The end of July marks the calm before the political storm. In the United States, the presidential election promises to be rather contentious. Both parties have markedly different versions of what’s wrong and how to go forward. However, hubris might cloud both visions. We might actually be facing dead ends.
In political campaigns, these are the desultory days before the spigot of Super PAC money is opened wide. The torrent of funds whips up enthusiasts while washing away real debate regarding the issues at hand. Both parties seek to persuade voters with what are essentially fallacious arguments. By definition, a fallacy is an emotionally appealing argument that proves nothing. For Republicans, the central fallacy is pragmatism. For Democrats, it’s progressivism. Both however are dead ends.
Pragmatism is the fallacy that if something works, it’s right. It gained currency in the 19th century with the Robber Barons, including John D. Rockefeller. He cornered the market on oil, proving to be a pragmatic capitalist with a thin veneer of Christian faith. But the Robber Barons proved largely indifferent to the income inequalities they created. They lived in opulence while Lyndon Johnson’s family grew up in West Texas in conditions similar to the Middle Ages. Pragmatism yields an attitude of entitlement, not justice. It says I earned it – I deserve it. The outcome is often indifference to the plight of the poor.
Progressivism is a reaction to pragmatism. Seeing the ruinous effects of the Robber Barons, progressives sought to remedy inequality with more government (and a nod to God). The ever-expanding state would prove wise in redistributing greedy gain. This required an ever-expanding cadre of educated elites who would act as moral authorities, redistributing income. The fallacy of progressivism is assuming elites are virtuous by dint of an elite education. In the general public, it stokes an attitude of envy, not responsibility. It says Your gains are ill-gotten – I want them.
With the stock market crash of 1929, pragmatists got their pants pulled down. Washington began to eclipse Wall Street as a center of power. The city became crowded with crony capitalists lobbying for expanding free markets. They cozied up to Republicans. Progressives argued for expanding laws to regulate markets. They cozied up to Democrats. The problem on both ends is the moral middle is collapsing.
The moral middle is the center domain, one of three that constitute societies. The domain of law is on one end, where John Fletcher Moulton said “our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” It’s progressive turf. At the other end is free choice that “includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.” It’s pragmatist turf. But between law and free choice is “the domain of obedience to the unenforceable,” the moral middle. In the healthiest societies, this is the biggest domain. Pragmatism and progressivism present a problem because they seek endlessly to expand free choice and law, encroaching on the moral middle and shrinking it. Pragmatism makes too much of free choice; progressivism, the law. When you make too much of anything, it becomes an idol.
In Hosea 8:4, we read how Israel got in trouble – “they made idols for their own destruction.” Herbert Schlossberg has surveyed the idols of modern life, including historicism, the view that whatever is, is. Life has no transcendent meaning or morality, so pragmatism is all there is. Another idol is “ressentiment,” defined by Nietzsche as a hatred for the success of others, occasioned, usually, by envy.1 This idol, seen in progressivism, demands a leveling of distinctions and equalization of wealth. A third idol is the deification of the state that leads even Christians to look to Washington for help. But few see these as idols, since idols yield hubris, and hubris clouds vision.
In his book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart notes the hubris of pragmatism. It puts profits over purpose, hollowing out life and leaving an “underlying restlessness, a feeling of being cheated out of adventure.” Progressives on the other hand have a “soft and shallow concept of human nature” and an “unwarranted optimism about man.”2 This also yields hubris, displayed in the progressive Lyndon Johnson. “I understand you were born in a log cabin,” commented West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard [to Johnson] on a visit to the LBJ Ranch. “No, Mr. Chancellor,” Johnson replied. “You have me confused with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”
Hubris clouds the vision of pragmatists as well as progressives. They fail to see they’re dead ends – not a way forward. In fact, there is only one way out of a dead end – back to the beginning. The American experiment in self-government began with religion as the basis for creating virtuous citizens, but not as politicized Christians practice the faith. Laura Nash describes the majority of white, suburban evangelical CEOs as “justifiers.”3 They justify their faith in terms of pragmatism, or what works, and align mostly with the Christian Right. Younger, urban evangelicals are into “social justice.” They frame their faith in terms of progressivism and mostly align mostly with the Christian Left. Both however retain only a thin veneer of ancient Christianity because they fall prey to the idols of pragmatism, progressivism, and politicization.4
Ancient Christians gave heed to Origen’s warning. The Church Father said Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to idolize their gods. This means the way forward is not found in the Christian Right or Left but in a principled approach that plunders the best parts of pragmatism and progressivism – one that promotes good business and social justice while repudiating entitlement and envy.
1 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 51.
2 Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), p. 95.
3 Laura L. Nash, Believers in Business: Resolving the Tensions Between Christian Faith, Business Ethics, Competition and Our Definitions of Success (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994)
4 James Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010), p. 163.