in the past few decades, and so zealous the mission to expunge all reference to God from public life, that it may be startling to see the central role that theism, and the discernable will of the Almighty, played in all the great affairs of the day. If you have imagined that America joined the war for purely political, strategic, or economic reasons, you are missing, perhaps, the biggest part of the picture: a dominating idea, widely shared by the nation’s clerical, academic, journalistic, and political elites, that America was called to do Christ’s work on Earth — and that by taking arms against the pagan Huns, God’s chosen nation would wield His flaming sword of righteousness.

We read:

The consensus among the “right thinking” press seemed clear. … This was a war between the age of monarchy and the age of democracy. From the beginning of the war, many Americans interpreted the tumult as no ordinary rivalry among nations, but rather as an abstract war emptied of its historical content and infused with a transcendent significance, as a total war between absolutes: democracy against autocracy, Christian civilization against pagan barbarism, Good against Evil. Considering the temper of the times, it is not surprising that Americans interpreted the Great War as an event of profound religious significance. The early twentieth century was pervaded by a deep religious sensibility—at least by a certain kind of religious temper evident in the era’s metaphors and images, a spiritual atmosphere in which Teddy Roosevelt’s stand at Armageddon in the 1912 election accompanied by the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers” made sense. To ignore this feature of American life circa 1914 is to miss the key to understanding the way many Americans interpreted world events.

The event was of such “profound religious significance” in no small part because mainstream American religion itself had undergone a profound — and to many of the traditional clergy, deeply misguided — transformation.

From the beginning of the Puritan settlement of America there had been a sense of a new covenant, of a “mission into the wilderness”. While the traditional “Pilgrim” narrative has made the story one of flight from persecution, the Puritans actually sought, perhaps foremost, to fly from what they saw as a sinful and corrupted English society. Here in the New World they could make a new beginning, and they believed they were given the chance to create God’s Kingdom here on Earth. The aim, as throughout Christian history, was the salvation of their own souls, but they believed that a Godly city would be evidence of their fidelity to the new covenant, and so a just God would allow them not only to survive in this hard and dangerous place, but even to prosper. In early years, Calvinist predestination — the belief that salvation was given only by God’s grace, and not through our own good works — prevailed. This was always controversial, though, and as time went by the competing idea, that Man could actually have an active hand in his own salvation, came to the fore. Increasingly, then, the sense of earthly mission became more and more directly associated, not merely with currying God’s favor for the well-being of the community, but with individual salvation.

What happened in the Progressive era, however, was that the social mission completely overturned and usurped the traditional concept of salvation itself. Working toward God no longer meant work on oneself for the saving of one’s individual soul, which now was scorned as sinful self-interest; the only soteriological pathway now ran through the collective, right here on Earth.

This was a major rupture in Christian belief, one that flew in the face of Christ’s own distinction between Caesar and God, the distinction that Augustine had made so clear in The City of God:

While maintaining that history possessed meaning and ultimately accomplished the will of God, Augustine saw no reason to believe that God was incrementally transforming this fallen world into His kingdom. Rather than a literal, thousand-year reign of peace, the millennial kingdom existed as the spiritual kingdom of God’s elect. It flourished as a union of the saints—both living and dead—in the one “City of God,” while the groaning creation struggled on as the “City of Man” awaiting the consummation of the ages. In the meantime, God desired His people to seek an eternal, rather than a temporal, kingdom. The progressive clergy, on the other hand, while retaining Augustine’s conception of unilinear history, removed the key distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. They fused sacred and secular history into a quest for temporal salvation and redirected the historical process toward the goal of an everlasting Golden Age…

… The doctrine of divine immanence, like the developmentalist theory of history, was inseparable from the progressive clergy’s rejection of Augustine’s two cities. Their consolidation of the City of Man and the City of God into one holy metropolis united the work of man and the work of God; it fused politics and religion into a single redemptive work. As historian Arlie J. Hoover noted in his comparative study of the British and German clergy during the First World War, the doctrine of immanence verges close to pantheism, and thus “the cleft between sacred and secular is bridged; every secular pursuit becomes ipso facto a service to God, including love of country.” Moreover, to the immanentalist mind, “culture is merely a continuous demonstration of God’s will for mankind.” By placing God within the historical process and by universalizing the kingdom of God, Hoover continued, “immanental theology practically erases the distinction between the two cities.” While this confusion might seem to have been an inconsequential by-product of the progressives’ untethered imagination, its implications both for the church and for civil society were profound. To combine the two citizenships is to venture to build the City of God through human agency, to assume the place and activity of God Himself, to presume to know His will and conceive of oneself as the instrument of that will. Fusing the two cities can lead, in principle and in practice, to political absolutism by enlisting the transcendent order into the service of the secular state. In its most extreme expression, as philosopher Eric Voegelin noted, this fateful tendency appeared in modern totalitarianism. In these political movements “the Christian faith in transcendent perfection through the grace of God has been converted—and perverted—into the idea of immanent perfection through an act of man.”

This has powerful and frightening implications:

To maintain the distinction between the two cities means that there are realms beyond the reach of Caesar; to remove the distinction is to render all unto Caesar, even if one claims the whole while, as the progressive clergy certainly did, that one is rendering all unto God…

… Writing in 1914, Princeton’s stubborn classicist and doubter of progress Paul Elmer More saw the new earthly minded, humanitarian religion as symptomatic of the general decline of the age: “For one sermon you will hear on the obligation of the individual soul to its maker and judge, and on the need of regeneration and the beauty of holiness, you will hear a score on the relation of a man to his fellows and on the virtues of social sympathy.” In short, More feared, humanitarianism had “usurped the place of religion.”

(Note, as always with leftward movements, the relentless leveling, the flattening of organic hierarchies. Here, we see Heaven itself shot down from the sky.)

Many in the clergy and in academia had, until the beginning of the war, been staunch pacifists. But there was a wave of prominent conversions as influential thinkers began, at first gradually and then quite suddenly, to see the conflict as a literal Crusade, a Christian war “to end war”. The deeply religious Woodrow Wilson was a notable convert; in 1905 he had said “There is a mighty task before us and it welds us together. It is to make the United States a mighty Christian nation and to Christianize the World.” H.G. Wells was another:

A noted advocate of international reorganization for perpetual peace, [Wells’s] ideas served as something of a model for liberal thought in America. In an article published in the New York Times on August 5, the day the peace delegates resumed their work in London, Wells called the war “righteous” and claimed his homeland wielded a “sword drawn for peace.” German ambition, he argued, thwarted civilization’s progress, and the spoiler had to be confronted. With German militarism defeated, Europe could then pursue the ways of peace and end the bloody age of armaments. He hated war, he told his American readers, but this was war of a different order. The war’s outbreak had not destroyed his hope for peace but rather had provided the very means to achieve it. This was a war for peace.

Professor Gamble comments here:

Wells’s logic revealed how easily the progressive mind floated between pacifism and war.

A quibble: what it reveals, I think, is not the fickleness Gamble suggests, but rather that the pacifism of men like Wells was simply a means to a higher end: to wit, ultimate peace and the Kingdom of God on Earth. If that higher end required the sacrifice and slaughter of millions instead of disarmament, so be it. No “floating” here, then, but fidelity to a higher principle.

The transformation and usurpation of traditional Christianity by the Progressive clergy didn’t stop there. It would not be enough for America simply to be Christ’s champion on Earth. For many caught in the sudden fever of holy war, the American nation was to become Christ Himself: the Son of Man physically dying for the salvation of others. The Broadway Tabernacle’s pastor had this to say (my emphasis):

Charles Jefferson summarized the liberals’ postwar enthusiasm well when he connected America, the servant nation, to the league [of Nations]: If we are true to our high calling, we shall always remain a servant. It is America’s high mission among the nations to be the servant of all. We are big and rich and strong, and therefore our service should be constant and generous. There is no permanent happiness for us as a people unless we go up and down the earth doing good. Our foreordained place is in a League of Nations because God created us to serve. Appealing to an unlikely image, unlikely at least for a Protestant minister who might otherwise have been expected to represent the Atonement as a finished work, Jefferson pictured Christ perpetually suffering on the cross, “dying in order to build a better world.” The immanent God suffered with mankind during the war and continued to do so during the peace. The war had taught the need for “great and constant self-sacrifice.” Without such ongoing sacrifice, it would be impossible “for humanity to be saved.” The progressive clergy’s image of America as the suffering servant—as the crucified Messiah—continued undiminished into the postwar era.

In other words: invade the world, invite the world — forever, or until God’s Kingdom On Earth is complete, whichever comes first. And if the nation serves as Christ’s proxy, then questioning the mission can only be the Devil’s work:

As the Nation perceived as early as October 1914, every side in the struggle claimed to be fighting for righteousness: “Each nation believes earnestly that it is in the right; that the war was forced upon it; that it is battling for righteousness and for civilization itself.” But in the case of the United States, the progressive clergy helped furnish the emotional and intellectual elements necessary for its side of this “war for righteousness.” The danger was not the progressives’ claim that God had a purpose in allowing the European War, but their special insight into God’s intentions. Knowing that God has a purpose in calamity is very different from knowing what that purpose is. The progressive clergy claimed to be able to read and to reveal what God was doing and why he was doing it. Moreover, they claimed to be the tool to carry out that divine purpose. This attitude created a single-minded passion, with, as Butterfield said, no room for compromise, or limited aims, or dissent. They transported the war out of the sordid but understandable realm of national ambition, rivalry, and interests—where policies and goals can be debated and defined—into the rarefied world of ideals, abstractions, and politicized theology, where dissent and limitations are moral failures or even heresies.

Dissent there was, however:

From Princeton Theological Seminary in 1923, J. Gresham Machen fired another salvo at Protestant liberalism in his Christianity and Liberalism, which Walter Lippmann later called “the best popular argument produced by either side in the current controversy.” Machen acknowledged the dramatic changes that had swept the world in the past hundred years, and he agreed with the liberals’ assessment of the basic question facing Christianity in the contemporary world, namely, “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age?” From this point on, however, he disagreed sharply with the progressive clergy. It was one thing to admit that the world was changing, but quite another to say that Christianity had to change along with it. Machen proposed that liberalism had not rescued Christianity at all but rather had substituted something alien in its place. Liberalism had constructed an entirely new religion that diverged from the historic faith in every basic doctrine, from the nature of God and man, to the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church…

… In 1924 Irving Babbitt, another relentless critic of the progressives, pointed to the dark side of the “crusading spirit,” a temper he considered to be the dominating feature of American life and thought, and which certainly typified the reformist clergy. This national idealism was so strong, he warned, that it was “becoming the dangerous privilege of the United States to display more of the crusading temper than any other country in both its domestic and its foreign policies.” He noted how thin the line was that separated the desire of the “uplifters” for “sacrifice” from their desire for control. Prohibition and other reforms, he cautioned, were being driven by the “will to power.”

And so it is today. A century later, nothing has changed at all, except for one Big Thing: having emerged from its chrysalis, the adult form of religious Progressivism — which is, make no mistake about it, the official religion of all major institutions in the modern West as I write, dissent from which is very poorly tolerated — no longer speaks of God and Christ. Why? Mencius Moldbug explains:

How did we fall for this? How did we enable an old, well-known strain of Christianity to mutate and take over our minds, just by discarding a few bits of theological doctrine and describing itself as “secular”? (As La Wik puts it: “Despite occasional confusion, secularity is not synonymous with atheism.” Indeed.)

In other words, we have to look at the adaptive landscape of ultracalvinism. What are the adaptive advantages of crypto-Christianity? Why did those Unitarians, or even “scientific socialists,” who downplayed their Christian roots, outcompete their peers?

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious, really. The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.

As I’ve said before, separation of church and state is a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. What you really need is separation of information and security. If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer. Game over, you lose, and it serves you right for vaccinating against a nonfunctional surface protein.

In other words: a near-universal religious impulse that was powerful enough to impel the nation to global war as recently as 1917 doesn’t simply vanish in a few decades. America, and the modern West, is every bit as religious as it ever was.

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  1. Whitewall says

    Quite chilling really. I can’t think of any current plan or organized movement with sufficient clout to stop this ‘Progressive Religion’ and the damage done. Will this “Religion” continue to succeed until the end when it fails? Maybe it must be allowed to play through until its believers get their just desserts. At that point, whoever is left with enough old knowledge, can begin to rebuild.

    It would be helpful I guess if there were enough traditional Christian preachers to begin explaining this movement from their pulpits…but then how many congregations of today would even have the mental tools to grasp what he is preaching and why.

    Posted July 30, 2017 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  2. Bill says

    Whitewall has hit the nail on the head: “…how many congregations of today would even have the mental tools to grasp what he preaching and why.”

    For that we can thank the teachers.

    Posted July 31, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  3. Gamble gives us a great insight, equally true today of the Left: “Wells’s logic revealed how easily the progressive mind floated between pacifism and war.”

    One aspect of the situation, beyond the scope of this post, is why people buy into these somewhat utopian schemes. My guess (emphasis on guess) is that we want to see a path to a better future for the world — in which humanity works together.

    Otherwise people see a world of war, perhaps atomic war, and endless conflict. If the only visions they are given are progressive, then many will take what is available.

    For a somewhat big picture look at this issue, see this list of inspirational films — with a sad conclusion:

    Posted July 31, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Whitewall says

    I guess this is well down the page to ever be seen, but with each passing day, the subject of this particular blog entry becomes self evident. Also, the same goes for Moldbug’s take on it. It took me a while to see it all. Denial is the first hurdle to overcome.

    Posted August 4, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink