“What Kind of Faith?” The Enlightenment, Politics and Original Sin

by Dr. Matt Kadane, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

There is a connection between original sin and the Enlightenment that I didn’t consider in my article, and it relates to politics, a category that consumed little of Pentecost Barker’s attention. That omission, however, shouldn’t be taken to minimize original sin’s political implications, especially because of how much they linger. A columnist in The New York Times recently wrote, for example, that he began to understand the motives of rural Trump voters when he set them alongside a speech by a Baptist minister and former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, J. C. Watts. “‘The difference between Republicans and Democrats,” Watts asserted, “is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good…. Democrats believe that…we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong—not us.1

Admittedly, not everybody on the right, or what currently passes for it, would agree. Theresa May was asked in a recent interview in the New Statesman if she believes in original sin given that conservatives, as the interviewer explained, have generally assumed humans are fallen creatures who demand external bulwarks against the chaos their nature would otherwise entail. The ideologically hard-to-pin-down May quickly changed the subject after responding that she didn’t “see conservatism in quite those terms.”2 But the fact that her interviewer thought to ask the question in the first place speaks to a long held belief: those with faith in the viability and productive effects of what Richard Price called self-direction in government have generally imagined people as improvable by their own means; those who promote government as a restraint on human nature, and who believe, as did Edmund Burke, that what demands our curtailment by a power outside of ourselves is, ultimately, ourselves, have generally imagined people as irreparable, at least without divine assistance.3


Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Does this alignment of politics with views of human nature have a history? It increasingly seems to me that it does. And it’s a history that seems to crystalize and peak in—and it’s one that may well define and help constitute—the age of Enlightenment. Which is not to deny that this alignment doesn’t also have a pre-Enlightenment history or an internal logic. Original sin’s great early modern defender, Martin Luther, was happy to tell the peasant rebels of 1525 that if they had the misfortune to live under the rule of tyrannical princes, their sinful nature was evidence that they deserved no better; while some of Luther’s opponents, the Anabaptist Peter Reidemann for example, both advocated self-rule and expressed skepticism about original sin.4 But this “prehistory” is also revealingly messy. Some in the sixteenth-century implicitly argue in the other direction. Calvinist resistance theory implies a degree of popular sovereignty but was articulated by authors firmly convinced of their depravity. The absolutist Jean Bodin, on the other hand, was drawn more to Pelagius than Augustine.4

The moment when the political implications of original sin start to become more fixed and predictable is the late 1670s and early ‘80s. In these crisis-ridden years, traditionalists began to realize that reasserting the legitimacy of original sin and educing its authoritarian implications could, at once, remind potentially seditious Augustinians that the major premise of their own religion justified submission to secular authority and argue against a range of more optimistic radical thinkers that Christianity was undeniably pessimistic about human prospects unaided by God. It’s in 1680, amid the Exclusion Crisis, that the Tories published Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, a defense of traditional authority based on the book of Genesis. If not all of Filmer’s readers focused on original sin, John Dryden was more to the point in “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681): “how could heavenly justice damn us all/Who ne’er consented to our father’s fall?/Then kings are slaves to those whom they command/And tenants to their people’s pleasure stand./Add, that the pow’r property allow’d/Is mischievously seated in the crowd.” The most eloquent argument along these lines was not English, however. It came from the French Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Louis XIV’s court preacher, who in 1679, in the long lead up to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, wrote the first six books of his Politics Drawn from…Holy Scripture, the central text in authoritarian political thought for the next century. There, Bossuet argued that the Fall precludes self-rule, with the important qualification that kings, never queens, retain the authority to govern by way of receiving a particular grace.6

John Lilburne

By Engraver George Glover [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This coalescing Augustinian authoritarianism wasn’t a reaction to straw men. A range of thinkers had proven threatening to the political status quo in ways that specifically encouraged reasserting original sin as a basis for strong monarchical rule. This was a consistent message of the legacy of the English Civil War. Levellers like Richard Overton and John Lilburne had asked in writing whether or not the effects of original sin could be overcome by greater political literacy and participation.7 The Digger Gerrard Winstanley was at his most politically radical when most religiously heterodox—and sounded authoritarian later in the 1650s only when he arguably backslid into an original sin believer.8 Jansenists in France, on the other hand, returned to original sin with vigor, as did the English Puritans. But given that it was that vigor that made the former a threat to the hegemony of the Gallican Church, Jansenists too could be enervated by an argument like Bossuet’s, which effectively said: submit to the divine authority of the king precisely because of your belief in human depravity.9 As “Puritan-Whigs”—a new category in the 1670s—moved away from Calvinist orthodoxy in sync with their growing aversion to the Stuarts, they, like their unruly Puritan forebears, offered authoritarians incentive to argue that original sin demanded submission. These were widely varied thinkers—republican, communist, godly, individualist—who could be targeted by a single shot: reasserting original sin.10

Equally suggestive is that John Locke began to articulate his mature political thought right as the Augustinian authoritarian strategy was coming together. In earlier life, Locke had believed in the doctrine of total depravity, much as he had once believed in religious uniformity despite later championing toleration.11 Is it also possible that Locke swerved from original sin because of a political aversion to its co-option by authoritarians? Does the Second Treatise, which Locke wrote between 1680 and ‘82, predate the 1685 Essay on Human Understanding in logic as well as composition—does the political service that the tabula rasa provides for self-rule, that is, precede the epistemological notion that the self is born ready to be shaped, for good or bad, by experience and not inheritance?12


Godfrey Kneller [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Once the Enlightenment was underway, by which time Locke’s views had gained wide currency and the revolution of 1688 had come to be recognized more for its republican implications than its limitations, the notable moments in political thought can almost be defined by their renunciation of original sin. Much of the time that renunciation is allusive and complex—see Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.13 But it can also be explicit and obvious. In Common Sense, the best-selling pamphlet of the American revolution, Thomas Paine thought that denying political self-determination had “no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam….[it] unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels.”14 His fellow British radicals were just as emphatic. For Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Richard Price and many others who I briefly mention in my article, original sin was the corrupt heart of the ancien regime.

No less telling is that the Enlightenment by convention ends as original sin is revived in political thought as a credible major premise. A century after Bossuet, Edmund Burke, with enormous eventual influence, argued that human nature inhibits self-rule. Few could miss Burke’s point. But his Continental counterpart, Joseph de Maistre, was in any case bracingly direct, maintaining that human corruptibility is justification for rejecting virtually all of the Enlightenment’s keywords: liberty, progress, improvability, optimism, social equality, natural rights. “Original sin,” he wrote, “explains everything.” It is the doctrine “without which nothing is explained.”15 As he put it more to the political point, “man…is too wicked to be free.”16

Zoom ahead roughly a century and a half beyond the French revolution, and when these arguments reappear in political thought, they do so in conspicuously direct response to Enlightenment historiography, suggesting how much political debate that turns on human nature owes to Enlightenment era discourse, or at least our understanding of it. In 1932 both Ernst Cassirer and Carl Becker published books that defined the Enlightenment by its opposition to original sin. By that time, the political theorist and Nazi party member Carl Schmitt had already argued that it’s only the belief that humans are bad by nature that underpins a genuine concept of the political. What’s striking is that right after Cassirer puts in writing that “original sin is the most common opponent against which the different orientations of Enlightenment philosophy unite”—that line appears in 1932—Schmitt expresses the crux of his view more explicitly in an expanded third edition of The Concept of the Political, published in 1933. A second edition beyond the 1927 original had, in fact, just appeared in 1932.17 But only the very next year does Schmitt make so direct the point earlier implied, when he writes, “the denial of original sin destroys all social order.” From the moment that liberal historians like Cassirer began to define the Enlightened by its opposition to original sin, in other words, Schmitt could return to the old terms of the debate and argue, as had Bossuet, Burke, and de Maistre before him, that without original sin, there is no effective government.

Edition published in English speaking countries by Rutgers University Press

Whether or not there’s awareness of the theological backstory, the basic argument that runs through the writing of these authoritarian thinkers—that constitutions can’t be trusted to get government right, that our rationality is defective in deriving from our depraved nature, that political authority should thus rest on an irrational reverence for the sacred institutions of the past—is again resonating with the right. Why, it is therefore worth asking, has it been so easy for so many to feel so depraved? Can democratic politics survive without belief in the potential for human improvement or the workability of reasonableness? If, in fact, we are ultimately guided in our politics by a belief in one version or another of human nature, then let’s ask the question the Enlightenment rightly identified as politically profound: What kind of faith do we have in other people? What kind of faith, that is, do we have in our nature and in ourselves?

Matt Kadane’s article “Original Sin and the Path to the Enlightenment” was published in Past & Present (235) last month


1 Robert Leonard, “Why Rural America Voted for Trump,” The New York Times, 5 January 2017,

2 Jason Crowley, “Theresa May: quickfire questions on Jane Austen, late nights and Original Sin,” New Statesman, 8 February 2017,

3 Richard Price, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty (London, 1776), Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1790).

4 Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume II: The Age of Reformation Cambridge, 1978), p. 18; Robert Friedmann, “Peter Riedemann on Original Sin and the Way of Salvation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 26 (1952): pp. 210-215.

5 Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge (Princeton, 1996), 181-205.

6 See the introduction in Patrick Riley (ed.), Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, trans. by Patrick Riley (Cambridge, 1990).

7 Rachel Foxley, “The Levellers: John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn,” in Laura Knoppers (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution (Oxford, 2012), p. 280.

8 Winstanley’s 1652 True Freedom of the Law permits judicial slavery, with a taskmaster for every slave; corporal and capital punishment, with an executioner in every parish; and other forms of “true government” for the “right ordering of all actions.” Did this political shift relate to Winstanley’s return to original sin? For the differing opinions see J. C. Davis, Utopia & the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 191, n. 104.

9 On the political potential of Jansenism see Dale K. Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (New Haven, 1999).

10 Mark Goldie, Roger Morrice and the Puritan Whigs: The Entring Book, 1677-1691 (Woodbridge, 2007).

11 W. M. Spellman, John Locke and the Problem of Depravity (Oxford, 1988).

12 For a nuanced account of Locke’s attitudes on original sin see Ian Harris, “The Politics of Christianity,” in G. A. J Rogers (ed.), Locke’s Philosophy: Content and Context (Oxford, 1994), passim.

13 Rousseau’s work has an original-sin-like logic: something goes wrong in the beginning and we all continue to suffer from it. But Rousseau’s explanation for what exactly went wrong is a radical subversion of Augustine—no less than were Rousseau’s own Confessions. Rousseau once wrote that “original sin explains everything”—and some commentators end the quotation there. In full, it reads: “original sin explains everything except its own principle, and it is this principle that has to be explained.” What Rousseau came up with to explain that principle is, of course, the development of society and its attendant inequalities, problems that his political solution in the Social Contract was meant to ameliorate. For the quotation see Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace (eds.), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letter to Beaumont, Letter Written from the Mountain, and Related Writings, trans. Christopher Kelley and Judith R. Bush (Hanover, 2001), p. 31.

14 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776), 14.

15 Joseph de Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, trans. Richard Lebrun (Montreal, 1983), p. xx.

16 Quoted in Richard Lebrun, “Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke: A Comparison,” in Lebrun (ed.), Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought, and Influence: Selected Studies (Montreal, 2001), p. 165

17 On Schmitt’s third edition seen from the perspective of Leo Strauss’s influence, see Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, trans. Joseph Cropsey (Chicago, 1995).


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