Boundless, December 1999

Century of Cruelty:
Making Sense of Our Era


By Nancy R. Pearcey

As the century ends, a rash of books has appeared tracing the trends and tragedies of our era. But many authors overlook the overriding factor of our time: The most destructive forces of the 20th century were unleashed by ideologies aggressively hostile to Christianity.

In Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, British moral philosopher Jonathan Glover recounts, in gruesome detail, why ours is the bloodiest century ever--from the Nazi Holocaust to the Soviet Gulag, from Pol Pot's decimation of the Cambodian population to tribal and ethnic conflict.

The worst of these modern atrocities Glover lays at the feet of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed Antichrist who announced the death of God. As the idea of a God-given morality lost hold, into the vacuum rushed a host of ideologies justifying government-sponsored terror--"festivals of cruelty" that fill page after page of Glover's book.

These ideologies mirror the basic elements of the religion they replaced--so closely that the best way to analyze them is by comparing them to the Christian worldview. Classic Reformed thought breaks the Christian worldview down into three structural elements: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. The world was created good, but fell into sin and evil through a moral choice by our first parents. Yet God has provided a way to pay the price for sin and restore us to our original purpose.

Parallels can be detected in every alternative worldview or ideology. Translated into general terms, Creation means ultimate origins: Every worldview, every philosophy starts by explaining where the world came from. The Fall means the source of evil and suffering. Again, every belief system has to account for war, conflict, and oppression. And given this basic flaw in the world, Redemption asks: How can it be fixed? How do we create a better world?

Every worldview can be analyzed by breaking it down into these three elements. Consider some of the most powerful ideologies that shaped--and continue to shape--our world today.

The Total State

Most of the ideologies that have bloodied our century--and that so horrify Glover--were influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau. His writings inspired Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Why was Rousseau's worldview so revolutionary?

Political philosophy begins by asking what kind of political institutions fit human nature. To locate our true nature, Rousseau said, we must strip away everything that has developed through culture and history, and imagine a "state of nature" that is pre-social, pre-political, even pre-moral. What's left is the lone, autonomous individual-- "autonomous" literally meaning "self-legislating," or choosing one's own values and identity.

And if this self-defining individual is the ultimate reality, then society is contrary to our nature: artificial and confining. Rousseau's most influential work, The Social Contract, opens with the famous line, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." He called on reformers to liberate people from society's rules, institutions, customs, and traditions.

To grasp how revolutionary this was, contrast it to classical political philosophy. Aristotle taught that people are by nature social beings, and therefore social institutions express our true nature, instead of oppressing it.

Christian thinkers agreed that we are naturally social. For we are made in the image of a God who in Himself is a community of being--namely, the Trinity. Moreover, God did not create a lone individual, He created a couple--the basis for both family and society.

But for Rousseau, society was artificial and confining. And what would be the agent of liberation? The state. It would destroy all social ties, releasing the individual from loyalty to anything except itself. "Each citizen would then be completely independent of all his fellow men," Rousseau wrote, "and absolutely dependent on the state."

The idea that the state could be a liberator was revolutionary. Thus was born what Christian political theorist Glenn Tinder calls "the politics of redemption," the idea that politics can be the means not only of creating a just society but of actually transforming human nature, creating "the New Man."

So how do we run Rousseau's ideas through our grid of Creation, Fall, and Redemption? His starting point is the autonomous individual in the "state of nature," his substitute for the Garden of Eden. The source of evil is society; and Redemption is wrought by the state. Small wonder Rousseau's philosophy inspired so many totalitarian systems.

But this philosophy lies at the root of our own political life as well. In Democracy's Discontent, Michael Sandel says the dominant political philosophy in America today is a liberalism that regards the individual as the ultimate reality. Social and moral ties are not ultimate; they are created by the individual's choice. There are no objective moral obligations, given by God and rooted in our nature.

Today, issues from abortion to religious liberty to family law are cast within the paradigm of the autonomous individual. The controversies tearing apart the fabric of our own society reflect the on-going influence of Rousseau's worldview.

Marx for Today

Surely one of the worst in Glover's catalog of horrors was the Soviet police state. And though the iron curtain has fallen, Marxism retains a powerful influence in many places . . . like the American university campus. A famous French political philosopher recently said, "Nowadays, when we want to debate a Marxist, we have to import one from an American university."

Even more pervasive are trendy forms of multiculturalism and political correctness, which have been labeled neo-Marxism because they keep the same forms of analysis and simply fill them with new content. The classic theory of the proletariat oppressed by the capitalists has been replaced, in radical feminism, with the idea that women are oppressed by men. Or, in so-called "queer studies," that homosexuals are oppressed by straights. Or, in civil rights theory, that blacks are oppressed by whites. Victim groups are urged to raise their consciousness and resist their oppressors.

This explains why liberation movements often blend and merge. Marxism and black liberation are linked in a course at the University of California at Santa Barbara called "Black Marxism." Black and homosexual liberation merge in a Brown University course titled "Black Lavender: Study of Black Gay/Lesbian Plays." And everything is mixed in a single cauldron in a Stanford course titled "Women of Color: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender." What unites all these liberation movements is a common, neo-Marxist core. The characters have changed, but it's still the same play.

In Marx's philosophy, the creator is matter itself. As Lenin wrote, "We may regard the material and cosmic world as the supreme being, the cause of all causes, the creator of heaven and earth." Marx's counterpart to the Garden of Eden is the state of primitive communism: Humanity fell from this state of innocence into slavery and oppression through the creation of private property and, from this follow all the subsequent evils of exploitation and class struggle.

Redemption is wrought by reversing the original sin: destroying the private ownership of the means of production. The redeemer is the proletariat, who will rise up against the capitalist oppressors. In the words of historian Robert Wesson, "The savior proletariat will, by its suffering, redeem mankind, and bring the kingdom of heaven on earth."

Marxism fits our three categories so cleanly that some have dubbed it a religious heresy. The ultimate origin of everything is matter. That's why Marx taught economic reductionism: Since humanity is defined by its relationship to the creator, in Marxism we are defined by the way we relate to matter--by the way we manipulate it and make things from it. Which is to say, by the means of production. The Fall is the rise of private property, and Redemption means overthrowing the oppressors and recreating the original state of communism.

This analysis explains why Marxism continues to have such widespread influence, despite its dramatic failure to produce a classless society; and why it spawns ever-new liberation movements--because it taps into the deep human need for redemption. This religious dimension explains why neo-Marxist trends today have taken over entire departments on some college campuses.

Sex as Ideology

America is in the midst of its own holocaust in terms of sheer numbers killed, especially when we consider abortion. And this holocaust is likewise rooted in an ideology--a sexual ideology. The left/right split in American politics used to be over economic issues, such as the distribution of wealth; but today it is over social and moral issues: abortion, fetal experimentation, homosexual rights, no-fault divorce, spousal benefits, sex education.

Why? Because sexual liberation has become nothing less than a worldview-a vision of reforming human nature and creating a new society. Consider the writings of one of the key architects of the sexual revolution: Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.

Generally remembered as a champion of birth control, Sanger also expounded a complete worldview. In The Pivot of Civilization, she offers a "scientific" view of sexuality based on Darwinism. She portrays the drama of history as a struggle to free our bodies and minds from the constraints of morality, the "cruel morality of self-denial and sin." Sexual liberation is touted as "the only method" to find "inner peace and security and beauty." It is even proffered as the way to overcome social ills: "Remove the constraints and prohibitions which now hinder the release of inner energies [which for Sanger meant sexual energies], and most of the larger evils of society will perish."

Sanger boldly borrowed religious language to describe her utopian vision: "Through sex, mankind will attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform the world, and light up the only path to an earthly paradise."

Taking recourse to our three-part grid, in Sanger's sexual ideology Creation, or the account of origins, is evolution. As a result, human identity is found in the biological, the natural, the instinctual--especially the sexual instincts. The Fall, or source of evil, is the rise of Christian morality. And Redemption equals sexual liberation. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who had an enormous influence on American attitudes through his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, sometimes spoke as if the introduction of a Bible-based sexual morality were the watershed in human history--a sort of "fall" from which we must be redeemed.

This analysis helps us to understand why it is so difficult to reform sex education or to halt the sexualizing of the entertainment industry. Sexual liberation has become a moral crusade, in which Christian morality is the enemy, and opposition to it is a heroic moral stance.

Film critic Michael Medved learned this the hard way. He once publicly praised the work of a couple who were both Hollywood film producers. They'd been together for 15 years, had 2 children, and he spoke of them as a married couple. Later, he heard from friends of the couple, who said that they were certainly not married--and that they would be "offended" to hear themselves described that way.

Why such an indignant response? Because by rejecting marriage, the couple was taking a high-minded stand for freedom against an oppressive moral convention.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote, "The mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service." By giving an example of liberation, folks like this Hollywood couple feel they are performing a service to humanity.

A Moral History of the 20th Century

If we really want to understand why the 20th century was the bloodiest yet, the key lies in analyzing worldviews. The problem is not that large numbers of people suddenly underwent some mysterious moral degeneration; the problem is that they adopted worldviews based on faulty definitions of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Nature was defined as our creator, and some aspect of the world was defined as the source of evil and suffering. Enormous moral outrage was then directed toward fixing that "evil."

It's precisely because ideological movements inspire a sense of righteous outrage that they are so dangerous. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, people are much more likely to be cruel not when they're doing something bad, but when they are convinced they're doing something good.

Author and dissident Alexander Solzenhitsyn once asked an old peasant why Russia had suffered so much under a totalitarian system. The peasant replied that it's because "we have forgotten God." The new millennium can signal a return to a more humane and humanitarian society only if we reject morally bankrupt ideologies, and restore a robust and vigorous Christian worldview.

Nancy Pearcey is a fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, and managing editor of the journal Origins & Design. This article is based on her new book, How Now Shall We Live?, co-authored with Chuck Colson.