Why I Gave Up on Progressive Utopianism
I am, by nature, a hopeful person. Which means I am easily captivated by expansive visions of beauty, wholeness, and justice. I long for the ideal.
That’s what first drew me to Jesus. The Bible is full of images, poems, and songs articulating God’s magnificent plan to restore all creation.
These are not merely images of a world to come. They are windows into a world that’s coming into being right now through the power of God’s spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the new creation has already begun to blossom the church: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old era has gone, the new era is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). We are God’s bridgehead into a broken world. The frontlines of a new reality defined by Jesus’s love, justice, and mercy.
So if you don’t have a little utopianism bubbling in your soul, move closer to the fire.
Christian Communists and Activists
Because of my innate idealism, I’ve always resonated with the left’s calls to end poverty, homelessness, and inequality.
These are all biblical values, after all, and if Jesus wants us to bring his kingdom on earth, what better pathway than through the legislature of the world’s largest superpower?
This is not to say that the right is cold or uncaring. George W. Bush ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” which aimed at similar goals, though in a different manner.
What drew me to the left was its willingness to use central planning and federal interventions to solve these problems. Unlike the right, they did not rely on everyday humans to solve social ills through a patchwork of half-funded charities with half-effective methods. Of course, I failed to see that the left’s plans were plagued by their own human errors, namely, the application of elite academic theories to public policy, which often amounts to little more than social and economic engineering.
Anyone familiar with history knows that Christian utopianism is nothing new. In the 1800s, countless Christian groups established communes that shared wealth, lived life together, and advocated for reforms around labor, slavery, and alcohol-related domestic violence. They saw themselves as prophetic witnesses to the federal powers at large, while advocating for legislative changes.
Though I bypassed the commune bit, I saw myself in line with this tradition, using my vote and voice to advocate for a beneficent American kingdom.
But things never quite worked out the way I expected. Like many millennial Christians who hopped on the Obama bandwagon, I soon discovered that most of the social ills plaguing our society are so deeply rooted in the human condition that no amount of human planning and government intervention can heal them.
In the face of failure, only three options stood before me:
1) To argue that those failures were due to Republican obstruction and poor execution. The solution, then, is increasingly authoritarian applications of utopian social engineering.
2) To grow disillusioned and cynical and give up on hope.
3) To discover that God’s kingdom is God’s kingdom. It comes by his power, not the human machinations of the left or the right. Politics is always a means of loving my neighbor, but no party approximates the kingdom, and utopia is only possible after Jesus subdues his enemies: sin, injustice, and death (1 Cor 15:21-28).
Progressive Utopianism in History
Option number one is not without historical precedent. This was the path taken by the (thoroughly secular) Chinese Communist Party in China. Mao Zedong famously compared Chinese people to “blank pages” upon which he would write “the freshest and most beautiful characters.” His utopian words were poetic — and he was a poet — but poetry in action was nothing less than brutality. His utopian project led to the execution of between 45–100 million Chinese people.
In my interview with Os Guinness, he warned that progressive utopias always end up resorting to force. When a society loses its grip on shared truth — by which ideas can be evaluated and people can be persuaded — all that’s left is power. Might makes right. Guinness noted that we can see these same authoritarian impulses taking root in the soft totalitarianism of the American progressive left.
Here are a few examples:
- Policing over persuasion.
- Lofty goals ignore real-world costs.
The Kingdom Without the King
The problem with utopian idealism is that it seeks to bring God’s kingdom without the king. As it turns out, solving social ills requires spiritually renewed systems and spiritually renewed hearts.
Human plans, however well intended, never fully succeed. And when we make an idol out of an ideology, injustice and authoritarianism always follow.
Remarkably, Jesus, though claiming rule over all things, is not an authoritarian. His personal example runs contrary to the authoritarian impulses of the progressive left. Though he could have changed people’s minds with a snap of his fingers, he chose to persuade instead. Though he could have toppled Rome’s unjust structures with a wink, he created a counterculture to change it by example.
Or consider the difference between how demons and the Holy Spirit treat humans. When a demon takes over someone, it controls the person: their speech, behavior, and thinking. But when the Spirit fills a believer, he guides that person. Despite being God, he can be resisted! A demon-possessed person can do nothing to resist a demon’s power.
God values human freedom tremendously. He gave it to us, and he chooses to honor it. Of course, freedom can go awry. Left unchecked, freedom becomes anarchy. So it’s also important to say that God wants an ordered world. But when order goes unchecked, it becomes authoritarianism, which is perhaps a worse tragedy.
Christians should beware of human attempts to order a human society that dishonors human freedom. We should be suspicious of attempts to engineer justice when those efforts are untethered from God’s definition of justice.
Jesus told his followers to run for the hills when their fellow Jews attempted to establish God’s kingdom on the Temple Mount (Mk. 13:14). It was a broken, futile human effort. Bloodshed and tragedy was the only possible outcome.
Perhaps the same advice applies today, when we see people vainly establishing mock kingdoms of God without King Jesus?
Have you been tempted to buy into progressive utopianism? Or maybe you’ve bought into a more conservative ideology for restoring society? In either case, it’s possible that you’ve elevated your tribe over the truth Jesus provides.
So, what now? Take our 5-Day Detox! You’ll be challenged to move closer to Jesus and further away from political tribalism.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter