Bruce Thornton, If only Americans would “listen to the science” and stop believing in “superstitions.”
This year the annual attacks on Christmas went beyond complaints about holiday salutations or public creches. Blue-state governors and mayors like California’s Gavin Newsom and government clerks like Anthony Fauci have issued diktats forbidding even private celebrations of Christmas by more than one family at a time. These orders follow on this year’s lockdown protocols that made liquor stores, pot dispensaries, and violent protests “essential,” while church services were verboten.
These assaults on faith illustrate how far secularism has infiltrated our culture. And although in some states the Supreme Court has struck down such restrictions on the First Amendment’s freedoms of religion and assembly, this tactical victory will not stop the strategic advances being made by those who want to remove God from public life in order to monopolize the authority to tell us how we should live and what we should believe.
The justifications for these violations of the Bill of Rights reflect another dimension of secularization, the process of removing God and faith from public life. Alleged scientific advances in understanding human nature and motivation have made religion irrelevant, if not dangerous for the ongoing progress toward utopia that will follow once we “listen to the science” and stop believing in irrational “superstitions” and “illusions.”
Yet this past year has shown over and over that the “science” is not quite as reliable or efficacious as its champions claim. The attempt to stop religious services and Christmas celebrations, for example, is based on the notion that severe “lockdowns” will halt the spread of the virus. But extensive data from the U.S. and Europe show that indiscriminate lockdowns, rather than protecting the most vulnerable, at best just postpone the spread. New York’s high rate of mortality occurred amongst some of the most severe restrictions in the country, whereas Florida, with a larger population that includes the most vulnerable elderly, saw fewer people die despite less draconian lockdown restrictions.
Moreover, those calling for lockdowns presumably to save the lives of old people already dying of other ailments seem not to care that the consequences of shutting down schools and the economy fall heavily on the young, whether students, workers, or small business owners, even though 99.95% of people under 70 will not die from the virus. The result of this sledge-hammer approach that harms the least vulnerable to the virus has been an increase in “deaths of despair” like drug overdoses and suicides: “Among 25- to 44-year-olds, the CDC reports a 26% increase in excess all-cause mortality relative to past years, though less than 5% of 2020 deaths have been due to Covid-19,” report Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford’s Medical School, and Sunetra Gupta, a professor of epidemiology at Oxford.
But for decades our technocratic rulers have displayed the same callous myopia in carrying out other policies that allegedly “follow the science.” Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming––rebranded as “Climate Change” once its projections of future warming started being contradicted by empirical evidence––is based on the century-old “greenhouse warming” hypothesis applied to the most complex, non-living natural system on the planet. We as yet do not understand with scientific certainty and precision how all the factors contributing to global climate––which covers 95,000,000 square miles of earth and unfolds over billions of years––actually works.
Yet despite that uncertainty, policies are proposed or put in place for eliminating fossil fuels, the cheapest energy we have, the cost of which policies fall on the most vulnerable, particularly in the developing world that desperately needs cheap electricity to grow their economies and improve their health and well-being.
This technocratic mind-set, this faith put not in a transcendent God but in fallible human sciences, has been the heart of progressivism for over a hundred years. Contrary to the tragic sensibility of both our Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions, progressivism claimed that armed with new “human sciences” like psychology, economics, and sociology, empowered elites could take control of human evolution and improve people until the evils of human existence would be eliminated and all would live in democratic freedom and prosperity: “Democracy,” progressive theorist Herbert Croly claimed, “must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility.”
Yet if we look for empirical evidence of such improvement, we won’t find it in the century of progressivism’s development. Yes, we have seen remarkable improvements in material life, but who can claim commensurate moral progress in the blood-spattered century of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the political murders of 100 million people based on an ideology, communism, that fancied itself a “science” of history? Or in the decades-long domination of eugenics and “scientific racism” in this country, which disguised in numerical data and technical jargon the ancient, dehumanizing bigotries based on superficial appearance, tribal parochialism, and social disorder shaped by poverty and tyranny?
What that history does show is the truth of Immanuel Kant’s observation: “From the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight can be made.” This means that in the end technocracy is an ideology of power and domination necessary for trying to “improve” a permanently “crooked” human nature. We have witnessed this truth in the unseemly eagerness of progressive governors and mayors to issue arbitrary orders disrupting and damaging the lives of the people whom they allegedly serve and to whom they are supposedly accountable. This petty tyranny reveals what they really think about people who won’t fall in line: they are “deplorables” who don’t “believe in science” and so must be subjected to the stern tutelage of their smarter, more righteous betters.
Finally, the domination by technocrats is politically dangerous. Tyrannies of every sort share a preference for concentrating power and eliminating or co-opting all mediating institutions––family, faith, business, education–– that the tyrant cannot control, or that differ in their foundational beliefs and aims from those of the ruling elite. No one can dispute that a hundred years of progressive-inspired policies and regulatory encroachments have narrowed the scope of freedom for civil society, states, and citizens. The lockdown policies this year have graphically demonstrated this ancient truth of tyranny.
The desire to dominate and control others in order to satisfy one’s own interests and pride is not an anomaly caused by the environment, but is latent in all of us. And power is the instrument of that desire. Yet the lust for power is never sated, but always seeks to expand. The Founders understood this truth, which is why they created a constitutional order that balances and checks its various powers in order to prevent that aggrandizement of control over the lives of others that ends in tyranny.
That’s why progressivism has chafed at that order from the beginning. A technocracy of cognitive elites based on alleged scientific expertise cannot cede authority to any other social institution or principles that can challenge it. We have seen that tendency not just in the response to the coronavirus, but also in the calls to eliminate the Electoral College or make the number of senators proportionate to population. The indistinguishable, anonymous mass of the abstract “people” are easier to control or bribe than are the diverse peoples with their different mores, customs, principles, and faiths.
And that has always been the point of the war on Christmas––keeping faith out of the public square and confined to the realm of the private, where it cannot challenge the power and authority of the technocratic elite. It’s one front in the war that the secular technocracy has been waging for over a century that has witnessed the insidious and incremental erosion of our foundational political liberties.
We are one Senate runoff-election away from finding out if that progressive ambition to control even more of our society––an effort stymied by Donald Trump’s administration––will return and move us to even more erosion of our political liberties. That’s the real stakes of the war on Christmas.