Though ostensibly a theological doctrine, original sin has been secularized at least since the time of Thomas Hobbes. (David Brook’s recent column is not too far afield.) Hobbes described the original and natural state of humans as the “war of all against all.” In this state life was normally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Our two major political cultures in the US, the liberals and the conservatives, tend to take somewhat different perspectives on original sin. Speaking hyperbolically, conservatives will see the root human problem as laziness and violence, liberals as ignorance and helplessness. With original sin differently conceived, redemption is also differently conceived. For the conservative, redemption lies in a government that removes the incentive toward laziness and protects citizens from the violence of others. For the liberal, redemption lies in a government that takes educates people and takes care of them.
Framed in this simplistic manner, the liberals and conservatives in view are obviously only those who look for salvation purely in the political realm. Both think government can contribute to redemption, though conservatives are more likely to see government, at least in its recent versions, as increasing the laziness of citizens rather than pushing them out of it.
Recognizing that there is at least some truth in these simplified descriptions of the human plight, what ought the Christian to say? It’s not hard to find biblical support for the notion that people ought to work and take care of themselves and their families, rather than looking for a handout. It’s also not hard to find biblical support for the notion that we are our brother’s keeper and ought to take care of the weak and helpless. But I’d say both views are too simplistic for the Christian.
First, the human problem is larger than our laziness, ignorance and lack of ability. Our essential relationships, with God, each other, ourselves and creation, are broken.
Second, redemption, deliverance from our plight, is not something we possess the power to completely bring about on our own. Hubris is as much a problem for the one who thinks she doesn’t need anything of government except to be left alone as for the one who thinks omnicompetent government can solve all our problems, if only fed enough money with the proper elite at the top directing the way.
Christians too often buy into the secular solutions because they’ve dropped their own doctrine of original sin by the wayside or because they’ve bought in to a more secularized version. Sure, it’s unpleasant to admit that we might be broken; not just those other folks over there, but we ourselves. Our brokenness is partly what has happened to us, the effect of living in a sinful world. But we also make whole-hearted contributions to that sinfulness, often holding nothing back.
Original sin, taken as a doctrine of the universality and depth of the human plight, precisely in terms of contrast with God’s original intent, is a healthy doctrine for us to remember and implement in our relations with the world.