I regard progressivism as basically a movement on behalf of Big Government in all walks of the economy and society…
- Murray Rothbard
I have written here about how Christianity can play its part in moving toward a society better grounded in liberty. To summarize: civil law should be aimed against violations of person and property – basically violations of the non-aggression principle (recognizing that’s application of this principle gets a bit tough at the edges); it is the role of other institutions – and, I argue, Christianity in the form of churches – to properly teach moral instruction.
Here, I will examine what I consider as the wrong means for Christians to achieve these ends – and a means by which much of the destruction of liberty that we have seen since the turn of the last century gained its force. Christians offered Sauron the ring and then thought they could then control him.
World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals, by Murray Rothbard
This essay can also be found as Chapter 13 in The Progressive Era, written by Murray Rothbard and edited by Patrick Newman. I will focus on one specific aspect of the essay, and that focus is best described as follows:
Also animating both groups of progressives was a postmillennial pietist Protestantism that had conquered "Yankee" areas of northern Protestantism by the 1830s and had impelled the pietists to use local, state, and finally federal governments to stamp out "sin," to make America and eventually the world holy, and thereby to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.
By “both groups,” Rothbard is writing of “a fusion or coalition between various groups of big businessmen, led by the House of Morgan, and rising groups of technocratic and statist intellectuals.” These intellectuals include not just academicians, but “also all manner of opinion-molders in society — writers, journalists, preachers, scientists, activists of all sort — what Hayek calls ‘secondhand dealers in ideas.’”
For those unfamiliar with postmillennialism:
In Christian end-times theology (eschatology), postmillennialism…is an interpretation of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation which sees Christ's second coming as occurring after the "Millennium", a Golden Age in which Christian ethics prosper.
So, my focus will be on the role of these “postmillennial pietist Protestants” in using state power to advance their social agenda. This would then hasten the Second Coming, as a thousand years of purity was required before Jesus would return.
It was this desire to harness state power as the means by which human beings can be made pure for Christ (I am gagging as I write these words) that made it possible for others to then use the state to usurp the traditional role of Christianity in society: that of being the moral teacher, that of helping the poor and disadvantaged, that of holding civil authority accountable. And guess what? While these others appreciated using the state as the means, they most certainly didn’t see Christian morality as the end.
With that, let’s look at Rothbard:
…I am convinced that the war [World War I] came to the United States as the "fulfillment," the culmination, the veritable apotheosis of progressivism in American life.
This is a powerful statement: it is in World War I where progressivism reached its fulfillment. The ultimate ends, or purpose, of progressivism was to be found in this war – this war that Jacques Barzun and others describe as the suicide of the West, this war that was the fruit of killing God, as Nietzsche’s madman predicted and as Solzhenitsyn would later record.
Progressivism could only lead here, and it was here that it achieved its ultimate end. And Rothbard dedicates at least this chapter (maybe many others; I have not read the entire book), to the role that postmillennial pietist Protestants played in the United States in bringing on this end (and, of course, all of the “gifts” that have continued in the century since).
…most [intellectuals] combined in their thought and agitation messianic moral or religious fervor with an empirical, allegedly "value-free," and strictly "scientific" devotion to social science.
Rothbard has written a good amount on the risk of “value-free” social science when it comes to the possibility of achieving liberty. And, of course, no scientist approaches his science in a value-free manner; value-free is just used as code. Often, but not always, it is meant to imply no revelation – meaning no Christianity.
One of the few important omissions in Professor [Robert] Higgs's book [Crisis and Leviathan] is the crucial role of postmillennial pietist Protestantism in the drive toward statism in the United States. Dominant in the "Yankee" areas of the North from the 1830s…
This politically influential subset of Christians saw the State as the instrument through which they would stamp out sin and Christianize the social order – thus speeding Jesus’s return and bringing on their hoped-for thousand-year reign.
Citing Professor James H. Timberlake:
According to this view, the Christian's duty was to use the secular power of the state to transform culture so that the community of the faithful might be kept pure and the work of saving the unregenerate might be made easier.
They would preach a Social Gospel. An important leader in this regard was Rev. Josiah Strong, through his monthly journal The Gospel of the Kingdom.
…in the July 1914 issue, The Gospel of the Kingdom hailed the progressive spirit that was at last putting an end to "personal liberty"
World War One would start that same month. Citing Strong:
We are no longer frightened by that ancient bogy — "paternalism in government." We affirm boldly, it is the business of government to be just that — Paternal. Nothing human can be foreign to a true government.
Amazingly, they thought that they could harness the power of the one ring that could rule them all. Tolkien would write his book about sixty years too late. These pietists believed that this power could be used not just in the United States, but exported throughout the world. Starting with World War One.
Via entry in the war, the dreams of the progressive prohibitionists could be fulfilled. Food production, placed under Hoover, meant that there was now a vehicle through which grain for alcohol use could be prohibited. Even beer – the favorite of the out-of-favor German Catholics and Lutherans – would be banned.
Next came women’s suffrage and the vote, greatly increasing the ranks of pietist voters. Citing Susan B. Anthony:
There is an enemy of the homes of this nation and that enemy is drunkenness. …I say, if you believe in chastity, if you believe in honesty and integrity, then take the necessary steps to put the ballot in the hands of women.
Hoover would enlist the cooperation of the nation’s women in his quest for food industry cartelization: all for the good of “’conservation’ and elimination of ‘waste,’” as Rothbard puts it. In addition to food control, another important and immediate function of the Woman's Committee was to attempt to register every woman in the country for possible volunteer or paid work in support of the war effort. Every woman aged sixteen or over was asked to sign and submit a registration card with all pertinent information, including training, experience, and the sort of work desired.
In 1910, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., like his father a pietist Baptist, was chairman of a special grand jury to investigate and to try to stamp out prostitution in New York City. For Rockefeller, the elimination of prostitution was to become an ardent and lifelong crusade. He believed that sin, such as prostitution, must be criminated, quarantined, and driven underground through rigorous suppression.
Then there was the New Republic magazine:
…founded in 1914 as the leading intellectual organ of progressivism, was a living embodiment of the burgeoning alliance between big-business interests, in particular the House of Morgan, and the growing legion of collectivist intellectuals.
All of this power granted to the state would soon be turned from a postmillennial progressive Christian statism to progressive secular statism.
[John Dewey] he was far more interested in the wonderful changes that the war would surely bring about in the domestic American polity. In particular, war offered a golden opportunity to bring about collectivist social control in the interest of social justice.
We are value-free, after all. This desired marriage of church and state was certain to end in dominance, if not divorce, as power doesn’t really like to be told what to do.
"Why should not the war serve," the [New Republic] magazine asked, "as a pretext to be used to foist innovations upon the country?" In that way, progressive intellectuals could lead the way in abolishing "the typical evils of the sprawling half-educated competitive capitalism."
The ends of this progressivist agenda is war, as Rothbard offered in the title of this chapter. War as fulfillment, beatitudo – turning the proper ends of man into horror.
These postmillennial pietist Protestants thought that they could control the one ring that would rule them all. We saw that even Frodo was not immune to the power of the ring, succumbing at the last moment, at the edge of the abyss.
Such a ring should be in the hands of no human being; it will only bring out the worst in people, and it will be the worst of the worst who will end up with it. As long as the ring existed, it would return to Sauron.
Christianity does have its proper role to play in securing liberty against the over-reach of the state. It is far from playing that role today, still dancing with the state that has happily taken control of the ring. Yet every day we are left playing a losing battle – both for Christian ethics and for liberty.