The Utopian Urge
by Ryan McMaken
Gene Healy recently made a passing remark about this president’s "apocalyptic foreign policy," and unfortunately, such a statement is much more than simple hyperbole. With the end of the invasion phase of the war on Iraq, and the "warnings" given out to Iran, Syria, and now North Korea, there have been many among us who have not doubted the willingness of this administration to trash the old "two wars at once" doctrine and go for three or four. The true believers in the White House who have deluded themselves into believing that they are "doing God’s work" have no reason to think anything other than "full speed ahead," since after all, when you’re fighting evil incarnate, there is no need to stop and think about it.
These wars are just the most recent manifestation of the "crusading spirit" that infects the minds of Americans once or twice every generation, and they’re only the latest installment in the long sporadic history of American efforts to save the world from itself. In its current form, the most robust support behind this "liberation" of Iraq and the world has come from two groups: neoconservatives and post-millennial Christians. Both groups believe in using the United States to usher in a Golden Age of history, and although the former group has secular motivations, and the latter has religious ones, both groups are content to use the other to accomplish their utopian ends. Regardless of the motivations, the end result is a call for a global crusade in the form of Wilsonian foreign policy; a global mission bent on remaking the earth in the image of the American redeemer State.
While the players and some of the details of this passion for a global messianic mission are new, the impulse itself has a long and firmly embedded tradition in American political philosophy. And, as both Murray Rothbard and Gary North have Noted, the connection between this religious impulse and American liberal progressivism has always been close.
The root of this religious movement, known as pietism, came out of the great revival movement of the 1830’s in the thought of Charles Finney. It adhered to a belief that Christians are not only responsible for their own souls but that each individual must strive for the salvation of all mankind, not through prayer or through personal efforts, but, through the State. This was necessary, as individuals could not be trusted to act on their own given their depraved nature. The State, however, would allow mankind, through coercive action, to destroy sin and create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Eventually, the religion of the pietists would lead to the Republican Party-based movement against "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." This motto would succinctly sum up the pietist agenda of the 19th century: destroying "demon rum," destroying the Catholics, and opposing any efforts to undermine the power of the United States that was seen by the pietists as the "redeemer nation," the instrument that God would employ to create a new Jerusalem on Earth. In the 20th century, this drive for worldwide redemption through government would manifest itself in Wilsonian ideology that maintained that a revolutionary and perpetually peaceful world order could be established. By this time however, the pietist movement had given birth to a Social Gospel of liberal internationalism.
This kind of utopian State-worship is not confined to the United States, of course, and we can find it in Hegelian philosophy, and in all of its related ideologies (such as Marxism) and in some religious antecedents as well. In fact, as Rothbard has noted, attempts at religious utopias had been attempted often in Europe well before Hegel invented his own version of historical fulfillment.
This collectivist impulse to absorb the individual into righteous global crusades has not gone unopposed. Mainline Christian orthodoxy has always denied that man has any role in bringing about the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Catholic Church has often been at the forefront of this conflict, given its foundations in Augustinian thought about the inherent conflict between the "City of God" and the "City of Man," yet the Catholics have hardly been alone in this. Lutherans, most Calvinists, and evangelicals who are "pre-millennial" in their eschatology have opposed such movements, yet in the United States, the utopian impulse has lived on, and in both its religious, and its Social Gospel form, continues to guide the American vision of the State.
Hegel and Post-Millennial Theology
While Hegelian philosophy and American pietism differ radically in a number of ways, it is appropriate to regard both as kinds of post-millennial ideologies. That is, they both believe in a practical and instrumental role in human institutions in bringing about a utopian age of perfect justice. For the Hegelian, this is a period when corrupt individuals will finally be absorbed into the State apparatus and relieved of their corrupting and disruptive individualism. For the religious post-millennial (or "millenarian") ideology, the end goal is a purified world where Jesus Christ can return to establish the end times and the perpetual reign of heaven. Both ideologies, it turns out, require a strong and centralized State to administer the efforts to destroy the corrupt world and turn it into the perfect one.
Pre-millennial Christians, by contrast, believe that Christ will return whenever God the Father wills it, and many evangelical Christians even believe that the return will come, not when mankind is put in its holy place via the power of the State, but when mankind is in its most depraved, and morally bankrupt hour. We find a human society then, that is not progressing ever closer to God as Hegel or the pietists would say, but is either getting worse, or is simply not "progressing" in any direction at all.
Hegel’s secular version of this was of the state bringing about the perfection of man, not to herald the return of Christ, but to bring "the end of history" and to finish the development of human society and ideology by having the State finally attain the rational apex of human civilization. In fact, Hegel even believed that he had identified the central State apparatus that was to serve to hasten this drive toward the end of history: The Prussian State; the perfect bureaucratic, rational, and regimented state (and the same State that gave us public schooling). In this scenario, or course, the individual counts for nothing except in its status as an appendage of the state, for no mere human could attain such a lofty position as Hegel assigned it: "The modern State,…when comprehended philosophically, could therefore be seen as the highest articulation of Spirit, or God on the contemporary world." Hegel goes on to say that the State is "a supreme manifestation of the activity of God in the world"; "The State is the divine idea as it exists on earth," and so on.
It only stands to reason then, that for the post-millennial crowd, the more depraved the one finds humanity to be, the more drastic the measures that must be taken to correct mankind and get it rolling toward the Second Coming. Indeed, Western history gives us many small post-millennial movements to study, and in each case, we find that the more depraved humanity is found to be, the more totalitarian the state must be in order to set it right.
During the middle ages through the sixteenth century, this post-millennial fervor manifested itself in totalitarian and communist regimes that followed a general pattern: A great "prophet" of some kind would emerge and organize a band of loyal followers. After convincing his followers of his divine mission, and then of the utter depravity of all mankind everywhere, his followers must follow the new prophet by giving up all material possessions, "sharing" their wives, and, submitting in every way to the unilateral judgment of the divine leader. Eventually, the perfected community would go out into the broader world, put the sinners of the world to the sword, and finally make the world suitable for the second coming of Christ.
There were variations on these themes, yet all groups had in common a belief that the members of the "perfect" society would use their exceptional status to rid the earth of all sin and corruption. These groups originated in various ways. Many of them started out as Catholic heretics such as Joachim of Fiore or Nicholas of Basle of the "Brethren of the Free Spirit." Later, extreme Anabaptist groups and Lutheran splinter groups would get in on the action and set up their own Christ figures to purify the "Elect" and prepare them for the slaughter of the non-Elect. In many cases, the members of such groups considered themselves to be gods themselves, although of lesser purity than their exalted leaders. The logical conclusion, then was that not only were the lives of the non-elect forfeit, but all their property as well, so that while all the members of the saved community might be forced to "share" all their possessions in accordance with their divine leaders, they were always permitted to bring more wealth into the community of the Elect by murdering and taking the property (and wives) of outsiders.
Naturally, the "outsiders," who were often Catholic authorities or local secular leaders, found such movements to be rather significant threats to the maintenance of law and order. Thus, these little exclusive communities of the Elect all ended in similar ways. First, they impoverished themselves completely through their communal living, usually producing a situation where the rank-and-file millenarians wore rags while their "prophets" wore silk robes and jewels. And then, they were invariably overrun and destroyed by the armies of the "non-Elect," thus calling into question the divine nature of these Elect and their leaders. The survivors’ idealism rarely survived the deaths of their "prophets."
By the 19th century, however, such philosophies had become secularized into less divinely inspired rationales for communal authoritarianism, yet the basic tactics remained, as we find in the case of the pietists where the members did not believe themselves to be divine, but did nevertheless, believe that a secular State would provide the muscle for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, thus approximating the basic beliefs and tactics of their medieval post-millennials centuries before. In both the religious and the secular versions of this creed is a belief that the State founded by the enlightened few, and subject to no earthly law, is uniquely suited to accomplish what the individual cannot. The individual then becomes an afterthought in the cosmic struggles that only the State can win.
The Earthly City and Christian Orthodoxy
Christian orthodoxy, however, has always been a little less forgiving of the role of the State in human society. We find in a number of early Church communities a consuming emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, and a general philosophy of withdrawal from the secular life of the State. While, among early communities, we find some calls for permissiveness in participating in Roman society, there is a general suspicion of the usefulness, as well as the righteousness, of the State. Some such communities forbade their members from serving in the roman military or serving in positions of power within the Imperial government. Some historians have even referred to the early Christian communities as a "State within a State" for providing a competing source of protection and community outside of the Pagan civic religion of ancient Rome.
In fact, like the modern United States, Rome had a vibrant civic religion that connected "patriotism" to a kind of religious piety and demanded participation in Roman feast days and other celebrations dedicated to honoring the various deities that had allegedly made Rome so prosperous. This marriage of paganism and civic virtue made many Christians uneasy, and this uneasy relationship between Christians and the Roman state persisted for three centuries until Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance for Christians in the fourth century. As most people know, before Constantine, intermittent attempts at purging the empire of the Christian influence occurred over the centuries. All these attempts failed and over time, the Christian civilization that was growing up in the midst of the Roman had come to include men and women firmly enmeshed within the Imperial government itself.
Less than a generation after Constantine, however, Alaric’s sack of Rome convinced the pagans that the Christians had brought the wrath of the gods upon Rome as punishment for tolerance of impious Christians. A neglect of the civic religion had brought on the fall of Roman civilization, they maintained, and the Christians were responsible. These charges were answered by one of the greatest minds of Western Christendom, Augustine of Hippo. In the course of defending the Church against the charges of being insufficiently "patriotic," Augustine gave us what is now considered to be the orthodox Christian view on what the role of what the State might be in establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth (the "KGE," as Rothbard liked to call it), while developing his own political philosophy that Augustine scholar Henry Paolucci calls "Christian pessimism," a belief that governments are founded and maintained in sin, and that the gulf between the City of God and the City of Man is something that no man, religion, or State can bridge.
Augustine’s lengthy work, City of God, gives us Augustine’s most complete view of the State, and for Augustine, its purpose is clear: the State can do nothing more than attempt to control the impulses of the sinful until the City of God is established by God alone. Given the foundation of government in the "City of Man," any divine role for the state on a human level is by definition impossible since, as Paolucci observes:
According to Saint Augustine, the world is such that, at the very top of the order, in positions of highest trust, men are often required to commit acts of the very kind that civilizing society, with its laws and education, attempts to repress in the mass of the conducts of its members.
This view is reflected most obviously in the celebrated passage from City of God where Augustine recalls a conversation between Alexander the Great and a Captured pirate where Alexander accuses the pirate of taking hostile possession of the sea. The pirate’s defiant retort is: "Because I do it with one small ship, I am called a terrorist. You do it with a whole fleet and are called an emperor." Some writers have been tempted to label this passage as nothing more than hyperbole aimed at delegitimizing the Roman State alone, yet there is no reason to believe that Augustine ever saw any real difference from one government to another in its capacity for barbarity, corruption, and the abandonment of all justice. It was always possible, that a State could achieve some level of justice, yet such a state of affairs was always unlikely, or at best, a very transitory state of affairs.
It is most likely that in Augustine’s view, the State would be governed by God in the same way that he governed all things. That is, like in the case of the crucifixion, God would take great evil and use it in the divine plan in a way incomprehensible to man.
Augustine used the metaphor of a painter to describe this divine plan. He encourages the reader to imagine the black paint as sin, and to examine how the color is used in a beautiful painting. God, the divine painter, uses this sin to complete the painting, even though the sin itself destroys human souls and human lives. Yet, the evil —black– is employed in the painting itself, the plan that moves the faithful toward final redemption. Theoretically, the painting could be completed without black, and the less there is the better, but as most men prefer sin to righteousness, there will always be plenty of it to go around.
Thus we see that Augustine’s ultimate view of the state is one of a criminal and sinful organization that can be used by God (in a way incomprehensible to man) to bring redemption to men. But in and of itself, the State is sinful, and is run by men who gain their power, and keep it through barbarous and corrupt acts. In fact, peace can only be maintained by a State when the barbarity of the State and its henchmen is as great as that of its most corrupt subjects.
While Augustine does not deny that it is possible for a righteous man to serve as part of a State apparatus, the Christian code of conduct can provide serious barriers. Augustine believed that in most cases, a state could only maintain order if the brutality of the state could match the brutality of its subjects, and to accomplish this, the state would need sinful men to employ sinful tactics. It was possible, however, that a Christian might find himself in a position, such as that of a magistrate, where he felt he could increase the just nature of a regime instead of diminish it. As long as this person maintained Christian moral standards in his own behavior, he could legitimately govern in such a position.
It is helpful to remember, however, that Augustine was living in a time when people might find themselves in positions of power through arbitrary means such as heredity, rather than through personal "merit" as is the "democratic" ideal of today. It is likely that Augustine would have a much darker view of the modern methods used by "social climbers" which generally require a considerable devotion to methods that are politically popular rather than morally consistent. In other words, Augustine was depending on accidents of history to put decent men in positions of power. The modern democratic system, however, almost guarantees that only ambitious, opportunistic, and compromising men and women will serve in public office.
Over the centuries, among mainline Christians, and especially among Catholics, this "pessimism" as Paolucci calls it, has diminished little. Thirteen centuries after Augustine, John Henry Newman would declare:
Earthly kingdoms are founded, not in justice, but in injustice. They are created by the sword, by robbery, cruelty, perjury, craft, and fraud. There never was a kingdom, except Christ’s, which was not conceived and born, nurtured, and educated, in sin. There never was a State, but what was committed to acts and maxims, which it is its crime to maintain and its ruin to abandon. What monarchy is there but began in invasion and usurpation? What revolution has been effected without self-will, violence or hypocrisy? What popular government but is blown about by every wind as if it had no conscience and no responsibilities? What dominion of the few but is selfish and unscrupulous? Where is military strength without the passion for war?
How can men possibly create the Kingdom of God on Earth, if their greatest weapon is the State; an institution that not only fails to perfect man, but, in fact, magnifies his imperfections? The only option open to those who maintain a messianic mission for the State, then, is to conclude that the ends must justify the means, as the Ten Commandments will invariably get in the way of those looking to hurry up the coming of the Kingdom. In his, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, James V. Schall examines the deviance of sacrificing religious principle to political utopianism:
[A]ll of these aberrations suggest a common theme, namely, than an improper understanding of man’s final destinynecessarily, yet still voluntarily, sets one off to find or create more rapidly the Kingdom of God on earth. This search justifies activities that violate the Commandments and reason in the name of a greater, more urgent good. I consider utopians of every sort, therefore, to be intellectually poor, however sophisticated their systems. They are modern Pelagians who do not see any need of grace, who do not see any need of an independent truth by which they might correct their ideas about what the world should be like. And behind all of these lofty theories is almost always a sinful, deviant heart bent on rejecting that conversion of soul from which all social reform ultimately derives.
Schall goes on to quote Pope John XXIII’s rejection of any radical split between private and public morality: "The same natural law which governs relations between individual human beings, must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another." The post-millennial mindset, by contrast, tells us the extraordinary "progress" requires extraordinary measures, and just as the "Brethren of the Free Spirit" of the late medieval world had to conclude that the holiness of their mission gave them the right to plunder their non-believing neighbors, so too do post-millennial radicals see the need for a new morality for the State to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The Modern Dilemma
At the core of the orthodox critique of post-millennial utopianism is a denial that nations, States, movement, etc., have any animating force other than the individual actor, and that the individual’s personal relationship with God is the only true measure of worth of any State, law, or philosophy. The great Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard would illustrate the kind of wag-the-dog situation that arises when the emphasis is put on the "mass" instead of the individual:
What was more honest in former days about even the most embittered attacks on Christianity was that there was approximate acceptance or what Christianity is. The dangerous thing about Hegel is that he has modified Christianity — and thereby made it conform to his philosophy…[I]t is a false deduction that one thousand human beings are worth more than one; that would be tantamount to regarding men as animals. The central point about being human is that the unit "1" is the highest; "1000" counts for less.
Kierkegaard’s wasn’t simply being contrarian. He was reaffirming the ancient Christian tradition that the moral struggle of a single individual is as important as any State or revolution. He emphasized that no one who claims to have a mind of his own can hide his individual responsibilities in the group, and a century later, this emphasis would be echoed in John XXIII’s writings when he commented that the "personal dignity" of each individual (i.e. his moral responsibility) cannot be sacrificed in the name of acting in the interest of a group, and as Schall notes, "The idea of two different and separate moralities, one private and one public, a thesis stemming at least from Machiavelli, ends by corrupting both private and public morality."
In the end, however, without exception, we find that every post-millennial ideology that singles out a specific group, class, or State as possessor of the power of salvation is really just asserting that the favored group is above the law and untouchable, all the while cloaking such shallow self interest in the language of righteousness and salvation. Just as every member of the "Brethren" considered himself above the law, Hegel claimed exceptions for himself and his precious Prussian State. Now, with the undying strains of American-style post-millennial pietism come back to start yet another war, we are faced with credos of American exceptionalism and an ideology that claims the United States, the great deliverer of righteousness, (and in a completely novel twist, protector of Israel), is –surpise!– not subject to the laws of nature and man, but only God himself, as interpreted, of course, by those intent on forcing the rest of mankind into their endless and impossible crusade.
Rothbard theorized that this unnatural attachment to the State exhibited by the pietists was a natural consequence of their detachment from mainstream Christianity:
This turn to government was facilitated by the "pietist" part of the PMP [post-millennial pietist] doctrine, for this meant that the old Puritan emphasis on creed and God’s law, much less the Catholic or Lutheran emphasis on liturgy or the sacramental Church was swept aside. Christianity became totally focused in a vaguely pietist, "born again," mood on the part of each basically creedless and Church-less individual and soul. Shorn of Church or creed, the individual PMPer was necessarily forced to lean upon government as his staff and shield.
But what of the non-religious utopians? Certainly, Hegel was no "born again" Christian, yet where did he derive his penchant for State-worship? We can find an answer, once again, in Saint Augustine, who looking at the reverence his pagan peers held for the Roman State, was disgusted with what he saw: "Away with all this arrogant bluffing: what after all, are men but men!" Condemned to a belief in the "City of Man," the believer in the redeemer State, or the utopian vision, must tell himself that all history has somehow conspired to put him in command of all the world. Indeed, such suppositions were nothing more than "arrogant bluffing" for Augustine, and as historian Peter Brown notes:
[Augustine’s] view of the Roman attitude to the past formed part of his more basic attitude to what he calls the civitas terrena, that is, to any group of people tainted by the Fall…Such a group refused to regard the u2018earthly’ values they had created as transient and relative. Committed to the fragile world they had created, they were forced to idealize it; they had to deny its evil in the past, and the certainty of death in its future. Even the most honest of their historians, Sallust, had lied in praising the ancient days of Rome. This was inevitable, u2018for’, as Augustine said, poignantly, u2018he had no other city to praise.’
And we can be sure that Augustine, knowing what it is like to be a man living among a dying civilization would only feel pity for our current band of pietists and utopians, looking always to "hurry up" the end of the world. There is nothing new about this impulse, and as Schall recounts, not only Christians are subject to such impatience but Jews as well, for often both grow tired of waiting for messianic promises to be fulfilled.
There are many responses to this, and there will always be movements, philosophers, politicians, and "prophets," promising to bring final salvation and a freedom from the mere laws of men and nature. Today’s enthusiasts for "immanentizing the eschaton," as Eric Voegelin phrased it in 1952, are no different than a thousand post-millennial utopian dreamers before them. Their patron saint, Woodrow Wilson, promised great things with his own war against sin and all things un-American, yet he managed little other than killing a hundred thousand young American men, imprisoning his political opponents, and waging a war on liberty.
In resurrecting the Wilsonian social gospel, whether we justify it with Hegelian promises of "the end of history" or the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, we will surely accomplish little more than did Wilson. Those who back this crusade speak endlessly about the American State’s generosity, its benevolence, it enlightenment, and its tireless support of justice. Yet every day, we hear more about the obsolescence of the constitution, the value of torture, the virtues of war, and the anachronism that is the rule of law. Who can claim the Romans behaved any worse? Nothing but a "successful brigandage" was their empire, and surely, no better will ours be.