Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America A Better Place
By Mark Ellingsen
Brazos Press, 208 pages, $23.99

America has lost its sense of sin, says Lutheran theologian Mark Ellingsen. Augustine of Hippo can help us recover it.

According to Ellingsen, who teaches at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center, America's Founding Fathers consciously held in tension two opposing conceptual frameworks: first, an optimism about the possibility of the virtuous responsible citizen (derived from John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers), and second, a pessimism about human nature (drawn from the Bible and Augustine). In Blessed Are the Cynical, Ellingsen shows that biblical thinkers like James Madison as well as Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson held to this paradox.

Unfortunately, we've lost the Augustinian half of the paradox: the "cynical" understanding that human beings will always act out of self-interest, even when their actions appear altruistic. And as a result, we fail to be suspicious of our motives and those of others. And by failing in this "biblical cynicism," we make ourselves and others vulnerable to manipulation and velvet-gloved tyranny.

As a Lutheran, Ellingsen turns naturally to the great fourth-century African thinker Augustine for insights. In response to the theological emergency created by the British monk Pelagius, Augustine synthesized the biblical and early church teaching on our sinful human nature. "Augustine's primary agenda," Ellingsen writes, "was not to lament the power of sin but to assert the primacy of God's action and forgiving love, to confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is humanity's only hope."

Neither Ellingsen nor Augustine thinks that we cannot do good things. We can choose to feed the hungry and ease their pain. But, Augustine argued, we do what we do because of "the burning desire to please the ego." He went so far as to maintain that Christians remain under the power of that "burning desire" even after conversion and baptism, because they would otherwise "not need Christ and grace as much as they did before conversion." The Augustinian vision is not so much about our moral impotence as it is about God's saving omnipotence.

Augustine has had many interpreters. The one who most directly affected the American founders was Thomas Reid, a Scottish philosopher. Reid influenced the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University) and John Witherspoon, who taught James Madison. In 1772, just four years before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon told his students about the political implications of Augustinian thinking. Ellingsen quotes: "Every good form of government must be complex . . . so that one principle may check the other. … It is folly to expect that a state should be upheld by integrity of all who have a share in managing it. They must be so balanced that when one draws to his own interest or inclination, there may be an over poise upon the whole."

Article continues below

Ellingsen traces the Augustinian note from Witherspoon to Reinhold Niebuhr, who spoke of "healthy, but not cynical, realism about our selfishness." Ellingsen summarizes Niebuhr: Because "we are great at fooling ourselves," we are likely to be "convinced that we are good, decent, caring human beings who want what is best for everybody, and that our society . . . is affording equal opportunity to everyone" and to "be content with the status quo. It takes the doctrine of original sin to help us recognize that the leaders in society are exercising leadership primarily to help themselves and that the political and ethical commitments we hold dear primarily serve our own self-interest."

These are hard words for many Americans. Ellingsen argues 7that since 1970 the Augustinian suspicion of our own motives has been elbowed out by a cultural narcissism and the therapeutic culture. Because we believe in our own innocence (and victimhood), we are more likely to heed the competing voice of John Locke.

Those who designed the American experiment believed their own generation was virtuous, says Ellingsen, but "they were realistic about subsequent generations and … sought to establish a government predicated on the attempt to protect the American people from less virtuous leaders who would follow." Because they were realistic about human nature, the founders also appreciated "the herd mentality of the public" and tried to "protect us from the tyranny of the mob."

The Tyrants Of Our Time

With the Augustinian suspicion bleached from our culture, we are sitting ducks for corporations and politicians who tell us what is best for us. Only if we can restore the Augustinian vision, Ellingsen says, can we be armed against the subtle—and even pleasant—tyrannies that oppress.

Ellingsen is generous with his Augustinian suspicion. Politics is "no longer primarily about ideas and what you get done," he writes. "It is more about manipulating images and developing an admiring group of supporters." This celebrity-oriented political culture "has no loyalty" and little power.

Article continues below

He is critical of the way the welfare bureaucracy "unwittingly created a culture of dependency" (a result of too little Augustinian thinking about the poor). But he is equally suspicious of proposals to hand off the responsibility to local governments and charities. (Those too reflect an unwarranted Enlightenment optimism.)

Since Ellingsen wrote his book, Republicans have been accusing Democrats of engaging in "class warfare." The book speaks to the issue. The Constitution expects that there will be class tensions, Ellingsen argues, but attempts by business interests to silence discussion of class and exploitation only mean that the most powerful parties win. He calls the failure to talk about class "unconstitutional."

Ellingsen applies his "cynical" eye to the substitution of lottery revenues for taxes, the push to increase college enrollments, "the prison industry," the green-friendly policies of the Clinton administration, and the oil-friendly policies of the Bush administration.

Eventually, the reader begins to tire of the cynicism. "This leaves a sour taste. Where is the celebration?" I scribbled in the margin of page 95. "Is there never any altruism in political life?" I scrawled on page 96.

Ellingsen's suspicion never flags. He worries about multinational corporations, the oppressive nature of capitalism's bounty, the effect of feminism in holding down the wages of both sexes, corporate reorganizations, the "people skills" encouraged by the business environment, and the emphasis on "teams" in the workplace. (These latter items contribute to an "ethos of insincerity" and create an environment in which approval outweighs accomplishment.)

Original Sin At Home

Ellingsen's main agenda is political (though not electoral). He wants us to understand how the doctrine of original sin is at the heart of the American system of government. Nevertheless, he devotes several chapters to the private sphere: church and family.

Perhaps this is because the lack of awareness of sin has led to individualism, relativism, and narcissism and thus to loneliness. "Solitary individuals are vulnerable. The power of the establishment can more readily have its way with them," Ellingsen writes, noting that "Americans with some social connections (through churches, clubs, and other organizations) characterize themselves at a level of happiness above the national average."

In the church, the cultural ethic of choice has allowed Americans to personalize religion and create customized spiritualities. Theological conservatives will enjoy his flaying of Schleiermacher, but market-oriented pastors will wince when he explains their approach in terms of Enlightenment optimism, Schleiermacher's theology, and the "supposition that modern people have got things right about their self-understanding." Appealing to felt needs is fine only if people know what they need. But if sin obscures our view of ourselves, then felt needs may be precisely the wrong place to focus ministry.

Article continues below

Ellingsen proceeds to critique the psychotherapeutic orientation of contemporary pastoral ministry and the importation of business models into the church.

In the area of sex, marriage, and the family, contemporary sexual and marital ethics affirm individual desire without remembering the Augustinian notion that we are curved in on ourselves. We love because and as long as it makes us feel good. Where Christian notions of marriage and sex focus on the beloved, American notions focus on the self.

Paradox Regained

Ellingsen flogs left and right. He is an equal opportunity Scrooge. Ellingsen sounds the Augustinian note almost exclusively, he explains, because "the more optimistic viewpoint has become almost monolithic in much of contemporary society."

But in his concluding chapter, Ellingsen reiterates the paradoxes of the book:

"Like most things essentially Christian, the Augustinian view of original sin is . . . not correctly deployed if not held in tension with its opposite pole."

"The classical Christian tradition has always contended that an affirmation of human sinfulness must be made in paradoxical tension with an awareness of human goodness."

"The realism—even cynicism—about human nature and its institutions paradoxically leads to a sense of the individual's need and appreciation for these institutions and the people who constitute them."

"Only in dialogue, in the push-pull, bickering tradeoffs of politicking (conducted with fair rules) can we find something approaching fairness."

This refreshing political vision not only abandons partisanship, but rises above illusions. Fundamentally, however, this is a gospel issue, because anything less than a pervasive sense of sin suggests that salvation is by works, faith plus works, or something other than God's sheer grace.

Related Elsewhere

Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America A Better Place by Mark Ellingsen is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Buy the book online
Read our extended interview with author Mark Ellingsen

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns: