We stand at one of the great turning points in our national history, when the failure of our public philosophy and the crisis of our public life can no longer be ignored. And what we do about these needs will define the era to come.
For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.
It is a philosophy that has defined our age, though it is far from new. In fact, its most influential proponent lived 1,700 years ago: a British monk who eventually settled in Rome named Pelagius. So thoroughly have his teachings informed our recent past and precipitated our present crisis that we might refer to this era as the Age of Pelagius.
But here is the irony. Though the Pelagian vision celebrates the individual, it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.
Replacing it and repairing the profound harm it has caused is one of the great challenges of our day.
Birth of a Heresy
Pelagius was born sometime between A.D. 350 and 360 in Britain, possibly Wales. Highly educated, unusually gifted, a scholar of both Latin and Greek, he made his way to Italy and then to Rome. There he became famous for his teaching on Paul’s letters.
Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.
This idea famously drew the ire of Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine, who responded that we humans are not achievement machines. We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.
But Pelagius was not satisfied. He took his stand on an idea of human freedom. He responded that God gave individuals free choice. And he insisted that this free choice was more powerful than any limitation Augustine identified.
Augustine said that human nature was a permanent thing, but Pelagius didn’t think so. Pelagius said that individuals could use their free choice to adopt their own purposes, to fix their own destinies—to create themselves, if you like.
That’s why a disciple of Pelagius named Julian of Eclanum said freedom of choice is that by which man is “emancipated from God.”
Now as you might expect with followers who say things like that, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
But his philosophy lived on in late-20th-century America. And if you listen closely today, you can hear it almost everywhere—in our fiction and our film, in our school curricula and self-help books. It even features prominently in our law.
Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.
The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he is most alone, able to choose his own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighborhood and church—these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice. And this Pelagian idea of freedom is one our cultural leaders have embraced for decades now.
But here’s the paradox. For all the big talk about individual freedom, Pelagian philosophy has made American society more hierarchical, and it has made it more elitist.
This is no accident. Pelagius himself was most popular with the old senatorial families of Rome—the wealthy, the well-connected. The aristocrats. They were his patrons. And why? He validated their privilege and their power.
Because if freedom means choice among options, then the people with the most choices are the most free. And that means the rich. And if salvation is about achievement, then those with the most accolades are righteous, and that means the elite and the strong. A Pelagian society is one that celebrates the wealthy, prioritizes the powerful, rewards the privileged. And for too long now, that has described modern America.
In the last five decades, our society has become hierarchical. Consider: If you are wealthy or well-educated, your life prospects are bright. College graduates and those with advanced degrees enjoy markedly higher wages. They rarely divorce. They have higher life expectancy. They enjoy better access to better healthcare. Their children attend better schools and score better on achievement tests. They have more opportunities for civic involvement and participation.
But if you don’t have family wealth and don’t have a four-year degree—and that’s 70 percent of Americans—well, the future is far less glowing. These Americans haven’t seen a real wage increase in 30 years. These Americans are fighting to hold their families together, as divorce rates surge. For these Americans, healthcare is unaffordable. Drug addiction is growing. And too many of their local communities, especially rural ones, have been gutted as industry consolidates and ships jobs away.
A society divided by class, where one class enjoys all the advantages, is a society gripped by hierarchy.
It is also a society defined by elitism. Of course, our elites don’t use that word. They say their privileged position comes from merit and achievement. They point to their SAT scores and prestigious degrees. They talk about economic efficiency.
How Pelagian of them.
The truth is, the people at the top of our society have built a culture and an economy that work mainly for themselves. Our cultural elites look down on the plain virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice, things like humility and faithfulness. They celebrate instead self-promotion, self-discovery, self-aggrandizement.
And then when industry ships jobs overseas, they say, workers should find another trade. Capital must be allocated to its most efficient use. When workers without college degrees can’t get a good job, they say that’s their fault. They should have gone to college.
Now, I rather suspect that if globalization threatened America’s tech industry or banking sector, our elites would sing a very different tune. We would hear how these industries are the lifeblood of the American economy and must be protected at all cost.
And that’s just the point. The elites assume their interests are vital while dismissing others. They assume their value preferences should prevail, while denigrating the loves and loyalties of Middle America. That’s the nature of elitism.
And at the end of the day, this hierarchy and this elitism threaten our common liberty. The steady erosion of working-class jobs and working-class life means, for millions of Americans, losing respect. It means losing their voice. It means losing their standing as citizens in this nation.
Our Pelagian public philosophy says liberty is all about choosing your own ends. That turns out to be a philosophy for the privileged. For everybody else, for those who can’t build an identity around the things they buy, for those whose life is anchored in family and home and nation, for those who actually want to participate in our democracy, today’s Pelagianism robs them of the liberty that is rightfully theirs.
Fundamentally, Pelagius misunderstood the Cross. Pelagius had not learned the meaning of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he wrote, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things … so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:26–29).
The Cross announces the weakness and need of every person. And that means it excludes the boasting and the pride of the few.
The Cross says the talented, the well-born, the well-educated do not deserve special privileges. They are not more valuable than anyone else. The call of God comes to every person and the power of God is poured out on all who believe.
This has spiritual ramifications, but cultural and political ones as well. Paul says it is the humble, the everyday, those without social status whom God chooses to exercise his power. And so, by extension, it is not the privileged but the common man or woman, not the elite, but the everyday person who moves the destinies of the world.
That burning insight was once the animating principle of American life. And we must make it so again.
We must rebuild a culture that affirms the dignity of the working man and woman, that protects their way of life and honors their central role in the life of this country. We must rebuild an economy that will offer opportunity for every American worker, whatever degree she may have, wherever he may live—an economy that rewards hard, productive work. For that, after all, is the work that built this country. We must rebuild a democracy run not by the elites, but by the great middle of America, a democracy that allows the working man and woman to realize their God-given ability to govern themselves and help manage the life of his nation.
That is the great task of the hour.
Joshua Hawley is the United States senator from Missouri. This article was adapted from a commencement address given at The King’s College in New York City on Saturday, May 11.