Not long ago I attended a conference held on the restored grounds of a century-old utopian community. As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of the true believers, I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.

Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the victorious-life movement, the communes of the Jesus movement. In recent times, though, the perfectionist urge has nearly disappeared. Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-utopianism. The burgeoning recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.

I confess my preference for this modern trend. I find it far easier to see human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace. Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians: all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament. The mere names of the places they left behind are enough to break your heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.

The Catholic church has bred its share of perfectionism as well. I have studied the rule of Saint Benedict and read the stirring accounts of early Jesuit missionaries who sailed to Japan and China. Compared with such dedication, the current wave of short-term missions seems like a consumer fad.

The Barrier Reef Of Original Sin

Yet most utopian communities—like the one I was standing in—survive only ...

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