Allow me to stand, like a tourist on the lip of the Grand Canyon, and marvel at the wondrous chasm that separates the Jacksonian and Progressive persuasions. They differ in their understandings of: human nature (as broken or perfectible, static or malleable); morality (as absolute or relative); the relationship between the individual and society (as requiring personal responsibility, or as requiring collective and systemic solutions); the proper role of government (to safeguard personal liberty, or to safeguard equality); the mission of the United States in the world (to be a beacon of freedom, or to lead the way toward a new era of peace and brotherhood); and the meaning of history (as maintaining a holding pattern until the end of days, or as leading inevitably to human betterment).
These began as religious disagreements. Yet even as God recedes from our public life, the disagreements persist. Perhaps it is because God has receded that they persist. In a secular world, there is no universal moral authority capable of adjudicating between the two sides. All we have now are experts.
For the better part of a century, the descendants of H. L. Mencken have dominated our cultural life. They have relentlessly presented the preferences of the Progressive persuasion as if they flowed directly from science, logic, and secular expertise. Our latter-day Menckens have painted the religious face of Jacksonianism as mumbo jumbo, while depicting secular Jacksonians as bigots, ignoramuses, or worse. But the Progressive persuasion is every bit as religious and irrational as the Jacksonian persuasion. Its vision of history and of America’s place in it is no more scientifically verifiable than dispensational premillennialism’s belief in the Rapture. Indeed, the Progressive persuasion’s belief in the perfectibility of man defies all experience—at least all of my experience. It is a conviction that can only be described as theological, yet our schools teach it as if it were science.