So, if Robert R. Reilly is correct in his analysis and assessment of the American Founding in his book “America on Trial,” where did the American experiment in ordered liberty go wrong? I would suggest that the problem is neither progressivism nor its philosophical antecedent historicism, baleful as they both might be. Rather, it is the theological antecedent of both: Gnosticism.

America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly (384 pages, Ignatius Press, 2020)

In his recent widely praised book America on Trial, Robert R. Reilly provides a convincing rejoinder to the increasingly widespread claim among traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals that the American republic was fatally flawed from the beginning as a result of its grounding in Enlightenment thought. At the risk of simplifying to the point of injustice, Mr. Reilly argues that the American Republic was the progeny neither of John Locke—or at least not of the pro ratione voluntas Locke—nor of the Enlightenment out of which he emerged. Rather, he argues, it was the full flowering of seeds planted long ago by Moses, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas. To be sure, Mr. Reilly concedes, the Founders of the republic did indeed dwell in the fetid swamp of the Enlightenment project. And there can be little doubt that life in that intellectual swamp inflected their thinking and provided them with the peculiar idiom they thought and wrote. Equally, though, there can be no doubt that the Founders were in some ways the culmination or apotheosis of a tradition that long pre-dated the Enlightenment, and that was therefore not dependent on its dubious blessings or indebted to its questionable intellectual legacy. Instead, they built their political house on the rock provided by a Christian understanding of natural law—an understanding that furnished such principles as individual liberty, consent of the governed, and the public good—and what I would call an Augustinian notion that the state should do some things, but not everything. In short, Mr. Reilly concludes, the Founders built well. Any reasonable jury would have to acquit them of all the charges leveled by those who assume, assert, or argue that the American liberal state did not somehow veer off course since the Founding, but that its navigation system was poorly programmed right from the beginning.

So, if Mr. Reilly is correct in his analysis and assessment of the American Founding, and in my judgment he is, what happened to the American experiment in ordered liberty? Where did it all go wrong? Mr. Reilly’s answer, developed in Chapter 11, is “German historicism,” by which he means the relativistic doctrine that there is no objective truth, only interpretations and derivative social constructs that can be made and remade as circumstances demand or permit. Once that particular brand of hemlock was ingested, Mr. Reilly asserts, it resulted in “not only relativism, but progressivism, which regards the Founding principles as the main obstacle to its project for improvement.” Ultimately, the cause of our current woes is not the unconscious smuggling of hyper-individualistic Enlightenment ideas into our founding documents; rather, it is the all-too conscious reinterpretation of those documents light of collectivist ideas derived from German historicism and its early twentieth-century Anglo-American offspring, progressivism.

Now, much as I’d like to place the blame for our current woes at the doorstep of some high-modern continental philosophy, and much as I think there is little good to be said about German historicism (or, for that matter, the derivative progressivism of Wilson and Dewey), I do believe Mr. Reilly misses the mark here. I would suggest that the problem is neither progressivism nor its philosophical antecedent historicism, baleful as they both might be. Rather, it is the theological antecedent of both: Gnosticism.

What do I mean by this? I would argue that beginning in the late-1960s a new era in the history of American liberalism was initiated—one that was characterized by the working out of America’s founding ideals in the context of a historically specific set of challenges and concerns revolving around race, gender, sexuality, and the widespread perception that American society had become stultifying and oppressive. Unlike in previous episodes of epochal shifts in US politics, however, the working out of this dialectic beginning in the mid-twentieth century took place against the backdrop of the almost complete unzipping of what Hugh Heclo has called the double-helix of liberalism and Christianity. Mainly as a result of the long march through the institutions carried out by various illiberal forces in the 1960s, the bedrock Judeo-Christian norms that had so productively channeled the liberalism of the Founders until then were first questioned, then increasingly condemned, and finally largely discarded.

The ultimate consequence of this unzipping was not merely that it decisively displaced the Judeo-Christian “habits of thought” that had previously channeled liberalism, but that it created a cultural vacuum that was to be quickly filled by a Gnosticism that had long been gestating on the margins of American society.

And what were the defining features of this Gnosticism? According to Gerald Hanratty, Gnosticism boils down to three underlying themes: self-deification, or the glorification and divinization of the human self; Prometheanism, or the valorization of the human will’s potential for heroic defiance of arbitrary authority; and what I will call vanguardism, or the belief that humanity can be led to perfection by an elite possessing extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge.

Pace Mr. Reilly, my argument is that it was not historicism, German or otherwise, that drove America off course. Instead, I would argue, it was the Gnosticism that came to dominate the commanding heights of American culture in the later twentieth century, and that now almost exclusively defines the cultural milieu within which America’s experiment in ordered liberty is being conducted.

Let me provide a brief illustration of the caustic effects of this newly ambient Gnosticism. Before the mid-twentieth century, the Founders’ supposedly Lockean emphasis on the moral centrality of the human person was tempered by a Christian anthropology (grounded in both the Bible and Christian natural law) that enmeshed the individual in a broader web of obligations to God, family, community, Patria, etc. In practical terms, this meant that individuals, while autonomous, were also subject to both the sovereign authority of God and the dictates of natural law and therefore not radically autonomous.

In contrast, today’s liberalism is based on a radically different set of anthropological assumptions. The interaction effect of Gnostic self-deification and Lockean individualism over the past half-century has been the advent of what George Weigel has called the religion of the “imperial sovereign self.” In place of an embedded individual subject to divine authority and the dictates of natural law, we see a radically autonomous individual properly subject to no superintending authority whatsoever. In place of a healthy commitment to human dignity, we see an unhealthy worship of the individual as a kind of divine demiurge capable of constructing and reconstructing human nature according to the dictates of the sovereign will. In place of a just society in which individuals are free to live according to divine commandment and natural law, we see such a society defined as one in which all persons must be permitted to live according to their own self-defined nature. Today, the Declaration’s Laws of Nature and Nature’s God have been eliminated as supervising authorities, replaced at the center of the moral universe by what George Weigel has called the “imperial sovereign self.”

Similarly, the grafting of Gnosticism onto the American political tradition has given rise to a way of thinking about politics that would have been totally alien to the Founders. Lacking the tempering effects of Christian beliefs regarding humanity’s fixed and fallen nature, the current era has seen the kind of pragmatic belief in progress or improvement that characterized American political culture before the mid-twentieth century mutate into a utopian belief in the perfectability of humanity in the early twenty-first. Before the mid-twentieth century, the liberal idea that social conditions could be improved was moderated by an essentially Christian belief that in a post-Lapsarian world, “out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever be made.” In the contemporary era, however, that meliorism is no longer tempered by the Christian notion that humanity is fallen and therefore inherently imperfectible. The result is a widespread belief that it is indeed possible, as Eric Voegelin famously put it, to immanentize the eschaton.

And just how will all this immanentization take place? The prevailing view today, on the progressive left at least, is that this new order will be brought about only when an enlightened elite is able to construct a Leviathan-like state that will enable it to perfect society in the face of certain opposition from those who are less enlightened or just plain evil. Such an elite will possess the esoteric knowledge, gnosis, necessary to immanentize its Gnostic eschaton. But if they are to succeed, they will need to construct a state that is strictly fit for purpose. Whereas Biblical anthropology and Christian natural law established the family, civil society, and the Church as natural and necessary institutions mediating between the state and the individual, Gnosticism recognizes no such natural or necessary institutions. To bring about our secular salvation, Gnosticism holds, such a state will have to have the ability to eradicate all those forms of identity and thought that might prove resistant to the more revolutionary schemes of the enlightened elite. Moreover, if it is to be fit for purpose, such a state will have to free itself from quaint or “outmoded” fetters like limited government, individual rights (esp. religious liberty), and “toleration.” As with Giles of Rome’s aspiration for the medieval papacy, if it is to right all that is wrong with humanity, the Gnostic state must truly be “a creature without a halter or bridle.”

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