American Progressivism: The Root of Socialism in the United States

Do you trust a President to uphold the Constitution of the United States, or to believe in the tenets of the Declaration of Independence, upon which the Constitution was established?  When a President is sworn into office, he takes a solemn oath that he will both “faithfully execute the office of the President” and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  In taking such an oath, a President binds his own loyalty under the Constitution to the highest power known to man, the authority of God Himself.  This is serious business.  Any deviation affects not only the people, but the name of God Himself.  A violation here not only breaks American law, but the Third Commandment, to not take God’s name in vain.  What a weighty office to subsume!  How have the Presidents done?

In Mount Rushmore are the faces of four Presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.  Of the four, the choice of Roosevelt stirred the most debate, and yet is the one choice that represents perhaps the biggest change in orientation.  The first three upheld the Declaration of Independence, though I disagree with Lincoln’s emphasis of equality over liberty; Roosevelt, however, represents a movement that undercut the fundamental tenet of the Declaration–a movement that opened the door to socialism in America.

In 1776, this nation was founded on principles of individual rights delineated in the Declaration of Independence.  If these principles were not true, the nation based upon them has no legitimacy.  To disagree with these principles is to be fundamentally un-American.  Even more, since America is the first nation to be founded upon a creed (as G. K. Chesterton once quipped), with the Declaration functioning as “American Scripture” (to use historian Pauline Maier’s phrase), disagreeing with the Declaration in America is political heresy and potential grounds for excommunication from office.  Amazingly, one presidential candidate of the Progressive era openly reinterpreted the Declaration, and yet was voted into office.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt both faced off against Howard Taft, the incumbent President.  All three men claimed to be progressive, though with differing notions of what “progressive” looked like in practice.

For Roosevelt, as heard in his April 1912 speech “Who Is a Progressive?,” a Progressive was anyone who sought “to give the people real control, and to have the people exercise this control in a spirit of the broadest sympathy and broadest desire to secure social and industrial justice for every man and woman.”  This “industrial justice” included the great “trust-busting” of the large monopolies, as well as the limitations placed on child labor and hours worked by women in factories.  The popular “control” included direct election of senators, direct primaries, referendums and recalls, all of which eliminated much of the indirectness established by the Founding Fathers to offset the dangers of demagoguery in the new republic.  To justify his agenda, Roosevelt quoted Lincoln, and ended his speech by saying that the cause of Liberty focused now on neither foreign tyrants nor slave-owners, but on “the present-day American citizen who oppresses others by the abuse of special privilege, be his wealth great or little.”

Wilson went further than Roosevelt and represents the real break with the doctrines of the past.  In one of his campaign speeches, Wilson openly criticized citizens who “never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” whose “bosoms swell against George III, but they have no consciousness of the war for freedom that is going on to-day.”  According to Wilson, the Declaration needed to be “translated” to address modern conditions, being a document that viewed government as a machine based upon Newtonian physics, rather than as a living organism based upon Darwinian evolution.  At one point, Wilson flat-out appeals, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission–in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word–to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”  He ended his speech by saying that the new economic conditions demanded a whole-scale restructuring of the government architecture along the lines of Europe and Canada.

What does that mean for us today? Your individual rights as an American were safeguarded in the Declaration of Independence, which states that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”  The Progressive era questioned this priority of individual rights, and asserted that they could be trumped by the good of society, as defined by the government.

For example, in education, Herbert Croly’s magazine The New Republic argued in an editorial for July 29, 1916 against parochial schooling: “During the nineteenth century popular rule became increasingly a reality, and people came to feel that government is not an alien things to be limited, but a social instrument to be used.  Democracy has been evolving from a protest into a purpose.  It is becoming a philosophy of life, no longer protestant but in its own way catholic.  To be a democrat to-day is to be something more than a voter. . . . ‘Modern sociologists’ are simply men engaged in stating the affirmative faith of democracy.”  Having turned democracy into a religion, the editorial then redefines tolerance from allowing “every one freedom to practice almost any creed, even though the creed was opposed to freedom,” to a belief that the government should not allow the old to impose their beliefs on the young through schooling.  In this redefinition, the magazine claimed the right of democracy “to develop in every child the capacity for testing its own convictions.”

Similarly, with regard to property rights, which the Declaration handled under the rubric “the pursuit of Happiness,” Roosevelt had advocated in 1910 an even larger role for government control than even he exercised in his presidency: “We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.  It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.  This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”  This is an amazing confession!  For the good of society, he said, the government must decide whether individuals should be allowed to retain their private property.  In this shift, Roosevelt was apparently influenced by Herbert Croly.

As Americans, you and I have been living under this mindset for almost one hundred years.  The government is no longer viewed as a potential danger to be kept in check, but as a tool to benefit society.  Increasingly, Americans have come to look to the government for the solution to many problems, including the care of the elderly, the education of the young, the alleviation of poverty, and the management of our entire economy.  Beneath the march of progress lies the Declaration of Independence, trampled in the streets.

As a Christian, the Declaration is not my “Scripture,” nor do I agree with every detail of it, nor am I quick even to apply the appellation “Scripture” to such a political document.  However, I am happy to report that the Declaration’s stress on individual rights is closer to the truth of God’s word than the Progressives’ stress on the rights of society over the individual.  When God said, “You shall not steal,” He did not leave governments exempt.  True, the Law also commands the rich to help the poor, even as the tenth commandment prohibits covetousness; but God nowhere commanded His government in Israel to force the rich to give.  Instead, the poor were expected to “cry unto the LORD” against the rich (Deuteronomy 15:9).  The companies were indeed at fault, but the principles advocated by the Progressives expanded government beyond proper bounds.

By taking too much to itself, government takes the place of God and is no longer His servant; but since government does not have the wisdom of God Himself, this can only lead to trouble for the individual.  God help us, for that is where you and I are as American citizens, at the whim of a government that thinks it knows what is best overall and does everything in the name of “the people.”  Thankfully, I am looking forward to a “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)–a new order that Jesus Himself will establish.  Rightly did the psalmist sing, “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 118:9).  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Note: The quotations given earlier from the Progressive Era come from an excellent resource, American Progressivism: A Reader, edited and introduced by Ronald J. Pestritto and William J. Atto (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), 37, 44, 51, 136, 137, 6, from which also came the opinion that Roosevelt was influenced in his views by Herbert Croly.  Interestingly, the progressive change in political theory mirrors the shift in theology from orthodoxy to modernism.  Could it be that the theological writings of the fundamentalists, so maligned by the culture, may hold hints about how to handle the political unfaithfulness of the progressives and their heirs?  The parallels are not accidental, but rooted in the same hermeneutical framework.

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