Translating Original Sin into Secular Terms

Is it even possible?

Oren Cass’s First Things Lecture in Washington, D.C., on March 4 addressed the topic “Constructing Conservatism in the Secular Age.” The talk’s core argument was that American conservatism’s reliance on religious faith to make its central values arguments collides with the growing secularization of U.S. culture, causing it to lose ground. He suggests that religion hitherto provided a “form” for that value content but that form is increasingly incomprehensible to today’s Americans. Insisting on the abiding value of the content, Cass is looking for another “form” in which to embody it, hoping that some sort of notion of an intergenerational compact sustained by the sheer wonder about our being and the contingency of our existence might work to render those abiding values and traditions better understood by people today. People, he claims, are still searching for moral values; the fact that the appeal exercised by liberal moralism — dressed up as wokeism, climate fundamentalism, and the faith people put in the “science” of anti-COVID regimes — proves their desire, even if those “solutions” ultimately prove to be false religions. The point is people want some morality, even if it is not the morality traditionally derived from religion. (A link to a video of Cass’s lecture is here.)

I would beware of a kneejerk religious response dismissive of Cass’s concerns. The scorecard of the past 40 years suggests religion is losing ground, even in an America that once thought itself an exception to secularization. Shutting one’s eyes to that phenomenon will not make it disappear. Whether Cass’s diagnosis is correct is another question, but asking the question is worthwhile.

In the Q&A, editor R.R. Reno suggested American conservatism traditionally found expression in the “3Fs”: faith, family, and flag. Cass thought conservatism hitherto developed its understandings of family and flag as subcategories of faith. He proposed a different paradigm: the 3Fs as co-equals (rather than two as derivatives), with conservatism talking more about family and flag while acquiescing in a more privatized faith.

Cass’s talk is replete with many provocative points worth examination, something I hope to do over a few coming essays. I admit my respect for Cass as a thinker; for example, I argued (here) that his 2019 book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, offered numerous insights to building a theology of work relevant to U.S. labor. But I have to say, on this subject, I am not convinced.

Cass maintains that America’s elite — the influential “meritocracy” that keeps many governmental, social, and cultural wheels turning — not only largely lacks faith but “disdains” faith as an illegitimate way of knowing, a crutch resorted to when one cannot build arguments from reason. That elite, which largely attributes its success to its own achievements, is threatened by faith as a way of knowing with which they are both uncomfortable and unfamiliar and which otherwise threatens their dominance. And that vision is growing, seeping into the masses. So, why am I not convinced by Cass? Precisely because of the obstacles that rationalistic, “scientific” mindset poses. That mindset, I would argue, cannot deal with “original sin.”

It’s coincidental that Cass’s lecture comes a week before next Sunday’s Gospel, which recounts Jesus telling Nicodemus that “unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The problem with that passage, to my mind, is that too many people — believers and non-believers alike — read it purely from a theological and salvific perspective. You need to be reborn to be saved. But what if your interlocutor isn’t interested in salvation? The religious person might say, “well, just wait!” He might even try to sell him on some Pascalian Wager as an insurance policy against eternity. But let me suggest that this passage is relevant even apart from what it says about salvation. To be saved means you have something you need to be saved from. What is that thing? Sin. And Christian doctrine insists we are all — believers and non-believers alike — implicated in sin, what we call “original sin.”

Treating original sin as just a soteriological problem, however, fails to address its real anthropological implications. You do not need to be a believer to recognize the consequences of the phenomenon of original sin in everyman’s life. Our human experience is that everyman does evil. You have met no peer who is morally immaculate. There is no parent who frets, “I have to work on Johnny to teach him how to lie because he’s just so good…”

The consequences of human fallenness exist in this world, regardless of what they mean for the next. But, by reducing original sin to a “doctrine,” the truth of human sinfulness here and now is lost. And when that truth is lost, whatever socio-political vision is then built is bound to fail. It fails because it does not reckon with the truth about man.

Is “original sin” one of those terms that is untranslatable into “secularism?” And if it is untranslatable, can Cass’s project (and the conservatism he hopes to build on it) succeed? Absent a religiously-informed worldview, how does one translate “original sin” into secular categories for today’s Americans? For Americans who have instead been nourished with Rousseau’s optimism about the inevitability of human progress because it is not sin but society that corrupts (and which, therefore, reinforces an isolated individualism dismissive of some common human congenital spiritual defect)? For Americans further fed Hegelian visions of a self-directed “spirit” of the age or of history that marches towards “justice” regardless of the universality of unjust (i.e., sinful) men under its banner? Of an evolutionary vision of man that naively believes somehow humans will either “outgrow” evil or that “evil” is just a necessary aspect of the evolutionary selective process?

How do you talk “original sin” — a category vital to any realistic socio-political vision — to secularized individualists today? And how do you address the religious insight (verified by the human experience of my not doing “the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do I keep on doing,” Romans 7:19) that repairing original sin’s consequences is beyond the capacities of sheer human agency? Is some secularized concept of “original sin” that recognizes its universality within a common, linked humanity comprehensible to the modern American mind as it constructs a socio-political order? And, if not, how quickly before that socio-political construct finds itself built on secular sand?

The American Founders addressed original sin, e.g., in their checks-and-balances system, because they were largely Protestants for whom original sin loomed particularly large. Even for the more optimistic deists among them, they still coasted on the gases of the Christian heritage. Those fumes today are a lot thinner. Perhaps Cass hopes to ground anthropological realism in some secular key through his notion of humanity as linked together in some intergenerational chain of obligation. I am not sure that notion offers a thick enough reality to achieve that. And, without it — without the Christian doctrine of original sin grounding a realistic anthropology of human possibilities — I doubt the socio-political vision one wants to build will endure the stress test.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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