More of Those (were the) Days

And we think contemporary public schools suffer. They had challenges even before Richard Nixon:

The super-science of pedagogy, that fairest flower of the New Thought, has achieved its greatest triumphs in the reclamation of the erring, or, as the old-time schoolmasters had it, the bad. Those old-time schoolmasters knew nothing about scientific pedagogy. They were not experts. When, for example, a boy hooked school they had no remedy for his error save the application of the birch to his pantaloons, and this barbarous remedy they kept on applying, in more and more heroic doses, until he abandoned the practice or graduated into long trousers and a political job. Such was pedagogy in its Gothic days, before it began to mellow and expand. Such were the dark ages before psychotherapy and raffia work.

Today, as everyone knows, the birch is under the ban of all recognized experts, and the inhuman teacher who resurrects it and applies it is promptly burned at the stake. In its place we have the “correctional” or “parental” school, in which original sin is combatted with moral suasion, and the erring are seduced to diligence by the subtle arts of the Chautauqua psychologist. New York city now has such a school “on the cottage plan,” and the hunkerous New York Sun presents an illuminating report thereon. Each of the six cottages, it appears, houses 32 pupils–and each cottage cost the taxpayers $81,500 to build! The cost of maintenance is $5.50 a pupil a week, the which, added to a reasonable interest on the investment, works out to between $8 and $9 net!

From What Machen Tried to Spare American Protestants

Walter McDougall reminds of the synergy between progressive theology and progressive politics:

Historians disagree on how to date and define the Progressive Era except to say it had everything to do with reform.[16] By the 1890s it was apparent that American institutions couldn’t cope with the modern problems thrown up by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, including corporate trusts, labor strife, corruption, big city machines, public health, women’s rights, and more. To elites in the academy, government, business, and the clergy it seemed the modern solution to those modern problems was scientific management by credentialed experts. As one scholar put it, “The Progressives believed in a … national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”[17]

Note the words “believed in,” “contempt,” “social evils,” and “real enemy.” We think of Progressivism as a secular movement inspired by the natural and social sciences of that era. Why then does a language of faith and good vs. evil come so easily to the historian of Progressivism and why does it go unnoticed by most readers? The short answer is that secularism is a myth or, to put it another way, if you don’t believe in sectarian religion you will believe in some species of civil religion.

For a hundred years after 1789 Americans were not conscious of a potential conflict between their mostly Protestant faith and their civil faith because the former encouraged republican virtue and the latter ensured free exercise of religion. But under the stress of the Civil War and the onslaught of modernism (Charles Darwin first published in 1859) the main-line Protestant churches surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible, and surrendered cultural authority to … the Progressives! That is why, in the words of my colleague Bruce Kuklick, “We should associate Progressivism most with the rise of a more relaxed Protestantism in higher education after the Civil War.” Ivy League universities, new ones like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, and land-grant universities devoted themselves to secular research on the German model, and the knowledge generated in science and engineering, sociology, political science, and economics easily persuaded politicians that cultural authority must pass from the clergy to the intelligentsia, who knew how to “manage God’s universe for the benefit of mankind.”[18]

Progressives meant to break up capitalist concentrations of power and wealth, purge federal, state, and municipal governments of corruption, and protect and empower the people. We know their accomplishments including trust-busting, the Pure Food and Drug Act, civil service reform, the income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve bank, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition. But these were also the heyday of Jim Crow laws. There was no contradiction in that because the science and social science of that era endorsed racial hierarchy, Social Darwinism, and “the propriety of American imperialism.”[19]

What has all that to do with “a more relaxed Protestantism”? The answer lies in the parallel Social Gospel movement whose preachers imagined their modern spirituality was the counterpart to modern science. “The law of progress is the same in both,” said Lyman Abbott, whose “applied Christianity” blessed philanthropic cooperation with Progressive government. The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and City of God.[20] It stressed collective reform over personal salvation. It made peace with evolution, put its faith in progress, and imagined good government could perfect society over time. In Walter Rauschenbusch’s exultation, “The social gospel registers the fact that for the first time in history the spirit of Christianity form a working partnership with real social and psychological science.”[21]

The origins of liberal theology are legion: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, discoveries in geology and paleontology that seemed to debunk the Genesis account of Creation, psychological theory that seemed to debunk the concept of sin, and technological wonders that seemed to leave nothing beyond mankind’s reach. In the intellectual universe of liberal pastors Christ ceased to be a redemptive messiah and became a prophet of social uplift. Some post-millennialists even believed America was called to build a literal heaven on earth in preparation for the Second Coming and thousand-year reign of the saints.

The American Civil Religion implications of the Progressive Social Gospel were profound.[22] The cross got confused with the flag, which preachers like Josiah Strong and politicians like Beveridge made into a veritable fetish. “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner … for liberty and civilization are God’s promises fulfilled, and the flag must henceforth be the symbol and sign to all mankind.”[23] William Guthrie, a University of Chicago professor, even preached a “religion of Old Glory” and “evolutional view of good and evil,” even prophesying the Stars and Stripes would become “the flag of a Federation of Nations” and “the Ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”[24]

In sum, the Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with the civil religion. Their offspring was a newly Progressive ACR that no longer preached virtue, prudence, humility, and self-reliance, and instead preached power, glory, pride, and paternalism at home and abroad.

Reading McDougall (and Machen) gives a new meaning to woke.

National Cliches

President Obama did it again yesterday. The law professor with the most smarts in the nation’s capital (so some think) appealed to the masses by turning Tom Brady’s victory over the NFL into a case for labor unions. As Boomer Esiason pointed out this morning, the president has it all wrong. It was the NFL players union that got Brady into all the trouble with Roger Goodell by giving the commissioner almost complete power to arbitrate player misconduct.

That reminded me of how lame the president’s praise for the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage was. In another cliche that is unbecoming a man of some intelligence, the president used the all too simple ideal of equality to congratulate the court:

Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.

This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love.

So we needed gay marriage to vindicate equality? Why not also use gay marriage to end hunger, poverty, and war? Can’t an intelligent man do better than appeal to an ideal that makes some sense to almost every 3rd-grader, an ideal that also needs serious qualification? What about equality for Caitlyn Jenner? Why can’t she become a full woman without waiting a year and having to consult with psychological and medical professionals before having her private parts changed? Where’s the equality in that? Or what about the inequality of a widower father not being allowed to marry his daughter? No peace, no justice.

In point of fact, gay marriage was not conceived way back when by Andrew Sullivan as a way to break down another barrier of injustice and oppression. It was actually intended to be pro-family and help homosexuals walk on something like a straight and narrow path. First the pro-family part of Sullivan’s original argument:

Society has good reason to extend legal advantages to heterosexuals who choose the formal sanction of marriage over simply living together. They make a deeper commitment to one another and to society; in exchange, society extends certain benefits to them. Marriage provides an anchor, if an arbitrary and weak one, in the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone. It provides a mechanism for emotional stability, economic security, and the healthy rearing of the next generation. We rig the law in its favor not because we disparage all forms of relationship other than the nuclear family, but because we recognize that not to promote marriage would be to ask too much of human virtue. In the context of the weakened family’s effect upon the poor, it might also invite social disintegration. One of the worst products of the New Right’s “family values” campaign is that its extremism and hatred of diversity has disguised this more measured and more convincing case for the importance of the marital bond.

Next, the way that marriage restrains the excesses of gay life:

Gay marriage also places more responsibilities upon gays: It says for the first time that gay relationships are not better or worse than straight relationships, and that the same is expected of them. And it’s clear and dignified. There’s a legal benefit to a clear, common symbol of commitment. There’s also a personal benefit. One of the ironies of domestic partnership is that it’s not only more complicated than marriage, it’s more demanding, requiring an elaborate statement of intent to qualify. It amounts to a substantial invasion of privacy. Why, after all, should gays be required to prove commitment before they get married in a way we would never dream of asking of straights? . . .

If these arguments sound socially conservative, that’s no accident. It’s one of the richest ironies of our society’s blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical. But gay marriage is not a radical step. It avoids the mess of domestic partnership; it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. It’s also practical. Given the fact that we already allow legal gay relationships, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage these relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?

Sure, you may not buy Sullivan’s argument and I do not. But at least he is not using the grade-school rhetoric of equality and freedom. He actually is trying to say something about the value of the institution of marriage while also attempting to find a way that the constraints and responsibilities of marriage might domesticate homosexuals. That is too high a price to pay for Christians intent on preserving marriages and one-man and one-woman.

But at least it’s a heck of a lot more interesting an idea than saying that gay marriage is just one more step in the march of freedom and equality. Does the president actually believe that? Do his speech writers?