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May 4, 2018
Much has been written in recent decades, and with good reason, about the institutions that shape culture (academia, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry), their liberal bias, and how they can be effective evangelists for the Left. However, this essay will explore forces within the human person—formidable but not irresistible—that go back to the Garden of Eden and can be as seductive as the serpent who plied his trade there. Radio talk show host, author, and Torah scholar, Dennis Prager, is not alone in calling the Left the fastest growing religion in the world.
Immanuel Kant asserted that our minds are not blank slates and that the human being has categories and structures within their minds that help process the raw sense data. In like fashion, the person who has been evangelized by the Left is not a tabula rasabut has received a primordial legacy, a kind of Adamic DNA, that aids in the conversion process.
When discussing the identity of the four rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10-14), there is a general consensus among biblical scholars that two of the rivers were the Tigris and the Euphrates while there is a diversity of opinion concerning the identity of the other two. The Tigris and the Euphrates replenished and defined what would later be called the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization in ancient times.
The etiology of the modern day, political, economic, and cultural Left can also be traced to the Garden of Eden, and, like two great rivers, their headwaters start with the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. One river can be called the Political/Economic Left or the Redistributive Left; the other can be named the Cultural Left or the Social/Moral Left.
It’s important to make these distinctions and not lump people indiscriminately under the rubric “The Left,” because we all know people who are conservative on social and moral issues while being moderate to liberal on political and economic issues, and others who are liberal on social and moral issues and conservative on economic and political issues. In thinking about the former, many American Catholic bishops come to mind; in identifying the latter, one thinks of the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and attorney and political commentator, Heather MacDonald.
The Tigris River: The Redistributive Left
In looking at the origin of the Redistributive Left, it’s important, as I’ve written before in a different essay, to understand biblical anthropology. C.S. Lewis is helpful here:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We cannot adequately understand the world within us and without us without consulting a biblical anthropology. We were created in Eden; we were created for heaven (Phil. 3:20); the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes says that God has “set eternity in their hearts” (emphasis mine; Eccles. 3:11b). Our deepest yearnings draw us heavenward or back to our pristine beginnings in Eden.
But now we live east of Eden in a fallen world, and, in our quiet, honest moments, we have a “something’s missing” feeling and a longing for heaven or something like the perfection of Eden. The cherubim stand guard at the entrance of Eden and won’t let us back in.
Life can feel like living in a motel room, and, despite the cable TV, free Continental breakfast, and comfortable queen-sized bed, it’s not home. How we respond to this yearning will greatly influence not only the health of our relationships but also the vitality of our society.
When misguided longings for heaven or Eden enter the public square, there is a utopian overreach that results in deleterious consequences in the political, economic, and social spheres of life. Utopian overreach results in dystopian outcomes.
The signature of the Redistributive Left is their effort to use public policy to create an equality of outcome, in contrast to an equality of opportunity, for their holy trinity of race, class, and gender. The cudgel of political correctness is often used to accomplish this goal.
Examples of the policies of the Redistributive Left abound, from the War on Poverty to Affirmative Action, from discussions of glass ceilings and gender bias to the current brouhaha about gender-neutral bathrooms. They exert great influence all over the globe, from Latin America to Western Europe; from the “blue states” in the U.S. to China.
The human species seems to be slow to understand what the Pilgrims quickly learned at our nation’s founding at the Plymouth Plantation in turning a three-year famine into a harvest of abundance. Dr. Harold Pease writes:
One variable alone made the difference and ended the three-year famine. They abandoned the notion of government (or corporation) owning the means of production and distribution in favor of the individual having property and being responsible to take care of himself. Before, no one benefited by working because he received the same compensation as those who did not. After the change everyone kept the benefits of his labor. Those who chose not to work basically chose also to be poor and the government (corporation) no longer confiscated from those who produced to give to those who did not.
As said before, the seductive power of the Redistributive Left, working both from within the human person and externally through culture, is formidable but not irresistible. The fact that it can take over entire institutions (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood, many government bureaus) shows that it is formidable; the fact that the Right (though it often acts like the Left vis-à-vis fiscal responsibility) currently holds the levers of power in the Senate, the House, the presidency, and the vast majority of governorships and state legislatures, shows that its influence is not irresistible.
The Euphrates River: The Cultural Left
In his magisterial work, A Study of History, eminent historian Arnold Toynbee divides world history up into twenty-one civilizations. He makes the point that the first twenty civilizations appealed to some religious metanarrative for guidance in personal and social affairs while the twenty-first has tied its wagon to the Star of Secularism.
In the Garden of Eden the divine metanarrative was clear in a sacred oral tradition right from the mouth of God: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’” (Gen. 2:16,17). Eve chose autonomy (“You shall be as gods…”) over obedience and convinced her husband to do likewise.
We see this disposition evidenced throughout the biblical narrative when, for example, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judg. 21:25). This fallen tendency was warned against in ancient Hebrew wisdom: “There is a way which seems right to a man but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). This cautionary thread culminates in the teaching of Jesus when he contrasted the wide and easy way that many travel on that leads to destruction with the straight and narrow path that few are on that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14).
The signature of the Cultural Left is that they make themselves the arbiters of truth and morality instead of submitting themselves to a divine text, sacred tradition, and/or something like the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. We see this in the broader American culture that encourages people to “follow their heart,” and embrace “your truth” (e.g., Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 75th Golden Globe Awards).
The wildly popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, encourages the reader to listen to “the god within.” Ross Douthatargues that “the god within” isn’t a divine voice at all, but an amplified human voice that caters to our self-love.
This dovetails with what sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, found over three decades ago in his research in Habits of the Heart, and, especially, in a famous interview he did with a woman named Sheila. Sheila said, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”
In short, the subjectivism of the therapeutic self devours the objective truth of the divine metanarrative deposited in divine texts, sacred traditions, and the teaching authority of the Church. In his seminal work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff complemented Toynbee’s thesis in seeing the West’s religious foundations being replaced by a therapeutic substructure.
This tendency to “follow your heart,” or “listen to the god within,” is rooted in the premise that humanity is basically good. If we are really basically good, then such a modus operandi makes sense because our heart will then lead us in a good direction. However, this is not the witness of Holy Writ: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
When talking about a gay couple or a co-habiting heterosexual couple, I have heard this line of thinking more than once from heterodox Christians who are simply listening to the god within:
I know Bob and Bill (or Tim and Nancy); they are wonderful people and wonderful neighbors. I like them better than many church-going Christians I know and there’s more love in their relationship than many straight (or married heterosexual) couples I know. They have the same hopes, fears, and dreams that you and I have. They’re hard-working, pay their taxes, and play by the rules. Does God really care about what they do in the privacy of their bedroom?
Again, the seductive power of the Cultural Left, like the Redistributive Left, is formidable but not irresistible. The fact that we have a culture war in America shows that it is simultaneously formidable yet not irresistible by the sheer number of adherents on both sides.
The Seven Deadly Sins Feed the Left
The Tigris and Euphrates swell and their currents become stronger as they’re fed from other substantial streams and rivers. The Redistributive and Cultural Left become even more formidable as they are strengthened by Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth, all seven of which have their origins in our original parents’ fall from grace.
Pride, Anger, and Envy go all the way back to Cain and Abel. Nietzsche, among others, called this emotion ressentiment(resentment).
Clinical psychologist and social commentator Jordan Peterson refers to George Orwell’s book, Road to Wigan Pier, in displaying these ugly sins in the Redistributive Left. Orwell, an unabashed socialist, chronicles the unmitigated squalor of living conditions in the industrial north of England before World War II.
However, in criticizing middle class socialists in England at the time, he observed that many of them didn’t so much care for the downtrodden as envy and hate the rich. One senses intuitively that this seems to drive many protests against White Privilege that occur in our day at many American universities.
Peterson connects this observation by Orwell with what happened to the Russian peasant farmers during the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-33 (the Holodomor). Some of these farmers were well-off and Soviet propaganda portrayed them as greedy and an impediment to “utopian” collectivization.
No doubt some others, who were not willing to work as hard (Sloth) as those derisively called “Kulaks,” were driven to Anger and Envy by such propaganda. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see all Seven Deadly Sins in this heinous episode of a man-made famine that killed 7 to 10 million people.
In scrutinizing any political, economic, or cultural issue, we look at it through different lenses. The lens of sentiment tells us how we feel about it; the empirical lens gives us the facts; the pragmatic lens discloses to us what is working and what is not; the moral lens explores what is right and what is wrong.
There is a deification of sentiment or feelings on the Left that is rooted in Pride (feelings uber alles: “My subjective feelings are god!”) and is evidenced by the aforementioned hackneyed slogans such as listening to “the god within.” There is also a substantial amount of Sloth in not taking the time to use the other lenses in evaluating important issues.
As Ben Shapiro points out, the empirical lens—the facts on the ground—would tell the members of the Redistributive Left, who are concerned about “gender equity,” that in 2010 Time reported that “…according to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., the median full-time salaries of young women are 8% higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20% more.”
In relation to Affirmative Action, the pragmatic lens would tell them that black graduation rates rose after Affirmative Action was discontinued in the University of California system. The moral lens would force them to ask the question, “Is it fair on the SAT to give blacks and Hispanics bonus points of 185 and 230, respectively, while Asian students get docked 50 points?”
Often, because of Pride and Sloth and the deification of feelings, the Cultural Left won’t look at issues pragmatically and empirically when it comes to certain sexual behaviors. This would force them to ask questions such as:
Why do co-habiting couples have significantly higher divorce rates?
If “love makes a family,” and family structure is not important, then why are there so many disastrous consequences for fatherless families?
For both the Redistributive and Cultural Left, reality is one of their greatest enemies. The debris-strewn economic and moral cataclysms left in the wake of their policies and utopian dreams call to mind something Irving Kristol said about neoconservatism before it became a maligned moniker for the Left and some on the Right:
“A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. A neoliberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges.”
The emotional benefits of making sentiment sacrosanct are manifold and perhaps this explains the counterfactual power of the Left, its imperviousness to the facts on the ground. In this Therapeutic Age, deifying your noble feelings makes you feel virtuous (Pride). You can then communicate these feelings to others (“virtue signaling”) and gain their acceptance.
You belong now in the Church of the Left and are part of something bigger than yourself. If you’re a Boomer who came of age in the ’60s or ’70s, you may get that special feeling you had in 1967 or 1975 all over again. If you’re a Millennial, you’ll feel a solidarity with many in your generation who embrace what Christian Smith calls “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” whose primary agenda is to make one “feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.”
Often on the Cultural Left, we see Lust and Greed working together: Sex sells. Take a look at the American Pie film franchise. The original 1999 teen sex comedy told the story of five friends who were high school seniors in western Michigan who made a pact to all lose their virginity by their graduation day.
The movie takes its title from the Don McClean song but also from a scene in the movie that involves the main character engaging in autoeroticism with an apple pie because he heard that “third base feels like warm apple pie.” The movie cost $11 million to make but made over $235 million at the box office and spawned three more sequels and four direct-to-DVD spin-offs. What’s somewhat depressing is how easy it is to cite dozens of other commercial successes of similar moral degradation to this franchise.
The pursuit of vainglory is the progeny of Pride and is common in the avant-garde art world of the Cultural Left. There’s sometimes fame and fortune (Greed) to be gained in breaking taboos and flouting bourgeoisie sensibilities and Judeo-Christian values. You will become the toast of cocktail parties in Manhattan, San Francisco, and certain salons in Los Angeles and Seattle.
The homoerotic and sadomasochistic work of Robert Maplethorpe, the immersion of a crucifix in a jar of urine by Andres Serrano, or the spattering of elephant dung on a picture of the Virgin Mary in the work of Chris Ofili, leave the orthodox Christian aghast. The distinction between the sacred and profane hasn’t been blurred; it’s been destroyed: the profane is the sacred in many fashionable precincts in the art world.
Chesterton said, “A dead thing goes with the stream. Only a living thing can go against it.” In the historic Christian faith, we are told that we have been made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5). Part of this inheritance, no doubt, is that we have been given a “new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 36:26). This emerging reality, working in concert with the grace of God, will give us the strength to swim against the currents of the primordial legacies of the Redistributive and the Cultural Left and the Seven Deadly Sins that nourish and enlarge these ancient, toxic rivers.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise” painted by Benjamin West in 1791.
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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.