Posted by: Dan | November 30, 2011

Assumptions about “Utopianism” in Conservative Christian Ideologies

One of the truisms at work within certain Conservative Christian circles is the assertion that things like socialism or even anarchy (properly understood) are fine and noble ideals but are far too “utopian” to be worth applying within a world defined by things like “sin” and “fallenness.”  I say that this functions as a truism, and not as any sort of rigourous argument, because it is the sort of thing that is simply repeated ad nauseum and never really critically engaged or sustained.  Additionally, the word “utopian” is always taken to be a bad word, with negative implications.  Christians who utilize this language against their (perceived) opponents are claiming to be more “realistic” than others.

Craig Carter’s recent post on socialism, pacifism and sex illustrates all of this rather well.  While writing about socialism, Carter asserts that “socialism is in many ways a high and noble ideal” but then goes on to write that:

Socialism is utopian in the sense that it is incompatible with the fact of original sin. The reason that socialism always leads to tyranny, poverty and atheism in this world is because of the tragic flaw in human nature – not because of the idea of socialism itself. As an idea, it is wonderful. But when implemented in a society of fallen sinners, it becomes horribly destructive.

There are a few responses one can make to this.  On the one hand, some Christian anarchists have responded to this line of thought by arguing that it is Conservative Christians who are hopelessly utopian and who fail to fully consider human fallenness and sin.  So, for example, some Christian anarchists would say that it is mad utopianism that leads some to think that you can give guns, pepper spray, handcuffs, zip batons and badges to some people — and then tell those same people that they are only accountable to their own internal chain of command — and expect those people to act in a manner that is just and compassionate.  Thus, these Christian anarchists would argue that they are opposed to armed police forces precisely because they take human sin and fallenness more seriously than others (of course, any who have had any sustained experience with the police quickly learn that the evidence favours the anarchist position; however, those who have learned this have usually been minorities and folks without any voice in the broader social discourse, which is why one of the benefits of the Occupy movement have been a partial revelation of the true nature and purpose of the police to the general public as members of the middle-class have now been on the receiving end of the force of the law).

On another hand, however, and this is more to the point regarding my opening sentences, Conservative Christians like Carter are extremely selective with the evidence — essentially they see what they want to see, regardless of what else is available to be seen — and so they term some things (like socialism) utopian but then advocate for other things that the evidence would suggest are equally utopian.  The evidence for this is in Carter’s earlier paragraph on sex.  He writes:

sex is easy. Natural reason tells us that sexual activity is oriented to and leads to procreation and that marriage naturally is the best context for procreation to occur… Sex belongs in marriage and every serious form of natural law or religious morality affirms this conclusion. But sex outside marriage is destructive of personal communion, social stability and children.

There are a few things worth observing here.  First, and somewhat tangentially, “natural reason” and “natural law,” within the context of this argument are not actually rooted in anything we observe in nature.  In nature, we see sexual activity that goes on in all sorts of ways outside of the realm of procreation — we see animals engaging in homosexual relationships and in masturbation (in the Toronto Zoo, not far from Carter, you can find examples of both in the penguin and monkey sections, respectively).  It’s also somewhat anomalous to talk about “marriage” within the context of the kind of relationships other animals enact.  Most species have multiple sexual partners, and a lot of animals seem to enjoy having sex just for the sake of having sex.  So, when Carter grounds his argument in “nature” he is really just grounding his argument in a few verses of the Bible that tell him what nature teaches us (regardless of what we actually observe in nature).

Second, and more to the point, it is easy to charge Carter with being utopian in his observations about sex and marriage.  What about people who are gay?  What about people who can’t have kids?  What about all the violence that has taken place within traditional family settings?  What about all the kids beaten and abandoned by their biological parents?  What about all the wives raped by their husbands?  What about all the affairs?  What about all the failed relationships?  This list of questions could be expanded almost endlessly, but the point is that Carter’s position on sex and marriage is at least as susceptible (of not more so) to the charge of utopianism as the picture he paints of socialism.  His view of sex and marriage could be called “a high and noble ideal” (if we’re being generous) but it surely is “incompatible with the fact of original sin” (to borrow Carter’s language).

The same argument, of course, could be made about the institution of the Church as it has manifested itself throughout history and up to the present day Roman Catholic Church, which Carter seems to particularly admire (despite the evidence that such things as systemic cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children extended all the way up to the level of the current Pope… just to pick one of a million possible examples).  Surely the institution of the Church could be described as a high and noble ideal but one that is far too utopian to play out well in practice…

Anyway, Carter’s approach is true of many of those who hold views like his.  The opposing position is said to be noble but too unrealistic, while the speaker’s position is held without any sort of compromise and without any recognition of the presence of the same criteria that were employed to attack the supposedly utopian position they just rejected.

Carter lays out no criteria as to why one view (his position on sex) should be treated as an ideal that is held realistically and without compromise, while another view (the socialist position) should be treated as an ideal that is too utopian and so should be compromised in the world of realpolitik.  All of this then suggests that Carter is simply making assertions about what he wants to believe and is not actually building any sort of sustained, consistent or compelling argument.  Of course, for any person with half a brain this is painfully obvious (which is why nobody usually bothers responding to Carter) but it bears mentioning for the sake of those kids who may mistake what Carter is saying for some sort of critical thinking.

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Responses

  1. I really do hope you go and audit one of Carter’s “classes” sometime.

    • I plan to do that, if or when I can figure out the logistics. Those poor students, they pay so much for a class at Tyndale… they might as well learn something.

      The beautiful thing is that every graduate gets a free audit (which I had forgotten all about and never thought to use all these years), so I wouldn’t actually have to pay any money for the course.

      • “Very well; and pray who sent you on this errand?

        Why, the renowned knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, who redresses wrongs, and gives drink to the hungry and meat to the thirsty.” ― Sancho Panza to himself.

        Obliged and Vaya con Dios, Friston.

  2. Enjoyed reading this, Dan. Good response.

  3. Thanks for this post. Just the other day I was having a debate with a relative over Thanksgiving about why I favored socialism over capitalism and they too pulled the same card: it is a fallen world, therefore while socialism sounds good, it won’t work.


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