Rise of Progressive Movement vs. Natural Rights
Part 1 of 3
Humanism’s bloodless coup
October 2016 – For well over a century, secular progressives in the United States have worked tirelessly to alter the very nature of our republic. In all of the ways that count the most, they have very nearly succeeded. Moreover, they never asked most Americans for permission to do so.
Humanism as an ideology is the rejection of God and the elevation of man to the highest place on earth; and if humanism is the engine, then secular progressivism is the steering wheel. It is a belief in the power of man – specifically unlimited government – to “progress” or better the world.
The republic given to us by the Founding Fathers was anchored in a totally different belief system, which was the concept of natural law and natural rights, itself rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. (See AFA Journal, 7/16, 9/16.)
This older foundation was evidenced by one of the most famous sentiments in history. After referring to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson then declared:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These ideas, central to the founding generation, were rejected by a new generation that was determined to reformulate America as a humanistic enterprise.
Philosophical shockwaves began after Civil War era, 1880-1920
Many conservatives believe the Progressive Movement is relatively recent, perhaps stemming from the upheavals of the 1960s. While modern liberalism does go by the label “progressivism,” the ’60s merely added a clearer sexual dimension to the original political ideology.
The origin of progressivism in America is found in the post Civil War era, roughly the period between 1880-1920. It was a time that saw great changes wrought by technology but was also a time of cultural upheaval. Perhaps most important, there were great undercurrents of ideological change sweeping the world.
These undercurrents were the result of philosophical shockwaves in Europe. Perhaps most critical of these was Darwinian evolution. Following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolutionary thought began to threaten the religious foundations of Western Civilization and gave birth to an entirely new way of looking at truth – and mankind itself.
Central to the sea change wrought by evolutionary theory was that truth itself was found only in scientific fact. Everything else was relative – it was malleable and temporary.
“Relativism is the view that there is objective knowledge only of facts, but not values,” said Thomas G. West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College and author of Vindicating the Founders. “Science can know the truth about the material world, but it cannot tell us how to live.”
Progressive Ideas, such as Darwinian Evolution Swept through American Cultural Institutions
These new ideas swept through American universities, West said, and progressive, educational reformers like John Dewey and political leaders like President Woodrow Wilson carried the flag from there.
Matthew Spalding, associate vice president of the Allan P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship at Hillsdale College, said progressives embarked on a bold plan to change America. “They understood that you have to get control of the levers [of power],” he said. “They started magazines, they started think tanks, they started other institutions to try to get a hold of politics and reshape other institutions along the way.”
Like an invasive virus, this new – and alien – ideology spread throughout the bloodstream of American power. Progressive ideas captured not only law schools – producing critical, progressive U.S. Supreme Court decisions by mid-century – but also many Christian seminaries. Dewey’s influence on the U.S. public education system is also well known.
This plan to alter the DNA of the Republic – at least in terms of the co-opting of the intellectual class – was wildly successful. Before the end of the 1920s, Roscoe Pound, dean of Harvard Law School, was able to say with confidence that “the cycle is complete. We are back to the [governing] state as the unchallengeable authority behind legal precepts. The state takes the place of Jehovah handing the tablets of the law to Moses. …” (Emphasis added.)
No human nature
This concept of relativism was not only aimed at religion but also included political philosophies such as those that motivated the founders. These principles were also considered relativistic – and open to outright dismissal.
Dismissal of Biblical Moral Law
After all, if evolution is true, then there is no God – or at least there is no need for consulting Him when considering how Americans should order their governing principles. If there is no God, then there is no natural law for which human beings should look. There is simply nothing there to see – or understand.
This string of ideas led to two problematic conclusions. The first is that there is no such thing as human nature. In fact, Dewey, whom West calls “the most influential founder of modern liberal theory,” ridiculed the idea that human beings had a nature.
“Dewey expands on the idea that human beings have no nature; they are born as empty vessels, as nothing in themselves,” West said.
Then how do humans become what they ultimately are? Their cultural and historical surroundings create them, according to Dewey. “[S]ocial arrangements, laws, institutions … are means of creating individuals,” said Dewey. “Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out.” (Emphasis in original.)
For progressives like Dewey, government would become the incubator and director of human nature.
Mythological natural rights?
The second problematic conclusion – some might legitimately call it terrifying – was the progressive denial of natural human rights.
“There can be no natural rights because there is nothing of any value that human beings possess by nature that they could be said to have a right to,” West explained. Then he cited this startling statement by Dewey: “Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.”
Spalding characterized the progressive view of rights in chilling terms. “Liberty no longer would be a condition based on human nature and the exercise of God-given natural rights,” he said, “but a changing concept whose evolution was guided by government.”
Renunciation of Liberty of all Men which was fought for in Civil War
These progressive ideas transformed American politics, West insisted. “It was a total rejection in theory, and a partial rejection in practice, of the principles and policies on which America had been founded and on the basis of which the Civil War had been fought and won only a few years earlier,” he said.
While our nation was initially formed by a revolution – an effort by many people to change the nature of the government that would rule America – what progressives have done has been dramatically different.
Coup d’état Defined
The phrase coup d’état comes to mind. The French phrase literally means “stroke of state,” and it generally refers to the attempt of a small group of individuals to seize the levers of power in order to alter the form of government. Sometimes it is done in the dead of night, while the general population is asleep.
Whether or not we stay asleep is up to us.