An excerpt from “Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea,” by Bradley C.S. Watson (University Press of Notre Dame, 260 pages, $45). 

The Revolt Against the American Order

Common experience, and modern psychology, validate the truism that people tend to see what they are looking for. In the professional realm, confirmation bias—that is, the tendency of investigators to seek and elevate that which confirms their preexisting hypotheses—is likely to constrain the gaze of even the most determined and experienced souls, and perhaps especially the most determined and experienced. Déformation professionnelle, as the French call it, is a condition that can afflict only the well trained, or at least the long inured.

Economists, meanwhile, use the phrase regulatory capture to describe the observable phenomenon of knowledgeable groups with concentrated interests swaying or “capturing” the determinations of regulators who are supposed to act impartially and for the public good. The public’s interest, alas, is dispersed. A captured agency might well be more harmful to the public good than no agency at all. Its influence can be pernicious and can go largely unnoticed by everyone except the very few in the know.

Professional academics, nominally dedicated to objectivity, have not proved immune to deformation, or outright capture by professional interests, in their efforts to regulate the ebb and flow of respectable opinion. The American academy, long enjoying various forms of insulation and privilege, is uniquely positioned to generate moral hazard in the realm of ideas. A case in point is the idea of progressivism as it was transmitted by American academics, especially historians, from the middle part of the 20th century onward. The progressive idea, simply put, is that the principled American constitutionalism of fixed natural rights and limited and dispersed powers must be overturned and replaced by an organic, evolutionary model of the Constitution that facilitates the authority of experts dedicated to the expansion of the public sphere and political control, especially at the national level.

By the middle part of the 20th century, historians were reporting that progressivism had never existed. By so doing, they certainly could not be accused of exaggerating its death. In 1971, Peter Filene of the University of North Carolina wrote an obituary for progressivism and for attempts to chronicle a phantom. It was as if scholarly ghostbusters for decades had carefully planted their cameras in the countless rooms of the haunted mansion of American history, only to come up with nothing—or at least nothing clearly identifiable as progressivism once the videotapes had finally been scrutinized by more dispassionate, technically adept observers.

Despite the intentions of scholars to airbrush progressivism from American history, the progressive idea seemed real enough to those who first expounded and developed it. As a recent observer notes, “No one at the time thought Progressivism so various and contradictory as to be meaningless, much less nonexistent, though its adherents battled furiously over its political agenda.” Furthermore, each of the three main presidential candidates in the election of 1912 claimed the label.

The reality of American Progressivism comes into view only in relation to what it rebelled against, which was nothing less than the American constitutional order and especially the political philosophy on which it rested.

The Real Presence of Christ 

As progressives mobilized intellectually and politically around the inadequacies and injustices of the founders’ Constitution and the modern economic order, they did so with a fervor for, and faith in, the social sciences, which they thought could remedy injustice. The intensity of their fervor and faith can be traced to the influence of religion.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, American Christianity still buttressed the constitutional order by linking human fallenness to the need for political moderation, individual rights and responsibilities, and limited government, which in turn reflected what historian Johnathan O’Neill refers to as “the long-established view that maintenance of a political regime involves ideas and sensibilities associated most readily in the Western tradition with religion.” Scholars have also shown that this view of religion and morality, pointing to fidelity to a Constitution embodying immutable truths, informed the thinking and constitutional interpretations of pre-progressive Supreme Court justices. So for the progressives, regime change necessarily meant religious change, and vice versa. Christian progressives held that a new era had dawned, based on a new conception of religious obligation. A reconstituted worldly Christianity called for the expansion of the state in the name of moral and theological progress.

This reconstitution accounted for the zeal of many progressives, confident as they were not only of the direction of history but of their own rectitude. As Christian progressives directed their minds to what they saw as the new problems confronting America, they exhibited various degrees of millenarianism, which accounted for the power of their thought and its ability to capture the hearts and minds of a growing cadre of true believers. 

Throughout the Progressive Era, religious language was common at political gatherings at the local, state, and national levels, including even national conventions. But the fervor of Christian progressivism was unlike that of prior American religious awakenings. Instead of concentrating on individual moral failings and the special need for individual reformation, Christian progressives concentrated their gaze almost exclusively on matters of social and economic justice. 

By the first decades of the 20th century, both Protestant social gospelers and Catholic reformers were vigorously attempting to shift the center of gravity of mainline Christianity toward applying what they claimed to be true Christian ethics in the here and now. It was clear that they understood their project to be both radical and political, and a very sharp break from the Christianity of their fathers. According to the scholar Ernst Breisach, they “prided themselves on having freed Christianity from the shackles of the past—asceticism, dogmatism, and ceremonialism—and on having transformed it into a message befitting the future—brotherly love in a truly democratic society.” For these progressives, Christian churches placed too great an emphasis on the salvation of souls and the life of the world to come. The real presence of Christ came to take on whole new meaning.

Historians of progressivism have occasionally observed this phenomenon but have been divided on its origins and significance. Some have noted that, along with more purely economic notions like “antimonopolism” and “efficiency,” the language of “social bonds” ran through most strains of progressivism and was juxtaposed against homo economicus, and especially the notion of man as the autonomous wielder of property rights. Scholar Daniel T. Rodgers notes this was the language “most tightly attached to the churches and the university lecture halls. Its roots stretched toward Germany and, still more importantly, toward the social gospel. When progressives talked of society and solidarity the rhetoric they drew upon was, above all, the rhetoric of socialized Protestantism.” Richard Hofstadter goes so far as to trace the roots of progressivism to Protestant guilt and the need to atone:

In evangelical Protestantism the individual is expected to bear almost the full burden of the conversion and salvation of his soul. What his church provides him with, so far as this goal is concerned, is an instrument of exhortation. In Catholicism, by contrast, as in some other churches, the mediating role of the Church itself is of far greater importance and the responsibility of the individual is not keyed up to quite the same pitch. A working mechanism for the disposal and psychic mastery of guilt is available to Roman Catholics in the form of confession and penance. If this difference is translated into political terms, the moral animus of Progressivism can be better understood.

But such psychological and theological reductionism cannot adequately account for what Protestant progressives claimed was the essentially social and political nature of the Christian enterprise, or for the strains of progressivism that animated leading Catholic thinkers—including, for example, Fr. John Ryan. 

In A Living Wage, Ryan, like his Protestant counterparts, sought human solidarity and heavenly justice through economic policy. And in this quest, he sought to turn Catholicism—as the social gospel movement had turned Protestantism—against the American system of constitutionally limited government, private property, and capitalism, in the search for a more rational scientific state that would support nothing less than the Kingdom of God on earth.

The roots of the modern administrative state thus run deep in the soil of Christian progressivism. But one might go further and argue that religious reformers drew on notions of moral duty running from Aristotle through the medieval Catholic intellectual tradition, albeit often infused with an anti-prudential Kantian moralism. And as a practical matter, Protestant progressives allied with both Catholics and Jews, whose understandings of law and morality antedated modernity. While rejecting the natural rights tradition of the American founders, religious progressives—unlike their secular confreres—at least formally asserted versions of a natural moral order, and even natural rights, which purported to be timeless. They were not willing to reduce “nature” merely to physical or biological laws.

In short, one needs to take religion more seriously than many historians have been prepared to do. The centrality of serious and wide-ranging religious sentiment to progressive ideology should not be underestimated. Christian progressives joined forces with economists such as Richard T. Ely and political scientists like Woodrow Wilson against what they claimed were the new economic and social realities that had been fully unleashed by the modern industrial age. They generally glossed over, and sometimes deliberately understated, the fundamentally anti-constitutional character of their arguments and the reforms to which they pointed. Secular and Christian progressive thinkers together pressed for an expansion of state power, and especially national state power, at the expense of constitutional limits. And in the case of the theologians, it was also at the expense of the sacred, even as the essential revelations and rituals of Christianity were of vital importance to them. Theirs was a natural law that did not limit government in principle but rather vouchsafed its protean expansion as it simultaneously reduced Christian faith to a set of economic and political demands.

From a contemporary perspective, it seems ironic that social Christianity of both the Protestant and Catholic varieties helped lay the foundations for the modern administrative state, as nowadays religious faith is frequently associated with political conservatism and opposition to progressive goals. But it was not always so. And to the extent that a secularized millenarianism is evident in the rhetoric of contemporary liberalism, it can trace its origins to the rather insistent piety of the early progressive religious thinkers.

Richard T. Ely on the Border Land

In the thought of Richard Ely—Progressive economist and expounder of the social gospel at the end of the 19th century—one can find a compact explication of the overlapping intuitions and arguments that the new breed of social scientists shared with Christian theologians. Ely was a professor of political economy first at Johns Hopkins—the institution that most channeled German Hegelian understandings onto American intellectual shores—and then at Wisconsin, which would become a bastion of progressive thinking throughout the 20th century. 

Along with his intellectual antagonist William Graham Sumner, Ely was arguably the most influential economist of his age, laying the intellectual groundwork for, and anticipating the reforms of, both the Progressive Era and the New Deal. But it was in the views of Ely the armchair theologian that the era—if not the century—that he foreshadowed was most comprehensively limned. 

Not only did he decisively influence both the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Catholic social thought of Ryan, he also served as practical exemplar and theoretical explicator of the power of faith to move social science, as well as the obligation of faith-based social science to move the levers of power. As the 20th century wore on, the faith that animated social science and justified governmental power shifted from its roots in Christianity to a fully secular millenarianism. But the leap was perhaps not that great once American elites had fully internalized the worldliness of Ely’s version of Christianity—what he called Christianity’s inherently “manward” side.

Ely concentrates on the ethical obligations of Christians in the industrial age. He makes clear that his writings deal with the “border land” where theology, ethics, and economics meet. He claims that only Christianity can provide the Archimedean point on which a proper political and economic ordering can rest. Christianity—albeit with a new worldly emphasis—provides immeasurable advantage to those committed to social change. It is the most powerful social force known to man; it need only be harnessed and directed toward its proper end.

Ely recognizes that modern social science cannot provide answers to normative questions, and he claims it leaves “too much in the air” to give progressive thinkers a firm or confident motive for their reformist ambitions. Enter Christianity, which Ely claims is unique among religions in the nature and extent of the civic and secular obligations it imposes. Remarking on Matthew 22:34–40, where Christ reduces the law to loving the Lord and loving thy neighbor as thyself, Ely says no merely human teacher would place the duty to man on an equal plane with the duty to God. He claims that such a juxtaposition of duties exists in no other religious system. Personal salvation is not the end of religion, though it is the beginning: only when the individual Christian is in right relation with God can he get on with the ultimate task of being in right relation to his fellows. Christianity alone provides a stable ground for humanitarianism.

The history of ethics, according to Ely, confirms the view that Christianity is unique: classical philosophers did not know of benevolence. Benevolence, for Christians, is a form of divine service, and piety is identified with pity. Prior to the Reformation, this fact was obscured, and the separation of “right life” from religion was a scandal to the church. 

Socialism is Christianity for the modern age insofar as it promises to realize the brotherhood of man by creating a social system dedicated to the maxim “One for all, all for one.”

“Some have gone so far as to make salvation consist in ceremonies, obedience to the dictates of priestcraft, in some sort of magic, or in a feeling of the emotional nature . . . even in intellectual assent to a species of metaphysics. What have all these things to do with conduct?” But Ely argues there is much work still to be done, and much that Protestants can learn from Catholics, for the Church of Rome provides the greatest opportunities for renunciation and sacrifice of the self, thus overcoming one of the errors of Protestantism.

Ely elsewhere notes with regret that modern hymns are almost exclusively oriented to individual rather than social salvation. So different are they from the Psalms, which tend to be “social and national” and don’t “contain an I or me except when the words are put into the mouth of the Lord.” The hymns thereby deny or downplay our common humanity, united in God, of which we are reminded by the visible witness of Baptism. 

Likewise, the Lord’s Supper, though it draws us to heaven, reminds of the “manward” side of Christianity in the food and drink—bread and wine—that so sublimely express human fraternity. And yet even this sacrament is degraded by the use of individual communion cups. Ely asks, “Is our earthly life so precious that it must be so saved at all hazards?” 

The rituals and revelations of Christianity point to our unity and interdependence in the tribulations of this world. All of Christ’s words must be read in light of the doctrine of “social solidarity,” which makes us all responsible for the sin and suffering of our fellow men. An entire city is guilty of a murder that occurs in one of its slums. This is a truth confirmed by social science, which can show us the determining power of heredity and environment. We develop true “individuality” only by bringing ourselves into harmony “with the laws of social solidarity” 

Christ separated good men from bad on the basis of their respective performance of “social duties,” which makes true Christianity unique in the extent to which man serves God by serving man. Other religions tell men they may serve God by injuring their fellows. Christianity, by contrast, exalts man. Through his second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, Christ introduces sociology, or the science of society, to the world. It is therefore incumbent on the church to embrace research in social science; her failure to do so has encouraged communism to become infidel, and socialism to become materialistic rather spiritual. 

Ely goes so far as to suggest that half the time spent in theological seminaries—which should be the intellectual centers of sociology—should be devoted to social science education. While social science cannot point to ends, it can provide the means to achieve them. As political scientist Luigi Bradizza argues, Ely’s social science “becomes practical Christianity,” and its confident pursuit is an implicit rejection of the inherent imperfection of this world. But the 20th century would provide ample evidence that social science, on Ely’s terms, could not long serve Christianity. The table would soon be turned, and Christianity swept from it.

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For Ely, the welfare of man is the point of the “most fundamental laws” of the church, and social utility is their test. There is, Ely insists, only one law taught by Christianity on its “manward” side: that is the law of love, which finds expression through social service and its test in social welfare. “Christianity and ethical science agree perfectly.” Ely tends to ignore biblical passages that cut against a worldly Christianity, or at least he glosses them to support it.

In a statement that is characteristic of the progressive mind, Ely expresses profound confidence in the power and utility of expertise, so long as it is wielded by the right sort of people. “Philanthropy,” he claims, “must be grounded in profound sociological studies. Otherwise, so complex is modern society that in our efforts to help man, we might only injure him. Not all are capable of research in sociology, but the church should call to her service in this field the greatest intellects of the age.” The purpose of the American Economic Association, of which Ely was a founder, is nothing less than “to study seriously the second of the two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets, in all its ramifications, and thus to bring science to the aid of Christianity.” Ely goes on to express something approaching bewilderment that not one in ten Christians would contribute to the association (a fact of which he had personal knowledge as its secretary).

Because of the indifference of Christians to the second great commandment, wage workers feel increasingly alienated from the church, Ely notes with regret. This is destined to be, so long as the church fails to understand its true mission and fails to see that “nearly everything in the words of Christ applies to the present life.” Ely makes many arresting claims, but perhaps none more than this: “Christianity is primarily concerned with this world, and it is the mission of Christianity to bring to pass here a kingdom of righteousness and to rescue from the evil one and redeem all our social relations.” 

At the end of the 19th century, Ely was pointing to the similarities between early Christianity and socialism. Each appealed mainly to the masses, grew rapidly, and had an international, cosmopolitan character. Each demanded universal dominion, neither had been slowed by persecution, and each commanded of its adherents a religious devotion. Ely claims that socialism is attractive not for its materialism but for its ethical ideals, which parallel Christianity’s, and which inspire “fiery zeal” for labor and sacrifice on behalf of the masses. While the influence of the Bible on the average Christian has waned over the centuries, socialism retains a power to guide the lives of its followers similar to that of early Christianity. In fact, socialism is Christianity for the modern age insofar as it promises to realize the brotherhood of man by creating a social system dedicated to the maxim “One for all, all for one.” 

In language that sounds remarkably contemporary (save perhaps for its grounding in the duty of Christians), Ely stresses the importance of fulsome tax payments, for he who neglects to pay his “fair share” does so on the backs of the “weaker elements in society, such as the widow or orphan.”

Christian socialism arises out of the belief that Christianity must be real and vital, applying in the marketplace as well as the pews, and recognizing the fact of social solidarity: that all interests are intertwined and that the prosperity of any one depends on the prosperity of all. 

In this context, it must be understood that private property is a useful and exclusive right but never an absolute one, for property has a “social side.” Individual claims, essential to “thrift and industry,” must nevertheless give way to social claims on the understanding that all property is a trust to be administered in accordance with the will of God. The land of Israel was not the property of the nation, let alone of the individual, but remained always God’s property, assigned to the use of families “under national regulation.” It remains the task of just societies to find some political mechanism to make the Christian doctrine of stewardship real. In practice, this involves “public agencies” exercising regulatory power. In fact, passing “good laws” in the cities is as much a religious service as preaching the gospel.

Despite Ely’s assertion of a right to property, it seems clear that title to property creates a social obligation more than a right to exclusive use. Ethical behavior, from a Christian point of view, depends much on coercion, or at least law that attracts true believers as it cajoles those who need guidance. Drawing on the insights of classical political philosophers, Ely sees law as education as well as force, enlightening the conscience. 

The subjects that Ely imagines the law might effectively compass and the lessons he imagines it might teach are in no way limited to those matters over which reasonable men might, after due deliberation, agree. Law is unmoored from any grounding in nature and is instead directed at moving—more or less in unison—the consciences of men toward particular policy conclusions concerning the regulation of the conditions of industrial life. 

Ely’s view of property relations, like economics as a whole, is distinctly historicist: all policies must change depending on time, place, and cultural particularities. And government, animated by the essential moral teaching of Christ, is the primary agent of change and direction. 

The progressive state is valorized along with the things of the world. With the growth of such an understanding, the only things on which the morally earnest man need concentrate are those things that are within the purview and control of the state—those that can be manipulated through the application of law and administrative expertise.

To further these ends, lawyers and judges must become social scientists in order to do away with the messiness and corruption of American republican institutions. Well before it became a commonplace observation, Ely recognized that judges in effect exercise legislative authority, but he saw little problem with that so long as it was well exercised. Judges should be selected with explicit reference to their social and economic philosophies and should decide the limits of police powers in a scientifically (as opposed to constitutionally) appropriate manner. 

Unlike Tocqueville, Ely was not willing to sacrifice some order, along with predictability and high conceptions of moral propriety, for the sake of self-government. Viewed retrospectively, Ely’s understandings of judicial competence and power seem refreshingly honest, if not exactly true to the American constitutional and common law tradition. But if they were articulated as clearly and honestly today, such understandings might at least have the benefit of preventing judicial confirmation hearings from turning into the comic kabuki dances they have become.

In language that sounds remarkably contemporary (save perhaps for its grounding in the duty of Christians), Ely stresses the importance of fulsome tax payments, for he who neglects to pay his “fair share” does so on the backs of the “weaker elements in society, such as the widow or orphan.” A “great body” of “attractive laws” must be formulated by thinking Christians to keep the ways and means flowing toward the government without complaint, paving the way to a brighter future. Private philanthropy will not suffice for this comprehensive task, for the “great lines of social reform must be the concern of agencies which work steadily and persistently.” 

Property distribution must be manipulated by the state for the good of all, though not all property must be owned collectively. So Ely, while no friend of capitalism, was not strictly speaking a socialist, or at least not a very comprehensive one. Distribution and regulation of private property, however, must be undertaken fairly regularly, and without the counterproductive and artificial constraints that would be imposed by traditional constitutional understandings. A constitution grounded in natural rights and expressing limitations on government power is an obstacle to social Christianity. 

So what might be called the default position of the Founders’ regime—that a central purpose of government is to protect property as a natural right, rather than to distribute it as a contingent one—is flatly rejected by Ely. And in this he seems to ignore the possibility of factional conflict over governmental distribution of spoils, not to mention the dangers posed by the imperial overreach of ambitious politicians and the consequent discrediting of government itself.

A developed, innate moral sense of social obligation is something for which Ely hopes, but he believes it is not something on which he, or his fellow Christians, can rely. Freedom is not the absence of restraint but is found in service to others and therefore eschews self-interest. And this freedom needs external guidance. 

Our individuality must be directed toward others—rather routinely, one might say—in a manner that is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the Founders’ Constitution. This is so because of Ely’s implicit denial of Madison’s observation that the causes of faction are sown irreducibly in the nature of man and that the simultaneous unleashing and checking of unequal interests, opinions, and passions can conduce to the public good far better than the high-minded moralism of the state. For Ely, rather, freedom comes in pursuing the common rather than individual good and in overcoming what Madison calls self-love, which routinely limits and degrades man’s higher faculties. Ely is confident that man shall know the truth and that the truth shall set him to concentrate on social goals.

The State and Social Ethics

Ely claims his conception of the state is derivative from Christian social ethics, which rejects the “English” philosophy of individualism. A proper reading of the Old Testament confirms that the nation, in its law-making capacity, is nothing less than “God’s instrument for the establishment of universal righteousness.” God consistently deals with nations and reaches individuals only through them. Ely insists that this “co-operative institution” of the state is merely the means to a proper political economy that is in harmony with religion. In Ely’s scheme, the practical morality man needs is the morality embodied in and expressed through the state. At best, this seems to result in muddying the relationship between ethical ends and means.

Ely understands the state to be an organic whole rather than a product of the conscious will of man. No social contract created it, nor can it be dissolved through the deliberate choices of men. Christ himself recognized the state’s divine character, with powers ordained of God. Ely strikingly insists that yet another outcome of the Protestant Reformation was “the exaltation of the state,” overcoming the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on the distinction between the cities of God and man. 

With poor laws and the curtailment of the functions of the ecclesiastical courts, Protestant nations achieved something analogous to the merger of English courts of common law and equity, each with their own bodies of substantive law, but overlapping and interconnecting at various points. In each case, the goal was unity under a higher, more complete understanding of justice. The clergy and the special prerogatives of the church gave way to universal law expressed through the sovereign unity of the state, which is a truer representation of God’s will. Ely goes so far as to make the arresting claim that “religious laws,” broadly understood, “are the only laws which ought to be enacted.” 

So the state must be understood to be divine in idea and intention, if not in practice. To the extent that the political life of the United States is “unworthy,” it is because “the nature of offenses against the purity of political life as offenses directly against God has not in recent years been adequately emphasized.” The state is not quite God—but woe unto that man through whom offense to the state cometh.

Although the New Testament replaces the nation with a “world-wide” society and extends our duties accordingly, the nation-state is still, practically speaking, the instantiation of universal Christian truth. As Moses said nothing of the future life, so Christ, even in his resurrection and immortality, reminded us that “eternal life begins in this world.” Even the injunction to render unto Caesar is nothing more than an admonishment to submit to sovereign authority, even if it is established by conquest. 

Christ condemns not the world but the worldliness of self-interest and seeks always national righteousness: 

We must have a feeling for our city, for our country, like that which is inculcated in the Bible. Our Jerusalem must be so dear to us that we can say with the psalmist, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

“If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

When we reach this point, then we shall attain civic reform; then our commonwealths will be regenerated; then shall we see our nation a new nation, exalted by righteousness.

Ely was routinely bold to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Father John Ryan and a Roman Catholic Political Economy

Like his Protestant counterparts, Ryan was an influential scholar, professor, and activist with an overriding interest in matters of economic justice, resting on a belief that religion, ethics, and economics could not be divorced. He taught first at St. Paul Seminary, and then at the Catholic University of America. Unlike Rauschenbusch, he attempted to ground or at least embed his arguments in a larger natural law theory. And he rejected, at least formally, the idea that the church’s primary objective should be anything other than the salvation of souls. Also unlike Rauschenbusch, he lived through and directly influenced the New Deal period, so he was able to see his moral theology come to fruition in very concrete ways. 

New Deal initiatives like minimum wage laws, social security, and labor legislation are all enactments of various elements of Ryan’s plan. And Ryan was a political actor himself when circumstances called for it. In several states, he testified in favor of the passage of minimum wage laws. The Progressive Party platform of 1912 incorporated his “living wage” language. And by the 1930s, he became a vehement supporter of the New Deal, on the basis that it found a Christian middle ground: “neither individualism nor socialism.”

Ryan’s most influential contribution to the intellectual ferment of his times was his argument in favor of a living wage. But it would be a mistake to construe his efforts narrowly. His case for the living wage amounts to a social welfare version of the natural law, as well as an argument against what he sees as the rampant individualism of the American polity. His doctoral dissertation was first published in 1906 as the book, A Living Wage, and was widely reviewed in America and abroad. The book was introduced by none other than Richard Ely, whom Ryan had first read as a young seminarian and to whom he sent a prepublication copy.

Despite his orthodoxy, Ryan, like most progressives, could never escape his fascination with modern science and its tendency to direct human attention away from eternity and toward the here and now.

In the book, Ryan shared Rauschenbusch’s confidence that a new day was finally dawning in Americans’ understanding of the ends, and injustices, of their economic system. In his 1919 preface to a revised edition, he asserted what he claimed was almost “universally accepted” by “all intelligent and disinterested persons”: a laborer has a distinct moral claim to a decent living wage. And Ely, in his introduction, suggested the main purpose of the book was to stimulate the conscience of Christians as to their palpable duties, including supporting a Christian doctrine of wages. But the book’s subject matter was yet broader than that, according to Ely. It was in fact “the first attempt in the English language to elaborate what may be called a Roman Catholic system of political economy.”

In the words of Ryan’s mid-20th-century biographer Francis L. Broderick, “More than any other single figure in the Catholic Church in America, he is responsible for the progressive stands adopted by official Catholic spokesmen in our time. Some of these men are former students of his; many were trained in an atmosphere he helped create.” 

When, in 1919, the American bishops issued their “Program for Social Reconstruction,” Ryan in effect enjoyed the support of the American Catholic hierarchy for the reforms he had long championed. The document, for Ryan’s purposes, “created another standard to set beside Rerum Novarum when he appealed to the conscience of Catholic America.” The effect was to shift the burden of proof on economic matters—more or less permanently, as it turns out—from progressives to conservatives within the church. The American church, while making room for conservative clergy and laymen, has itself spoken the language of economic progressivism, in its official voice, since Ryan’s time.

Insisting on his Christian bona fides, and, beyond that, his religious orthodoxy and commitment to the Holy See, Ryan is at pains in A Living Wage to state the influence of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum as the document that “converted the Living Wage doctrine from an implicit into an explicit principle of Catholic ethics.” 

Opposing socialism and materialism as well as exploitation of labor, Leo argued for the dignity of workers and wage justice, as well as for a wide sphere of state action—things that accorded with Ryan’s views even before he read the encyclical. Ryan notes that Protestantism, in its individuality, has less pronounced and uniform teachings on these matters, but it is nonetheless true that Protestant denominations have never signaled approval of “unlimited bargaining.” And he also notes that the Federal Council of Churches had just made a formal demand for a living wage enforced by the state. 

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Paradoxically, despite his orthodoxy, Ryan, like most progressives, could never escape his fascination with modern science and its tendency to direct human attention away from eternity and toward the here and now.

Ryan wastes no time in arguing that his notion of a living wage is derivative from natural law. In this sense, his work is less dependent on a parsing of the Gospels than is Rauschenbusch’s. Ryan asserts that the labor question cannot be solved without religion, but “Neither will religion suffice in the absence of a detailed application of moral principles to the relations of employer and employee.” 

With Rauschenbusch, Ryan recognizes that men might be religious in a conventional sense but blind to moral wrongs because of their false commitment to an individualist, competitive ethical code. In fine, business ethics instead of Christian ethics govern their lives. Clergymen must therefore give more attention to preaching a living wage and less to “other duties that are no more important.” 

Moral and religious suasion—including using one’s ecclesiastical position to “deprive recalcitrant employers of the church privileges that are ordinarily denied to persistently disobedient members”—are important, but they are not all. For Ryan, philosophical reason looms much larger as a source of influence on Christians than it does for Rauschenbusch.

The laborer, Ryan emphasizes, has an individual natural right to a living wage that belongs to him personally, not simply to him as a member of society. It is something he possesses at birth and is in no way a creature of the positive law. The “absoluteness” of the right is meant in the sense it does not depend on the will of another, not that it cannot be subjected to reasonable limits. Or, as Ryan puts it, it is absolute in existence, though not in extent. Men’s natural rights are equal in number and embrace a minimum of goods, which minimum is determined by the reasonable needs of human “personality.” The catalog of natural rights to which Ryan refers includes not only life, liberty, and property but livelihood, marriage, religious worship, and education.

But rights are not ends in themselves; they are means to the end of the “welfare of the person,” which is an inviolable fact of the natural order. Happiness and dignity are alternative expressions of this welfare. And in turn, it is the “development” of “personality” that allows for welfare to be achieved. 

As we are morally obliged to order our lives to pursue human welfare, so we have a natural obligation not to interfere with the natural rights of others. We know what conduces to human welfare by knowing first what constitutes man’s nature—“his essential constitution, relations and end.” Ryan claims that academic opposition to natural rights doctrine is a result of the doctrine’s “exaggerated and anti-social form”—its Rousseauist form—which can be found among both European and American theorists (though Ryan’s tendency is to conflate the two). 

Writing elsewhere, Ryan echoed Theodore Roosevelt’s concerns that moral decadence and demand for luxurious living were leading to a dangerous decline in the birth rate.

According to this form of natural rights theory, nature refers not to what is permanent in man but to what can be found in his primitive state. “State of nature” theory for Ryan seems to always point to a denial of nature that allows the strong to oppress the weak through legal mechanisms. He seems therefore not to allow that a robust natural rights theory—one that is self-limiting and oriented toward protecting the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority—is embedded in a social contractarian view of government.

He claims his doctrine is the antidote to the dangers of antisocial natural rights theories, a middle ground between revolutionary, fundamentally Rousseauist views and legal positivism. Individuals must be understood to be endowed by nature, and God, with rights that are requisite to the development of personality. The extent of the rights must be worked out in time, according to social circumstances. No right can be understood to interfere with the state’s obligation to adjust conflicting claims in the name of social welfare. “The true formula is, that the individual has a right to all things that are essential to the reasonable development of his personality, consistently with the rights of others and the complete observance of the moral law.” Ryan claims this middle ground will guarantee that man does not become a mere instrument of the state.

Following Pope Leo, Ryan argues that the right to property is in fact natural rather than conventional but that it is also contingent. Private property is a right not for its own sake but insofar as it conduces to the satisfaction of genuine human needs, and especially the needs of the family. It is, again, a means rather than an end. It best enables the realization of the primary right of man to use nature for the development of personality—physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual. 

“Adjustment” is necessary because, though men are equal “generically,” they are unequal “individually,” each having different powers and needs. A decent livelihood varies from time to time, place to place, and individual to individual. Hence the need for elasticity and, most importantly, expertise in determining just what constitutes such a livelihood. During his time teaching at St. Paul Seminary, Ryan tellingly devoted more than a quarter of his course in moral theology to economic history and political economy.

The difficulties of making such complex economic determinations, while daunting, should not deter. The right to a living wage can be asserted only against members of the industrial community where the worker lives, which is something Ryan admits can be defined only approximately. But the complexity of modern economies, while serving to obscure economic rights, should not halt confident action. Even traditional rights doctrines interfere with a proper understanding of natural rights, which are more akin to the Christian doctrine that private ownership is not absolute but a form of stewardship. The capaciousness of Ryan’s understanding of stewardship is notable. He favored using the “superfluous” goods of the wealthy to subsidize the needs of the poor—from labor unions, to education, to hospitals and housing.

In an early version of equal pay for work of equal value, Ryan observes that women deserve the same living wage as men, assuming their efficiency is the same. But he grounds this in a concern not only for distributive justice but for the family. Paying women less than men would tend to drive the latter out of an occupation and thereby increase the proportion of female workers, which he does not see as a good. 

As man by nature needs the permanent love and companionship of the opposite sex, a living wage must be sufficient to support family life. In an interesting admixture of what might be called contemporary individualist and Catholic communitarian arguments, Ryan claims the majority of men cannot achieve appropriate “self-development” outside the conjugal state. For the average man, “celibacy is not normal” and cannot be the measure of his natural rights. But, in his search for some limiting principle, Ryan claims that a laborer cannot in justice demand a wage to support his parents because in the normal course of things parents should have taken precautions to secure themselves financially. Rights, he asserts, “are not to be interpreted by the abnormal and exceptional exigencies of existence.” 

And again, in his efforts to make economic life compatible with the life of the nuclear family, Ryan argues that the family living wage is due to every male laborer, based on “average” rather than exceptional circumstances. Even those who are unmarried are due this wage, for to deny it to them would create an increased demand for their labor, to the ultimate destruction of the family. It would place a premium on “a very undesirable kind of celibacy.” The basis for estimating the family living wage is in relation to a family containing the average number of children found in a workingman’s home—about four to five. While Ryan admits this formula is not perfect, this is the best that can be done in present circumstances to preserve “the intrinsic worth and sacredness of personality.” 

Writing elsewhere—shortly after President Theodore Roosevelt warned Americans, in 1903, that its best citizens were insufficiently fecund—Ryan echoed TR’s concerns that moral decadence and demand for luxurious living were leading to a dangerous decline in the birth rate. 

In A Living Wage, Ryan goes further to argue that aversion to marriage fosters selfishness that leads to indolence and inertia, and therefore that arguments for “sexual self-restraint” as a means to aid the working class are misplaced. They are “immoral and anti-social,” bad for both society and the individual personality. What is needed is not misguided moralizing—exhortations directed at encouraging fundamentally unnatural lives—but “social action,” especially in the realms of government regulation and labor organization. Positive rather than negative freedom is needed. In a summative statement of his conception of the social order—which is at once rights-based and organic—Ryan states:

the obligation to pay a Living Wage falls upon the employer as a reasonable consequence of his position in the economic organism. From this responsibility he cannot free himself by appealing to the labor contract or to the productivity of labor; for the former is consistent with extortion, while the latter is usually unknowable, and is always inferior to needs as a canon of distribution. Inability to perform the obligation suspends it, but inability must not be so interpreted as to favor the superfluous needs of the employer at the expense of the essential needs of the laborer. The employer’s right to obtain interest on the capital that he has invested in his business is subordinate to the laborer’s right to a Living Wage.

The state, therefore, has both a “right” and “duty” to require a living wage, for its very purpose is “social welfare,” or assisting the individual in attaining earthly ends. And this state activity can be thought of as protecting natural rights. A minimum wage law is both an urgent necessity and a dictate of natural law reasoning, and the Constitution—long thought to protect freedom of contract—cannot remain a barrier to natural rights. While the expression of these rights is new, they are rights that in Ryan’s estimation predate and supersede the flawed Enlightenment conceptions of negative liberty so mistakenly elevated by America’s founders.

Ryan considered his 1916 book Distributive Justice to be his most important work, though it was lesser known in his own day, and subsequently, than A Living Wage. The relative obscurity of the former is no doubt due to its being both drier and considerably more ponderous than the latter. It attempts to discuss “systematically and comprehensively the justice of the processes by which the product of industry is distributed” among landowners, capitalists, businessmen, and laborers—all with an eye to the morality of the processes and outcomes. Based on a sweeping survey of the morality of private land ownership, private capital, profits, and wages, the book reiterates familiar themes. The role of the state is substantial, and little to no regard is given to questions of legal or constitutional constraint. On the whole, Ryan was guided by Ely’s view that socialism could be severed from materialism and that elements of the socialist program—if not complete public ownership—were essential to a Christian commonwealth.

Ryan claims private ownership of land is preferable to socialism, but the landowner’s right to rent is a moral claim no stronger than the capitalist’s right to interest, and neither is as strong as the tenant’s right to live decently or the laborer’s right to a living wage. Public ownership of valuable lands should be maintained or expanded, and increases in land value should be severely taxed, to the point of breaking up exceptionally large or valuable estates.

With respect to capital and interest, it is wrong to claim, as the socialist does, that the capitalist has no claim to interest. But the right to collect it is conventional: “The State is justified in permitting the practice of taking interest.” The “right” exists only when it is socially useful. The best practical hope for reducing the “burden of interest” is a wider diffusion of capital through cooperative associations in key fields like banking, agriculture, distribution, and manufacture.

When it comes to profits, “needs, efforts and sacrifices, productivity, scarcity, and human welfare” must be taken into account. Only businessmen who use “fair methods of competition” have the right to all the profits that come their way. And Ryan predictably claims that “remedies for unjust profits are to be found mainly in the action of government”—in the form of public ownership and legal regulation of monopolies. Ryan also believes progressive taxation and inheritance taxes play an important role. His book was written just three years after the ratification of the 16th Amendment, granting Congress broad powers to lay and collect taxes on incomes.

Finally—and almost incidentally—“The possessors of large fortunes and incomes could help to bring about a more equitable distribution by voluntarily complying with the Christian duty of bestowing their superfluous goods upon needy persons and objects.” With respect to laborers, a living wage is a right to be vouchsafed through minimum wage laws, unionization, and cooperative enterprises in which workers have a substantial voice in the conditions of their employment. Ryan concludes with a reiteration of the importance of faith: “For the adoption and pursuit of these ideals the most necessary requisite is a revival of genuine religion.” 

One can see a distinct and unbroken line of descent from progressivism, to the New Deal, to the Great Society. But as each of these waves of liberalism crested, it became apparent that the underlying force and motivating energy of each was different.

Ryan’s view of the Declaration of Independence is at once expansive, partial, and particular. He sees republican government as but one means among many to pursue social welfare and therefore claim the mantle of legitimate government. But he fails to note the apparent incompatibility of this view with the limited and precise conception of natural rights found in the Declaration, which stems from what Jefferson claims to be the self-evident truth of human equality. 

According to Ryan, democratic forms can claim legitimacy along with monarchic or aristocratic ones, depending on circumstances. And even in democracies, the people are not the source of political authority but only its depositories. Linked to Ryan’s gloss on political equality is his view that the state should ideally recognize the one true religion, that professed by the Catholic Church, and prevent the introduction of new forms. He allows that Catholic states where other denominations are already established, should generally tolerate them as a matter of prudence. But no rights are absolute in the sense of being ends in themselves, including freedom of speech. 

All aspects of the state should be understood to be the means to human welfare. And so Ryan leaves to the good judgment of Christian rulers vast amounts of discretion as to what constitutes public welfare, even in matters of conscience. And he appears to deny that freedom of conscience is, in principle and nature, an essential incident of human welfare. It therefore easily follows that he would view lesser things—such as the right to property—as not to be entitled to inviolable protections, despite their apparent grounding in what he understands to be nature.

When the purpose of government is seen in such broad terms—that is, the furtherance of the general welfare of man in light of God’s purposes—natural rights are bound to be understood as less natural, less fixed, and less protective of irreducible spheres of human thought and activity than would have been acceptable to America’s founders—on grounds of either principle or prudence. In the language of contemporary academic discourse, we can say that Ryan’s Catholicism, while not hostile to republican government, is in tension with it. In less couched terms, we can say it is indifferent to it.

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The Liberal Millennium

And so we have come full circle. We have seen how progressive theorists, statesmen, and theologians alike, embraced a notion that material and spiritual fulfillment can be found in and through the good graces of the state. They shared a sense of the possibilities for an organic political wholeness that was coupled with a deep suspicion of anything they saw as too individualist—or, in other terms, too Newtonian or Lockean. All this represented, in theory and practice, a stunning transformation of American politics, morality, and constitutionalism.

Ely’s “ethical ideal” of political economy led him to advocate “‘such a distribution of economic goods’ as would nurture the ‘growth of all the higher faculties,’” including even love itself, as seen in religion, art, and literature. The heavenly city on earth was indeed a possibility, if only the Gospels were understood to condemn individualism, and individuals could be made to act on this teaching.

For his part, Woodrow Wilson tried to Americanize his Hegelianism and tame his social Darwinism through comforting versions of an increasingly familiar Christian theology. As Charles Kesler notes, “Wilson, whose father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, fluently incorporated religious language and sentiments in his Progressivism. That was the era of the Social Gospel movement, a tributary of Progressivism, so it was common to encounter millenarian religious longings translated into calls for social work and social justice.” Even Wilson’s emphasis on the patriarchal origins of the Aryan races is very revealing as to his view of the relationship of politics to Christianity (not to mention what it says about the race consciousness of leading progressives). His claim that the state is the family writ large is the precursor to contemporary liberalism’s assertion that it takes a village to raise a child. 

For Wilson, the order and authority of the patriarchal family is the analogue to the order that the modern administrative state provides. As Kesler has noted, this understanding, at once an old and new dispensation, suggests that “we need not fear government’s increasing power to be our keeper . . . because it operates as merely the most efficient instrument of our brotherly and sisterly duty to care for one another.” And according to this political theology, our duty of care extends less to concern for the soul, but neither is it limited to mere life. Instead, it encompasses most facets of human existence that can be touched by the brave new world of centralized administration. In fact, concern for the soul is not the proper purview of the state, for spiritual progress is not measurable, whereas material progress—in the form of material equality—is. The state concerns itself only with those things that it can measure and manipulate, or that can be measured and manipulated by the expert scientific classes on which it relies for guidance.

Man becomes a creature of the state, rather than a political animal free to order the state according to his deliberative choices. To the Protestants and Catholics who were influenced by such a teaching, religion became an enemy of natural rights and limited government and a friend to the state. “Conscience,” far from being threatened by an unlimited state, could instead be followed—but only by influencing the mechanisms of the state in the interests of social justice. 

Christian progressives seemed unconcerned that, in a larger sense, the realm of conscience—not itself measurable or manipulable by the state or by modern social science—seemed by those very facts destined to play second fiddle to all those things of which the modern state could take cognizance and thereby directly superintend. What after all can be the status of Christian conscience to those who know the trajectory of History, including what will be revealed to every good Christian in the fullness of time? No one should be free to reject true progressive enlightenment, for to do so would be a form of slavery. When the fullness of time was come, God sent the administrative state.

And so, while the early Progressives were motivated by faith, their children and grandchildren became increasingly secularized. One can see a distinct and unbroken line of descent from progressivism, to the New Deal, to the Great Society. But as each of these waves of liberalism crested, it became apparent that the underlying force and motivating energy of each was different. The millenarianism of the early progressives was driven, thanks to Rauschenbusch and others, by a genuine if idiosyncratic sense of Christian purposes. This Christian sensibility was already on the wane by the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt in effect secularized the phenomenon while maintaining some degree of recognizably Christian language: “When Roosevelt, as sensitive a barometer of his times as could be imagined, expressed the higher ethical life to which liberalism pointed, he did so in relatively unassuming, vaguely Protestant and vaguely Progressive terms that could appeal to almost everyone.”

The Great Society, by contrast, was characterized by its all-encompassing confidence in the power of government to do pretty much anything and everything. And so its premises sowed the seeds of its demise.

As Kesler argues, “Its soaring expectations, its utopian promises, could not be fulfilled in ten years or a hundred years. What it proffered was the satisfaction, in principle, of all material and spiritual needs and desires. But human desires are infinite. They cannot be satisfied, unless first governed or moderated by reason and morality.” And certainly by the late 1960s, the spiritual needs for which people demanded satisfaction had lost even the attenuated connections to the next world that could be seen in the longings of the early progressives.

But these insights, and more, would not play a role in most scholarly accounts of progressivism until well into the 21st century. They had to await a new generation of political theorists to bring them to the surface. The historians of the 20th century had very different stories to tell.

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