Before the recent presidential election, I did not think of myself as a conservative. But after seeing the Left’s unhinged reaction, I realized I was definitely anti-progressive. My own studies and reflections had left me well-equipped to spot a religious cult when I saw one, and I had no doubt that progressives are just such a thing.
The content of every religious mind may be different, but the structure of religious thinking is always the same. Here are a few ways progressives have filled traditional categories for themselves:
God: History—they think they’re on the “right” side of it.
Dogmas: identity politics; there are more than two genders, et cetera.
Apocalyptic prophecy: climate change.
Inquisition: political correctness.
Antichrist: Donald Trump, who is taken to be evil by definition.
Excommunication: disagree, and you will be cut off forever.
Clearly, there is nothing secular about progressivism. Look under the veneer of pseudo-scientific language, and you’re left staring at a fanatically religious mindset. How did we get here?
The So-Called Death of God
The last couple centuries of the Western world have witnessed the decline of old-fashioned religion. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his work “The Gay Science” (gay as in happy, not homosexual), saw this and infamously proclaimed “God is dead.” It is often forgotten that he also added, “For we have killed him.” The main point was that the traditional idea of God had ceased to play a central role in both people’s minds and the structures of modern society.
Of course, Nietzsche’s proclamation is primarily figurative. If there is a God, then he did not just drop down dead sometime in the 1800s. Likewise, even for a believer today, God is still alive and well. The accurate fact contained in Nietzsche’s statement, though, is that Western culture as a whole was going through a sea change.
But the human soul may not be as malleable as a lot of people these days are given to think. If God lived within the soul until the day before yesterday, then it stands to reason that he left an empty space when he went away. This has consequences. To paraphrase the late and great David Foster Wallace: everyone worships; it is not a question of whether, but rather a question of what. If a person doesn’t know what he worships—if he believes that God is dead, and that’s the end of the story—then he will just become very susceptible to getting driven from behind his back by impulses he can never understand.
In a way, people can’t live without their gods. If they abandon one god, they merely move on to another, even if surreptitiously. This helps explain the religious drive at the bottom of progressivism. Moreover, I would suggest that after giving up on a god of truth, the progressives, with a kind of tragic inevitability, moved toward a god of power, whose altar at which they now worship.
The Grand Inquisitor
It may well be appropriate to grant Fyodor Dostoevsky the title of prophet. In the chapter of his masterwork, “The Brothers Karamazov,” known as “The Grand Inquisitor,” he explains exactly what’s going on here. In this story, the Inquisitor and his church have established a society that has reduced the vast majority of folk to a state of sheep-like serfdom. The Inquisitor believes this has been done for the people’s own good: he thinks they cannot handle liberty, and are so much happier being treated like children, never having to make one real decision.
Then in walks a figure who seems to be Christ returned. The Inquisitor has him arrested, then proceeds to interrogate him in private. During the entire encounter, Christ doesn’t say a single word. He merely looks on with compassion, as the Inquisitor raves about why abolishing freedom was the right thing to do. This is perhaps the most memorable passage that departs from the Inquisitor’s lips:
“You did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous. You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified. . . . Respecting him less, you would have demanded less of him, and that would be closer to love, for his burden would be lighter. He is weak and mean.”
With these words, the Inquisitor reveals what his church’s dark game is really about. He says they’re moved by love for the common man, whereas they are in reality moved by contempt for the common man. He says they are acting in the name of truth, when they are in fact acting only in the name of power. In short, the Inquisitor and his church had accepted the third temptation of Christ in the desert: when the Devil said Christ could rule all the kingdoms of the world, if only he would fall down and worship the Devil.
Fascism and Romance
The god of truth is not the same as the gods of power. When the god of truth takes his leave, man will almost necessarily try to fill this hole in his soul with a god of power. Just about every decent person knows there’s something wrong with this world. But there are two fundamentally different ideas of how to actually make change happen. The first can be called fascism, and the second can be called romance.
As Jonah Goldberg ofNational Review has made clear, progressives have spiritually and historically always had a deep affinity with fascism. (This is fascism meant in a literal way: an actual ideological mindset, not just a vague slur against things we don’t like.) The original fascist fallacy consists of loving ideas more than people: real persons, in all their messiness, folly, sin, and freedom. Fascism is always about using power—of the state, or coercion more generally—to control people, change what they are, make them new. The one concept that never enters this picture is the primordial freedom of the individual.
It’s the exact opposite with romance. By romance, I mean a focus on the actual, living person, in all his or her sadness and confusion and beauty and glory. Friendship and romantic love are the main avenues through which most folk learn to see things in this way: a way that is ultimately rooted, in my view, in the vision of the Lord himself as a specific, individual man. When you see the intrinsic value of every individual person, whole categories of action become no longer possible. That includes the entire fascist approach to the transformation of the world.
At the end of “The Grand Inquisitor,” Christ still says nothing. He merely gives the Inquisitor a Russian kiss, and the Inquisitor breaks down. He tells Christ to leave, leave, and never show his face there again. The Inquisitor knows he has been defeated by a power greater than himself. He knows that for all his pretty words, he actually doesn’t care about people at all. He actually hates real persons, just as Christ loved them. Christ wanted true freedom for all, because that’s the only revolution that will ever really matter.
So Here We Are
You don’t need to call the god of truth by any one name in order to understand that truth and power are at odds with each other. Inquisitor versus Christ is one poetically powerful way to see the matter; but call it what you will, the conflict still exists.
Progressives have clearly fallen for what Goldberg has identified as the totalitarian temptation—the desire to remake the world through the fiat of raw power, as opposed to doing what it takes to awaken real living freedom within human souls. They have gone for fascism over romance. Insofar as America is an essentially romantic nation, this also means they have bet against the American spirit.
They have done this because they have tried, badly, to fill the god-shaped hole within their souls. Every man worships, even if he doesn’t know what. The progressives have thrown their lots in with the gods of power. Instead of believing in Christ and his vision, they have aligned themselves with the Inquisitor. Human nature says this is exactly what will happen when people have convinced themselves that the Lord of Truth is dead.