Sunday, September 30, 2012



I continue this mini-series on Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book Liberal Fascism.* (In these Posts, Jonah Goldberg will be shortened to ‘JG’.)

Having given an overview of JG’s thoughts, in this Post I’d like to select some particular points of interest. In several subsequent Posts I’ll deal with some of the numerous and eye-opening quotations from historical figures in American and/or socialist and Progressive history, from the young Woodrow Wilson up through LBJ.

The role of Christianity and religion in first-wave American Progressivism cannot be underestimated. As Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, the originator of the late-19th century Social Gospel movement, put it in 1896: “Now men are free, but it is often the freedom of grains of sand that are whirled up in a cloud and then dropped in a heap, but neither cloud nor sand-heap have any coherence”. (p.87)

What you see here is the abiding Christian concern – especially acute and intense among Protestantism as it developed in Northern Europe – to make the most of this life and to have an impact on human history. This burning preoccupation was powerfully focused on proper human ‘stewardship’ of God’s creation, starting with one’s own self and soul and (with some exceptions among Protestant sects that sought a purely spiritual individual or communal existence) radiating outward into one’s community and one’s world. The goal was to avoid ‘waste’, you could say: a wasted life, a wasted opportunity for individual and communal excellence in both spiritual and material things.

This Stance bore some major differences if contrasted with the more Mediterranean Roman Catholic approach, which focused not so much on individual this-worldly dynamism as on a personal and cultural Order reflecting the rational and revealed Vision of God’s logos or Word that brought Creation (individuals with their souls and then the material realities of this-world) into existence and sustained and guided that entire Creation on its journey to the Ultimate Fulfillment in God.

Especially in American Protestantism, this cutting-loose from the other-worldly bounds of the Roman Catholic Vision created much more room and space for human involvement in the things of this world. But it also thus opened Protestantism up to the tremendous gravitational and centrifugal forces of the human spirit – never perfect – in the hurly-burly of human history. Precisely by making itself more flexible and adaptable, Protestantism opened itself to powerful historical and existential forces and pressures for which there was no centripetal Center such as there was in the Roman Catholic Vision administered by the hierarchy at that Center which operated as a keel to balance activity and action with steadying and Shaping dogmatic continuity.

 To use the imagery of a sailing ship: the Catholic Vision emphasized the necessary rigidity of the keel that ballasted and worked in dynamic tension with the motive forces created by the sails as they caught the winds. The Protestant approach de-emphasized the keel and gave itself over to the sails and the motion created as the ship faced the waves of history and the Sea of life.

Or in a biological image: the Catholic Stance emphasized the rigid and bony endo-skeleton that gave Shape to the being and sustained that Shape; the Protestant Stance emphasized the viscera – muscles, heart, blood flow and so forth – that interacted directly with the world.

Hence too, the Roman Catholic focus on Order and on the traditions that sustained that Multi-planar Order (originating in the Beyond-dimension of the divine), while the Protestant Stance focused on the Mono-plane of this world, emphasizing fluidity and adaptability.

As might easily be imagined, in America of the later 19th-century, flush with a waxing Abundance channeled through industrial and urban capitalism, the Protestant Stance and its emphases seemed far more suitable to American life and history. ‘Boundaries’, as JG notes, became ‘frontiers’ (a hallmark JFK bit but rooted deeply in the prior centuries of the American past).

So within the Protestant Stance there was an urge to dynamically develop and deploy the genuinely formed Christian self into the booming buzzing flux and flow of history in all its dynamic complexity. But as Rauschenbusch indicates in the above quotation, there remained the insistence – seen in the Puritans – on achieving and sustaining a properly formed and grounded Christian self even as one immersed oneself in the affairs of this-world and its affairs.

For such a Protestant Stance, it would not do at all for persons to simply ignore their spiritual responsibilities of self-formation and merely leap into the deep ocean of history and events as if one were taking a carefree and thoughtless leap into the old swimming hole while playing hooky from school.

In this way, American Protestantism dove-tailed with the socialist-Progressive emphasis on ‘crisis’ and ‘responsibility’ and the abiding need to ‘reform’ and ‘improve’ history (which, as JG has often pointed out, was also a hallmark of Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, and even Hitler, and all the lesser socialists of the Left).

Thus Rauschenbusch is philosophically and spiritually averse to the disorganization and lack of Shape so often evident when humans are left at liberty to do whatever they want to do: the Protestant concept of Freedom – as was true of the Catholic concept as well – is that you presume a well-formed spiritual human being who is best suited to exercise that Freedom. A so-called ‘pure’ freedom, where people can simply do whatever they want without the ‘oppression’ of any boundaries or Shape (originating in this world or the Beyond), is not at all acceptable.

It is not acceptable because the Protestant Stance shares with its parent Catholic Stance the profound presumptions about human beings being created in God’s Image. As such, human beings are like ships (or – to use an anachronistic image – aircraft): these vessels are designed according to certain basic principles and no matter how ‘free’ you are as a captain or pilot, you can’t simply ignore those Shaping boundaries and principles.

Thus a pilot – although having complete command of the aircraft – still has to obey the fundamental principles and laws of aerodynamics; a ship captain – although having complete command of the vessel – still had to obey the fundamental principles and laws of physics and of wind and wave and hydrodynamics. To do otherwise will ‘waste’ that Freedom, that liberty, by wrecking the very craft that you command.

But again, this concern for Order and Shape dovetails with the socialist and the American Progressive Stance: in that era of first-wave Progressivism and of European socialism, the desire was not to anarchically cut loose from any Shape or Order (let alone to deny the necessity or existence or possibility or legitimacy of such Shape and Order); rather, it was to impose (‘achieve’ is, alas, putting it all too mildly and gently) a better Shape and Order – a New Order – than the old Shape and Order enshrined in the ‘traditional’ cultural and political and social arrangements that had evolved organically in European history over the millennia.

As Rauschenbusch indicates, a society of totally ‘free’ individuals resembles nothing so much as a miasm of loose grains of sand blown about by history’s winds and by each individual’s personal whims. (Note the resemblance to the industrial manufacturing dynamics of that era: you can organize human beings and keep them focused on a task, and get a lot of things made and a lot of things done; this preconception also influenced European (and after 1916 American) military thinking as well. Mobilization, motivation, and organization – all incited and sustained in the service of the proper Cause or Goal – is a dynamic conceptual motif that is widely afoot in that era, in American and Europe, especially in light of the intensifying and increasingly clear downsides to urban-industrial capitalism.)

Thus, Rauschenbusch continues, “New forms of association must be created. Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life … Individualism means tyranny”. (p.87)

What you may immediately sense here is that Rauschenbusch is starting to bend in the direction of communal (and you might say ‘corporate’) organization and away from the traditional Protestant emphasis on the necessity of the individual’s achieving of self-mastery, spiritual and otherwise.

In a paradoxical conclusion that should have received more critical inquiry than it did, Rauschenbusch sees ‘tyranny’ as emanating from that unguided and un-Shaped and un-Boundaried ‘freedom’ that really has proven – to the Protestant eye – to have led to a wasteful and un-Shaped or under-Shaped license (which in the Jazz Age would arguably  mutate into outright licentiousness).

That there are profound problems here with the general first-principles of genuine ‘democracy’ does not detain him. If human beings are so easily unsuited for liberty and freedom, then how can a genuine democracy be sustained? What would be the purpose of creating or keeping it in the first place?** Worse, of course: if it turns out that living according to their ‘pure’ freedom of whim and desire renders individuals unable to govern themselves or achieve anything substantial together, then … the government and its elites will have to step in and take over the job; if the herd can’t control itself, then trail-bosses and trail-hands will have to do it. Thus does ‘pure’ freedom lead so easily to tyranny.

Another writer of the era, Washington Gladden, went so far as to assert that Progressivism was merely “applied Christianity”, supporting the Social Gospel’s belief that “the state was the right arm of God and was the means by which the whole nation and world would be redeemed”. (p.87)

And in this you can see something eerily and ominously reminiscent of the ancient Eastern and Byzantine solution to the relationship between Church and State (or Throne): the Church became merely but completely the chaplaincy of the State/Throne. Whereas in the Latin West, the Roman Church had struggled persistently to maintain the independence of the Spiritual from the Temporal power.

Progressivism – which in its first-wave was deeply enmeshed with a supportive version of (Protestant) Christian religious vision and fervor – was already working toward a type of ‘totalitarian’ arrangement whereby the Temporal power would be served by the Spiritual, even though in that first-wave era, the Spiritual – by offering ‘benefit of clergy’ to Progressivism – envisioned itself as ‘baptizing’ the Temporal into the Spiritual and thus achieving a marvelous synergy that would lead to both a Temporal and a Spiritual End-Time that would fulfill history. This was ‘Progress’ in a much more complete (and ‘total’) sense than anything Roman Catholicism, with its abiding and historically ingrained wariness of the things of this world and of the Temporal power, could robustly support.***



*Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. Doubleday: New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51184-1 (hard cover). It’s also out in paperback.

**This also constituted one of the Roman Catholic Church’s abiding concerns about ‘democracy’. On top of the historical European reality that ‘democracy’ had so often led to civil strife, bloody disorder, and profound spiritual dis-Order – from the Peasants’ Revolt of Luther’s time through the stunning bloodiness of the French Revolution and the Terror with its enthronement of a purely this-worldly and Mono-planar Reason (as opposed to any Multi-planar Faith) and the (almost inevitable) secular imperium of Napoleon.

It took until the 1950s for American Catholic thought such as John Courtney Murray’s to impress upon the Vatican the possibilities of American Founding concepts of genuine democracy – as opposed to the French Revolutionary and Soviet versions of popular rule by, or at least in the name and service of, ‘the masses’.

But – in a stunning historical irony – America had been sliding toward the French-Revolutionary approach, rather than American Founding Vision, since Progressivism’s first febrile enchantment with Bismarck’s ‘top-down socialism’ in the later 19th century. A slide which was erected into a Plan as time went on, especially as the decade of the 1960s saw a wild efflorescence of theological urges for change and reform following the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and the various importations of outright Leninist and totalitarian thought spun as ‘liberation’ and ‘reform’ under the aegis of radical-feminism’s embrace of such ideology in the early 1970s, and the Beltway’s embrace of all of that ideological ‘justification’ for purposes of erecting new demographic coalitions after 1972.

Within a decade of Murray’s insightful and constructive work – and Martin Luther King’s equally redemptive and unitive religious-political American visions as enunciated so eloquently in 1963 – the government’s abandonment (for all practical purposes) of the American Revolutionary Stance for the French Revolutionary Stance was in the ascendant.

***And, of course, it would be in the American era initiated in the 1960s and early 1970s that the Temporal power, now so thoroughly Progressive-ized in both political Parties, would declare itself a ‘secular’ power, demanding the complete cooperation (that German Gleichschaltung of Bismarck and Hitler; given pithy expression in Mussolini’s maxim: Nothing against the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state) of whatever Spiritual power was left or else face the on-going efforts by the State to de-legitimize the Spiritual in the public forum.




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