Is Original Sin Un-American?

It is easy to see how one’s neighbors might bear the taint of original sin. So what could be more viable than the doctrine of original sin when it comes to extending our moral imaginations to encompass a shared, universal humanity? This hope animates Alan Jacobs’s 2009 book Original Sin.

Jacobs strings together fascinating and edifying stories — almost vignettes — in the history of the Christian doctrine and related concepts in Judaism, ancient Greece, and even the Warring States Period in China.

Anthropological pessimism had a tough go after the triumphant humanism of the Renaissance; English Dissenters and Jansenists were marginalized and defeated, and even in Reformed traditions (Jacobs might have added) Arminianism tempered total depravity. Both the Enlightenment thinkers and the Romantics — the forebears and progeny of Rousseau — emphasized human perfectability and jettisoned original sin.

Then Jacobs identifies a turning point:

But then came the Great Awakening. This great revival of the Christian faith, under the leadership of George Whitefield and John Wesley, transformed Anglo-American Christianity, initiating the evangelical movement, which still flourishes today and — thanks to its vast armies of missionaries — has brought the Augustinian model of original sin to the whole world. It is, I think, fair to say that the continued existence of a strong doctrine of original sin depends upon the evangelical movement; where the movement has not flourished, neither has Augustine’s understanding of human nature. The Great Awakening and its consequences will govern most of the rest of this story — but not all of it (129).

As the rest of the book attests, the relationship between original sin and American evangelicalism is complex. And fascinating.

Evangelicals often oppose the tendency in theological liberalism to downplay sin. But not always original sin. Jacobs quotes the mid-19th century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, who called the doctrine “subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to human intelligence” (195). (Finney inspires Ted Smith’s very fine theological history of the United States, The New Measures.) Accused of denying total depravity, Lyman Beecher was put on trial for heresy in 1835. Forces within American evangelicalism — even within the Reformed tradition — sought to downplay original sin. In a footnote about William Jennings Bryan’s distaste for the doctrine, Jacobs notes the unpopularity of original sin among Christians of ‘a populist and activist temperament’.

Democracy itself seems to chafe against the doctrine of original sin.

In the very early days of the American Republic, there was a consonance between the dominant political attitude — republicanism — and a theology of original sin. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) explains:

Together, the republican and the Puritan traditions shared many formal similarities. In the first place, both held to a view of human nature that recognized the human capacity to do evil as well as good. Puritans dwelt at length on the natural tendency towards evil as a result of Adam’s fall. Republicans dwelt at length about the natural tendency to abuse official power as a consequence of the corrupting nature of power itself (70).

But American Christianity has not consistently carried the torch of a “strong doctrine of original sin” since the Great Awakening.  Indeed, that claim would run against the grain of Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (1972). The cultural force of American democracy is inimical to this critical theological concept. Ahlstrom’s arguments are reprised in Hugh Heclo’s much more succinct Christianity and American Democracy (2007):

After 1800 the upsurge of “democratic evangelicalism” gave a much more powerful and sustained push [towards an undifferentiated, common Christian morality]… With a little effort, the doctrine of original sin could be perceived as a slam on an American faith in the common man’s goodness… Traditional Christian doctrine clearly did grate on what was becoming the American democratic creed. The result was that, over time, such doctrine had its undemocratic rough edges smoothed off, even though substantially speaking these ideas were more the core than the edges of Christian teaching. This smoothing work was not done by secularists and unbelievers but by Christian leaders of the various democratic flocks proliferating in nineteenth-century Christianity (57).

Has American evangelicalism returned to the robust sense of original sin characteristic of the second Great Awakening or the Princeton Theology? (The latter’s diminution from a dominant cultural institution into a counter-cultural force is the subject of another excellent book by Mark Noll.) I couldn’t say. But, as with early American republicanism, there is a new consonant 20th century political attitude to support the theology of original sin. Quoting George Nash, Jacobs thumbs Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and the conservative movement that coalesced in the 1950s:

[Theirs] was not the Christianity of the Social Gospel or liberal Protestantism. It was a Christianity grounded in what was for many conservatives the deepest lesson of World War II: the lesson of evil, of original sin (230).

Original sin is especially important — and especially absent — in a nation that frames its power in apocalyptic terms. (Andrew Bacevich has made this point recently.) We have cashed in the apocalypticism of our Puritan heritage without their pessimism about human limitations. American political theology in the early 21st century is uniquely dangerous.

Those of us skeptical of the accomplishments of “Anglo-American Christianity” ought to have an even more profound recognition of the value of original sin.

We may wish that modern conservatives heeled more closely to the classical republican tradition that saw power as a dangerous problem, not a simple solution. There are some in our novus ordo saeculorum who believe that American power can solve the most intractable problems; cue those calling for military intervention in Syria and even Crimea. Those clamoring for a hasty apocalypse do so out of fear and despair. Charles Mathewes, in The Republic of Grace (2010), shows the subtle connection of this “little apocalypticism” — as opposed to a genuine eschatological imagination — to original sin:

We want to be the creator of time, the author of history. To be in thrall to apocalyptic imagination is just to wish to be in control (223).


3 responses to “Is Original Sin Un-American?

  1. Evangelical churches in America does have a robust view of sin. The Evangelical churches in America have a great concern for what is practical in theology. Personal sin is a practical discussion so it is very open for preaching and discussion. Original sin falls in a realm which conservative churches tend to quickly grow tired of since it seems theoretical. Conservative churches tend to say things like all people sin and then begin the discussion, without linking it to the cause of original sin.

    • Don’t American Christians risk becoming complacent when we throw up our hands, say, “all people sin”, and then affirm that faith in Jesus saves? I take Mathewes’s point that it is dangerous to indulge the “apocalyptic imagination” without humbling reflections on original sin.

  2. Rob, My take on the issue is somewhat different. I generally see the tendency in conservative churches to focus so heavily on avoiding sin that it misses weightier matters such a love. A focus so heavily on personal sin tends from what I see to have the result of making positive action difficult. Just personally for me I have never been exactly comfortable in either the conservative or liberal church. I admire the liberal church for the insistence upon action, but find the theology deficient. I generally like conservative theology, but find the debilitating fear of sin which causes inaction difficult.

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