Rick McGinnis

A year of sometimes arbitrary restrictions on our livelihood and liberty has got people talking about rights and citizenship and government authority again. There are, of course, people who have been constantly talking and writing – and warning us – about the encroachment of the state and unelected bureaucracy on our lives, and Ronald J. Pestritto is among them.

A dean at Hillsdale College and a fellow at the Claremont Institute, Pestritto’s area of expertise is U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and the century-old political moment known as the Progressive movement. It all sounds like a daunting mess of wonkery, but the relevance of Pestritto’s work is actually crucial to the world we’re living in now, though Pestritto would insist that the politics of more than a century past have, in fact, been quietly but inexorably shaping government and its increasing oversight into our lives the whole time.

The Progressive movement took shape in the uneasy period after the US Civil War, as an expression of an idea that the American Constitution – the founding document of the country, considered sacred up till that point – was somehow inadequate to the purpose of running a briefly divided, rapidly industrializing, urbanizing nation, increasingly faced with foreign policy challenges it had until then been happy to ignore.

Pestritto’s new book – America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism – while perhaps not an authoritative history of the Progressive movement, still does a thorough job of explaining the ideas, ideals, and ideologues that created the movement and then took it into the White House and changed the workings of the other two branches of government forever. A lot of historical and political acreage gets covered, but I want to focus on one chapter – “Making the State into a God” – and the very pregnant place where theology becomes politics (and vice versa).

Unlike Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the closest thing we have to a constitution at the moment – the American Constitution is a remarkably austere document. The difference, in essence, comes down to being written by lawyers in the late 18th century as opposed to lawyers in the late 20th century. 

Canada’s constitution talks an awful lot about rights (“6(1) Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in, and leave Canada.”) while providing ample wiggle room for those rights to be altered, limited or abrogated (“6(3) The rights specified in subsection (2) are subject to (a) any laws or practices of general application in force in a province other than those that discriminate among persons primarily on the basis of province of present or previous residence; and (b) any laws providing for reasonable residency requirements as a qualification for the receipt of publicly provided social services.”)

To a lawyer or a judge, phrases like “general application” and “reasonable residency requirements” are an open invitation to create precedents that will enhance or hinder the plans of any sitting or future government, and the Charter is loaded with them, even setting up an endless battleground of competing rights. (“26) The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed as denying the existence of any other rights or freedoms that exist in Canada.”)

The American Constitution only mentions the idea of a “right” a single time, in a sentence giving Congress the responsibility of protecting what we would now call intellectual property. The word “democracy” isn’t mentioned at all, and though the word “republic” is uttered only once with respect to the function of the states within the union, it’s explicit enough to define precisely how the authors intended the new country to function.

Except for the much-quoted language of the preface (“…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”) the Constitution is rhetorically quite dry, by design. The Canadian Charter, by contrast, is already hedging its bets (or rather, yours) in the first sentence (“…guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”)

Reading the U.S. Constitution, you would think that it left little room for negotiation by future politicians, lawyers and other interested parties, but that would be underestimating human ingenuity and our ability to define almost any word or idea into meaninglessness, by design or accident. 

Adherents to the deep legacy of Progressivism today, in both of America’s major parties, would consider their agenda essentially secular, and are fond of beating religious objections to their policies back into a corner by repeating the phrase “the separation of church and state” as if it appears in the Constitution. (It doesn’t.) But Pestritto explains how American Progressivism has deeply religious roots, growing out of a division in American Protestant churches and the Social Gospel, the political theology it inspired.

At the moment Progressive politics became mainstream in America, the politicians pushing it were fond of rhetoric that sounds positively evangelical. William Jennings Bryan’s speech to the 1896 Chicago Democratic Convention hung on one sentence — “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” — so much so that it became famous as the “Cross of Gold” speech. Addressing the National Convention of the Progressive Party in 1912, also in Chicago, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech titled “A Confession of Faith” and declared that “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”

The early authors of the Social Gospel were people like Washington Gladden, a Congregational pastor and author of Who Wrote the Bible?, an 1891 book that argued that, since the Bible was written and shaped by men it could not be considered infallible – was never, in fact, designed by God as such – and that, as Pestritto says “Christians are not bound by the Bible’s moral teachings but are, instead, free to adopt doctrines more suitable to their own time.”

The state of American advanced education for much of the 19th century was such that it became both practical and fashionable to study abroad for post-secondary degrees, often in Germany. This introduced the philosophy of Hegel and his ideal of the Prussian state to American thought, and his conception of the state as “the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” 

The old, orthodox churches were criticized for deferring salvation to the afterlife, focusing on doctrine and ignoring real world problems like poverty and inequality. This harmonized perfectly with Hegel, who insisted that the whole of a citizen’s “spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.”

It became imperative to cease hoping for perfection only in the afterlife, and to work at creating heaven on earth. Another leading figure in Progressivism, the economist Richard T. Ely, was an Episcopalian who got his PhD in Heidelberg and taught at Johns Hopkins; in influential books like Social Aspects of Christianity, he argued that: “Salvation means righteousness, in all the earth, and its establishment means hard warfare…It is truly a religious work to pass good laws, as it is to preach sermons; as holy a work to lead a crusade against filth, vice and disease in slums of cities, and to seek the abolition of disgraceful tenement-houses of American cities as it is to send missionaries to the heathen. Even to hoe potatoes and plant corn ought to be regarded, and must be regarded by true Christians as religious acts; and all legislators, magistrates and governors are as truly ministers in God’s Church as any bishop or archbishop.”

Obviously if the Bible wasn’t sacred enough to escape reinterpretation, then there was nothing sacrosanct about the Constitution, which was regarded by Progressives as an impediment to utopia. Unlike the orthodox churches, religious Progressives embraced a version of Darwin that imagined mankind evolving as a society as well as a species; Woodrow Wilson even set Darwin against Newton in a 1912 campaign speech: “The makers of our Federal Constitution read Montesquieu with true scientific enthusiasm…They constructed a government as they would have constructed an orrery – to display the laws of nature. Politics in their thought was a variety of mechanics. The Constitution as founded on the law of gravitation. The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of ‘checks and balances.’

“The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.”

Here, underneath a groaning weight of strained metaphors – Wilson wasn’t the only person who would eagerly quote and happily misinterpret Darwin at the same time – is the genesis of the idea of the Constitution as a “living thing,” the justification for a century of creative re-imaginings of the Founders’ intent by an increasingly activist judiciary.

It’s not surprising that there was a wide streak of paternalism in the Progressive worldview, and both Wilson and Roosevelt imagined not just the president but every executive officer in government as “a steward of the people.” They talked about the primacy of an administrative state, of experts appointed to govern in pursuit of the “truth,” and Wilson made a clear distinction between what the Constitution allowed and what administration should do. He called it a “field of business. It is removed from the hurry and strife of politics; it at most points stands apart even from the debatable ground of constitutional study.”

The Progressives believed that mankind reached a point where the old sins of flesh and the appetites had given way to new sins that were, as Pestritto puts it, “social acts – working against progressive legislation, or participating in an economic system that perpetrated poor working conditions.”

They compared Darwin to Newton and lionized the physical and social sciences as rational – not theological or philosophical – principles upon which the utopian administrative state would be built. It goes without saying that this led to a pragmatic view of morality and human life; both Ely and Wilson supported eugenics, and they were far from the only Progressives who did.

With so much being discarded in pursuit of an ideal, it’s not surprising that the Progressives had no inclination to imagine man living in a fallen state, offered choices and failing to choose well. It was something the authors of the Constitution understood well. Defending the system of checks and balances in The Federalist Papers No. 51, James Madison wrote: “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

It’s hard to argue that Progressivism hasn’t triumphed. The administrative state in the form of a vast bureaucracy of agencies overseeing vast worlds of regulation is certainly self-evident; the existence of a technically redundant U.S. Federal Department of Education, fully functioning despite education being a state and local responsibility, is just one proof. 

Religion is only mentioned once in the American Constitution, in Article VI, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It all depends on what you consider religion, as it’s hard to imagine an applicant to the lowliest position in the unelected bureaucracy prospering if they professed a lack of faith in the self-evident truths of the modern progressive state – imminent climate disaster (Roosevelt’s Armageddon, revised), the apparently unwinnable struggle against systemic racism, enforced equality, the right of government to pick economic winners from armies of supplicant lobby groups and donors, and now the unassailable need for mass health mandates, no matter how poorly they’re explained or how quickly or rapidly they change.

America still has ballot initiatives and menus of candidates to elected offices, but the engine of ongoing reform is always looking to reduce these choices in the interest of efficiency. Canadians know too well where this leads, as our elections do little to change the direction of the country as real power concentrates itself more and more around the head of state and whoever they choose to advise them. There’s certainly no checks and balances in our Charter that would prevent this from progressing inevitably, which should act as a warning to our southern neighbours, not that there’s any precedent for them to pay attention.