Grievance, rebellion and burnt bridges: Tracing Josh Hawley’s path to the insurrection

The Washington Post reports:

Hawley made a striking declaration about his view of Americans in a June 2019 article in Christianity Today, titled “The Age of Pelagius.” He said Pelagius, a Greek scholar born about the year 350, had said individuals had freedom to be whatever they chose. “It’s the Pelagian vision,” he wrote. “Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning.”

Hawley found such liberty abhorrent.

He said it meant that an individual could “emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.” He said those seeking this liberty became elitists.

This was too much for his onetime hero, George Will, who viewed individual liberty as an essential American trait. Will had been helpful during the Senate campaign. He had been urged to write about Hawley by Danforth, his longtime friend and the godfather of Will’s daughter. Will came to Missouri, rode with Hawley on a campaign bus and wrote a column praising the candidate as “an actual, not a pretend, conservative.”

But Will gradually concluded that his assessment had been wrong. He wrote a column in January 2020 ridiculing Hawley’s attack on individualism. As the two feuded, the senator fired off a Trump-like tweet at the man he once revered: “I’m told NeverTrumper and ex-Republican George Will attacking me again today for talking about working people. Oh George. Don’t you have a country club to go to?”

Will said in an interview that he found the tweet “surpassingly dumb.” He later condemned Hawley’s effort to reject the presidential election results and create a “synthetic drama” on Jan. 6, writing that the senator from Missouri, along with Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), must be “forevermore shunned. … Each will wear a scarlet ’S’ as a seditionist.”

My father was not a fan of Pelagius. I guess I’m ambivalent. I don’t care about the mechanics of salvation and I don’t believe that humans are perfectible and rational (they have a limited capacity for rationality) but I do believe in the ability of people to improve (I don’t want to go through life without believing in free will but I recognize there are good arguments against it). Pelagius seems like he would have fit in well with the Enlightenment and its belief in the inherent goodness of human nature (which I do not share).

Judaism is more optimistic than Christianity about human potential.

Paul Johnson wrote in his History of the English People:

Since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the official religion of the Empire had been Christianity. Though the administrative centre of the Empire had been transferred to Byzantium, the state religion was still centrally conducted from Rome. Already indeed its chain of command, and its contacts with outlying regions such as Britain, were maintained in a more regular fashion than the political and military functions of the Empire. Christianity still had a working international infrastructure. This religion, by its very nature, was centralised, universalist, authoritarian and anti-regional. It was run by a disciplined priestly caste, commanded by bishops based on the imperial urban centres, under the ultimate authority of the Bishop of Rome himself, the spiritual voice of the western Empire. Its doctrines were absolutist, preaching unthinking submission to divine authority: the Emperor and his high priest, the Bishop of Rome, in this world, and a unitary god, who appointed the Emperor, in the next. Man was born in sin, and must accept tribulation as inevitable; he could indeed be redeemed, but only by an authority external to him – God in the next world, the Emperor in this. Salvation, now and for ever, lay solely with the Christian Empire. These attitudes and doctrines underlay the political posture of the pro-imperial party in Britain.

They had, however, come under increasing challenge from a theologian who took an altogether less pessimistic view of the human condition, and of the divine dispensation for man. Significantly, this theologian was British. Pelagius was born in Britain, of native stock, about AD 350, and was about thirty when he first travelled to Rome. He had had a good education, in the legal traditions of the Empire, but his outlook had been shaped by the local environment – physical, political and economic – of a distant province, which had never been more than semi-Romanised, and which was a very peripheral factor in imperial policy. Pelagius attacked the prevailing orthodoxy of Roman Christianity. When Adam sinned, he argued, he injured himself only:
it was nonsense to pretend his fault was transmitted to every human being, to be effaced only by divine grace; a child was baptised to be united with Christ, not to be purged of original sin. Man was a rational, perfectible creature: he could live without sin if he chose; grace was desirable, but not essential. Man was a free being, with the power to choose between good and evil. He could become the master of his destiny: the most important thing about him was his freedom of will. If he fell, that was his own fault; but by his actions he could rise too.

Pelagianism was the spiritual formula for nationalism, for the independence movements breaking out from a crumbling empire. In
the year 410 Pelagius was still in Rome, leaving it just before the city was sacked by the Goths. His work was by no means complete, and had not yet been anathematised by a Church which saw it as a threat to its universalist authority. But his views were already widely known and arousing fierce controversy. They were hotly repudiated by the orthodox political and religious element who saw the re-establishment of the Empire, in all its plenitude, as the only hope of salvation from the barbarian. But they were eagerly accepted by those who thought that the Empire was already dead, and that individual communities must look to their own defences. Man could save himself by his exertions, and others by his example: in this world as well as in the next. The Empire could not, by a miraculous infusion of grace, turn back the savages from the gates: only organised local resistance could do that. Possibly even the barbarians themselves could be brought within the pale of civilisation, and unite with local citizens in building viable societies to their mutual profit. Pelagius had pointed out that free will existed even among the barbarians; they too were perfectible, could choose freedom and profit from it.

These arguments had a particular appeal in Britain, which had always felt itself a neglected, despised and expendable outpost of the Continental imperial system. There is no evidence Pelagius ever re- turned to Britain. But he was not the only British member of his school; one of the most energetic and vehement of his companions was also a Briton, and there may have been others. At any rate his beliefs were widely held in Britain by 410 : there was a strong Pelagian party among the British propertied class. There, orthodox Christianity was no more than a powerful, officially endorsed sect; perhaps not even the predominant one. Not all the leading Britons were convinced that Christianity was the only religion. In the late fourth century there had been a pagan revival in Britain, which has left traces in the splendid shrine of Nodens, in the west country, built possibly as late as AD 400. Among the British Pelagians, at least, there was an ambivalent attitude to other religions, a refusal to recognise Christianity as the exclusive route to salvation, a willingness to do business with the unconverted. This could be expressed in political and military, as well as religious, terms.

Tolerance may have been dictated by common sense. Nearly 150 years later, the monk Gildas, writing from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity, blames the destruction of an independent Britain by barbarous invaders on the moral failings of the British, their lack of resolution in their faith. Echoing him, Bede says that the British were submerged because they made no attempt to convert the heathen to Christianity. But Gildas’s account is avowedly didactic, not historical; he was a partisan, among other things an anti-Pelagian. His reconstruction of events after 410 distorts what actually happened, for he made himself the mouthpiece of the pro-imperial party. To negotiate with the barbarians, on the basis of a mutual tolerance of race and religion, was an obvious course for the British nationalists, who were also Pelagians. Saxons had been established, as military settlers federated to the provincial authorities, on parts of the East Coast for many decades. They were part of Britain’s defensive system, such as it was. It was sensible to encourage others, of Jutish and Frisian and Prankish origin, moving across the narrow seas, to settle themselves in Kent in organised, law-abiding communities, working in co-operation with the British authorities for the defence of all the island’s peoples. These settlers had been touched by civilisation; they were not outer barbarians but military tribes who could be used against them. The story of the British Vortigern, or High King, and Hengist and Horsa, reflects an arrangement which made good political and military sense at the time. It ended in tragedy, according to the subsequent gloss of both British and English Dark Age historians. But it may, in fact, have successfully ensured a limited period of peace in which newly independent Britain could organise itself. And the collapse of the British State, which endured in some form for nearly 150 years, seems to have been brought about by civil war rather than external attack; moreover, our only account of what happened comes from Gildas, who was a leading member of one of the British factions.

At any rate, in 410 the Pelagian nationalist party in Britain took control, though its authority, and policy, were qualified. We know roughly what happened from the historian Zosimus. He says that in 410 an enormous army of barbarians crossed the Rhine, without effective resistance from the imperial authorities. The British revolted from Roman rule, and established a national state. They took up arms, freed their cities from the barbarian invaders, expelled the remaining members of the imperial administration and set up their own system of government.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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