Mahoney on the Religion of Humanitarianism

American politics is increasingly polarized along religious lines: the Democratic Party is increasingly secular, and the Republican Party increasingly religious. (I discuss this polarization, among other things, in a forthcoming article). But a religious left nonetheless exists: members of traditional faith communities who are committed to progressive causes. How strong the religious left is, and whether it will find a continuing place in the Democratic Party, is a matter of some debate.

I thought about the religious left when I saw the announcement for Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter). Mahoney, a political philosopher at Assumption College, argues that progressivism is itself a kind of religion, one that divorces social justice from Christianity’s twin concern with transcendent truth. If Mahoney is right, then, at least with respect to Christianity, the attempt to harness Christianity to progressivism is doomed to fail. In any event, the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:

This book is a learned essay at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and religion. It is first and foremost a diagnosis and critique of the secular religion of our time, humanitarianism, or the “religion of humanity.” It argues that the humanitarian impulse to regard modern man as the measure of all things has begun to corrupt Christianity itself, reducing it to an inordinate concern for “social justice,” radical political change, and an increasingly fanatical egalitarianism. Christianity thus loses its transcendental reference points at the same time that it undermines balanced political judgment. Humanitarians, secular or religious, confuse peace with pacifism, equitable social arrangements with socialism, and moral judgment with utopianism and sentimentality.

With a foreword by the distinguished political philosopher Pierre Manent, Mahoney’s book follows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in affirming that Christianity is in no way reducible to a “humanitarian moral message.” In a pungent if respectful analysis, it demonstrates that Pope Francis has increasingly confused the Gospel with left-wing humanitarianism and egalitarianism that owes little to classical or Christian wisdom. It takes its bearings from a series of thinkers (Orestes Brownson, Aurel Kolnai, Vladimir Soloviev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) who have been instructive critics of the “religion of humanity.” These thinkers were men of peace who rejected ideological pacifism and never confused Christianity with unthinking sentimentality. The book ends by affirming the power of reason, informed by revealed faith, to provide a humanizing alternative to utopian illusions and nihilistic despair.

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