“Hey, you hit me!”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”[1]

Wednesday before last I listed a series of statements that conflict with the truth, but that I suspect are widely accepted by contemporary Americans. In conversation about this it became apparent that a force I had not anticipated would play a big part in how people think: pragmatism.

What is pragmatism? Pragmatism is a philosophy that started in the United States around 1870 (it is actually the only philosophy native to America). It was systematically expressed by Charles Sander Peirce and William James, but it was really transformed and championed by John Dewey (who also radically transformed education in America). Pragmatism evaluates the value of a theory or belief on the basis of its anticipated success in practical application. That sounds good until you realize that pragmatism pits experience against principles. In other words, a pragmatist might say something like, “that’s a great idea but it will never work.” A pragmatist asks, “what will work?” rather than “what is true?”

Allow me to contrast a biblical perspective with a pragmatic one. A Christian believes that truth is reality as God perceives it. A pragmatist believes that truth is “that which works.” A Christian understands that life functions according to principle because God is the Creator and He wove laws into the fabric of His world. A Christian understands that to cooperate with these laws will always have better consequences than to ignore or flout the Moral and Natural laws.

The driving force behind pragmatic thinking is the force of expediency. A pragmatist might say, “we will never find someone to adopt this baby, therefore we should abort it.” A Christian would say, “no matter what price we have to pay, we will see this baby through to delivery because it is always right to preserve life and never right to unjustly take it.”

“No nation can survive when its leaders are driven by a spirit of pragmatism or make their decisions according to political expediency.”  -R.C. Sproul

In 1979 sociologist Robert Bellah and a team of other scholars began a series of surveys that would culminate in the 1985 book titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (intentionally connecting their research to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America). The author’s described their goal as trying to determine “how to preserve or create a morally coherent life,” something I’d say we’re desperately in need of these days. Bellah and his team studied what “habits of the heart” defined the lives of the prototypical middle class American and noticed a distinct pattern. It seemed that even in the early eighties many Americans had a declining (or no) sense of community or social obligation. Those surveyed had largely even lost the language to express any kind of commitment to anything—church, family, community—other than themselves. Bellah labeled this worldview “ontological individualism,” by which he meant the belief that the individual is the only source of meaning, and he subsequently divided these folks into two categories: expressive individualists and utilitarian individualists.

Utilitarian individualists have embodied the philosophy first suggested by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who tried to create a code of morality based on self-interest. Consequently, they may be described as “consistently pursuing a utilitarian calculus”—devotion to their own self-interest.[2] For the utilitarian individualist life is an endless pursuit of material interests.

Expressive Individualists, on the other hand, exemplify the viewpoint of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Convinced that human passions supersede any consideration of God or reason, expressive individualists seek wealth through the multiplication of experiences and relationships.

It’s strange—in some ways Rousseau and Mill were radically different: one emphasized feeling, the other rational calculation. But they shared what has become the characteristic trait of contemporary thought: moral pride. Rousseau demonstrated the pride of the man of passion; Mill, the pride of the man of reason. Separated by a century and the English Channel they shared an individualism that put man at the center of the universe.

Bellah noticed that these twin strains of individualism were eroding the ties that bind people together, which, in turn, is now threatening the very stability of our social order, as any sense of individual responsibility for the common good is stripped away by our common obsession with . . . ourselves.

The problem, of course, is that radical individualism is directly opposed to action motivated by virtue or tradition. Since any absolute is an obstacle to “self-realization,” American’s new “noble” ideals are personal freedom, choice and tolerance; replacing the old ideals of freedom, duty, and kindness.

And this is what bothers me about pragmatism as a primary approach: it is a utilitarian individualist perspective that ultimately ignores values and principles in favor of desired results (in other words, it boils down to “the end justifies the means”). A pragmatist may not care what the Founders of our country thought, but I take it for granted that we all ought to care what the Founders thought because they founded this country on virtue and principle.


In other words, had the Founders been pragmatists there never would have been a War for Independence, they would not have been willing to die for the ideas that drove them, and the first government in the history of the world created on moral principle rather than specific religion or secular self-interest would not have come into being.

In the Declaration of Independence the Founders indicated their belief in a universal Moral Law established by the Creator (“We hold these truths to be self-evident… endowed by their Creator…”). They went on to formulate—for the first time in history—a government not secular and not religious. It was based on God rather than on any specific religion, and yet it was not a secular government serving the special interests of any individual or group.

What is a Moral Law, one might ask—the Law not everyone obeys, but by which everyone expects to be treated. A Moral Law whose universality is indicated not by our actions but by our re-actions. You will know its existence, not by how you might feel about lying to get what you want (this is “justified” by our utilitarian individualism), but by how you feel upon realizing that someone has lied to you. Recall that sense of indignation we’ve all felt at having suffered an injustice? That’s the indisputable evidence of a universally recognized Moral Law.

Remember your younger years?  “Hey, you hit me!” The surprise, the innate displeasure, the automatic censure we hear and recall in exclamations like this from our childhood reliably point to the fact that there is a Creator, that He endowed all of us with inalienable rights, and that as a result ethical legislation is not only possible, but necessary. 

So this sets us up to start the next post by discussing the first two false statements: “The government can’t legislate morality,” and “No one should force their morals on anyone else.” I hope you’ll keep reading. Thanks for your patience as I write.

“Expediency is an obscene word. It is the word that is ever and always at war with principle. A person who is a Christian is called of God to live by biblical principles. The principles that the Bible reveals to guide our steps are the necessary elements for authentic righteousness. Take away principle, and righteousness is slain in the streets. We need an awakening in the culture and in the church to principle — to working according to truth and to living according to biblical revelation. Without principle, the church as well as the culture will decay, and the church will become a mere echo of the unprincipled pragmatism of secularism.”  -R.C. Sproul

[1] Declaration of Independence. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[2] Robert N. Bellah; Richard Madsen; William M. Sullivan; Ann Swidler; Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Kindle Location 644). Kindle Edition.

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