Recently a friend who’s taught political science at a distinguished Evangelical school for decades told me that when he mentions Christian doctrines about Original Sin or depravity to students their response typically is blank stares. These teachings are not widely circulated any more in the Protestant and Evangelical worlds, much of which are now more prone to worldviews premised on niceness, good people, and idealistic aspirations for societal perfection.
These soothing, deceptive notions are dangerous! Humanity’s worse crimes were committed on the assumption of and in pursuit of social perfection. Commissars and Gauleiters of the last century murdered millions with confidence that they were completing an earthly city of God. In contrast, the pursuit of authentic social good rejects confusing the city of man with the city of God. True justice, compassion and liberty in society, to the extent attainable, depend on the realistic acknowledgement that our world is fallen and human nature corrupted. Christians of nearly all traditions traditionally acknowledge the reality and power of Original Sin. Magisterial Protestantism explicitly affirms the total depravity of human nature, which is completely in need of God’s grace for redemption.
Secularism typically rejects the reality of human wickedness, despite the universality of the empirical evidence. So it strives to construct societal castles that assume an unavailable perfection, often destroying liberty and human life in manic pursuit of an abstract ideal. In its extreme, totalitarian forms, it fills concentration camps with the dissidents who don’t conform to its utopian vision of the New Man.
Liberal Protestantism is also discomfited by admitting humanity’s intrinsic bent towards evil, instead locating evil in abstract forces, like racism, greed, or exploitation, that can be vanquished through intense political action and ultimately state coercion. The Social Gospel sought the Kingdom of God through displacing capitalism with state regulation and ownership, through which the people, rather than sinister interests, would rule. It couldn’t admit that the people themselves have their own varied sinister interests.
The Evangelical Left is largely on this same road, believing the state regulatory social welfare state can achieve social justice through more spending and centralized control. Somehow it equates Jesus with expanding, impersonal secular bureaucracies that are usually hostile to faith and mediating institutions in civil society.
Whether religious or secular, these statists typically don’t admit that humanity is by nature selfish and prone to exploit and abuse laws loftily intended to combat poverty, discrimination, and ecological degradation. Instead, for them, good intent equals reality.
In contrast, traditionalists who see the world as it is robustly acknowledge human depravity and seek human structures that restrain it and channel it without pretending it will disappear. Society needs law enforcement, criminal justice systems, prisons, militaries, and intelligence agencies to guard against criminal and global predation. Government’s chief purpose is to protect against violence and disorder. But the government itself cannot be trusted with inordinate power and so must be carefully restrained. Non government actors, especially religious institutions, should have wide social space to address social ills like poverty, whose root causes are often spiritual. And economic life can only prosper if it motivates self-interest.
Believers in the power of human sin also believe in the greater power of God’s grace, which is redeeming the world. But that redemption is both now and not yet. God’s Kingdom is expanding but won’t reach completion until He wills it. So the Christian life is one of patience and perseverance, full of hope but not false idealism about this world. We are commanded to help and serve others without romanticizing them. They are fellow sinners.
Admitting the total depravity of human nature, and the wondrous power of divine grace, permits societies that seek approximate order, liberty and justice without overweening, dictatorial ambition. Such societies respect conscience and human dignity, which sees each person as sacred not because we’re good but because we’re created in the image of and loved by someone Who is good.
The doctrine of total depravity, as refined by the Protestant reformers and perpetuated by later followers, including John Wesley, is a liberating, ennobling, democratizing tenet that rejects human pretension and insists that we are all equal in our unworthiness before the Almighty.
Remembering total depravity is key to social justice and harmony. It rejects the idol of human perfection and instead sees God alone on the throne. Any Christian social witness that ignores intrinsic human depravity will instead only contribute to it and ultimately further give evidence of it.