Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Political Pelagianism

The theology behind both Democratic and Republican lawmaking

You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism and commentary without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get into news that is grounded in facts and Biblical truth for as low as $3.99 per month.


Already a member? Sign in.

Pelagius (A.D. 360-418) denied Biblical teaching about original sin. He thought people could do good without being born again. Allies and opponents described him as highly educated, fluent in Latin and Greek, and portly. (The theologian Jerome, an ascetic, described Pelagius as “stuffed with Irish porridge.”)

In Christian history he’s best-known for his takedown by Jerome and by Augustine, who followed the Bible in arguing that we are helpless sinners from birth and desperately in need of Christ’s grace. Church assemblies—the 15th Council of Carthage in 411, the First Council of Ephesus in 431, etc.—condemned Pelagianism, but century after century it keeps popping up.

I won’t go deeper into the theology here, because my goal is to follow the contemporary thread that I’d call Political Pelagianism. Some Democrats love to claim the poor are virtually sinless. Some Republicans say the same things about the rich.

Some Democrats love to claim the poor are virtually sinless. Some Republicans say the same things about the rich.

This political theology emerges in legislation. For example, the “Housing First” doctrine that became dogma during Barack Obama’s White House years states that homeless individuals should be given homes, “regardless of their sobriety, any past or current use of substances, any completion of rehabilitation or treatment, or participation in any other supportive services.” Applicants with poor credit or criminal histories are “seldom rejected.”

The Political Pelagian assumption is that homeless individuals are naturally good, and if they have their own home, they will refrain from drug and alcohol abuse. Pelagian faith makes sense at suite level if we assume people are naturally good, but WORLD reporters at street level saw Housing First often doing harm: Addicts and alcoholics had more resources to fund their self-destructive habits.

Democrats who want more money going to welfare recipients, regardless of whether they work or take care of children, are also Political Pelagians. They assume society is to blame if people aren’t working. They are partly right, in that urban schools are often terrible and many in rural areas aren’t better, but they romanticize our natures, as did Jean Jacques Rousseau when he wrote about “noble savages.” The Bible, though, shows that we are all naturally savage and selfish, not noble.

Many Republicans are also Political Pelagians, but since their prime backers come from the other end of the economic spectrum, they tend to glamorize the Noble CEO. GOP leaders last year proselytized for corporate tax cuts rather than individual ones on the grounds that executives would use those corporate windfalls to create more jobs and boom the economy to 4 percent growth next year, or more.

That’s a Pelagian assumption. Augustinians expect executives and shareholders to maximize their own income, with only a small amount trickling down, and the national debt soaring. Many economists project 2 percent growth over the next two years, and Goldman Sachs says the effect of the GOP initiative in 2020 “looks minimal and could actually be slightly negative.” Some Republicans who supported their party’s bill, like Sen. Marco Rubio, are having second thoughts. He said we’ll “see a lot of these multinationals buy back shares to drive up the price. … That isn’t going to create dramatic economic growth.”

If Republicans really wanted to push job creation and were Augustinian (understanding human selfishness) rather than Pelagian, they would have emphasized job creation tax credits and fixed glitches in the earned income tax credit. Payroll taxes are the major tax expense for many people earning less than $50,000 per year: No reform there.

Pelagian tax changers in essence got rid of charitable deductions for middle-class donors, arguing that if the economy does well people will naturally contribute more money to poverty-fighting programs and other worthy charities. Maybe, but that’s not what the historical record reveals: The natural tendency of most people, rich or poor, is to spend more money on themselves.

For several years I wrote speeches for DuPont’s top executives. For several years I interviewed homeless individuals and others among the very poor. Both experiences helped me to grasp the Biblical doctrine that is most empirically verifiable: original sin. Both Democrats and Republicans politically deny that doctrine, in different ways. We need more political Augustinians.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.


It seems to me the Political Pelagianism construct defined by Marvin Olasky is improperly applied to Republicans on several grounds.   I would agree that Democrats have utopian notions about the nature of mankind and forget how the bible defines us – totally depraved.  One point that Marvin seems to forget is that “total depravity of man” does not mean that we will ALWAYS do the most depraved thing.  Sometimes actually, unredeemed people will do some very good things, such as Bill Gates giving money to help fight poverty.  Of course, on the spiritual dimension it is not measured as goodness because he does not acknowledge Jesus as his Lord and Savior. At best we can say that Bill Gates will get less punishment because of his good deeds, but even some may take issue with this statement.  Now in applying this term to Republicans, Olasky gives two examples: 1) Republicans claiming that the rich are sinless; and 2) glamorizing the noble CEO.  I have never heard any Republicans make this claim that the rich are sinless, so in essence it appears that Olasky is putting up a straw man.  Now maybe some of the Prosperity Gospel type may make these claims, but I have never heard it coming from the Republicans.

Olasky says the following about glamorizing the noble CEO, “GOP leaders last year proselytized for corporate tax cuts rather than individual ones on the grounds that executives would use the corporate windfalls to create more jobs and boom the economy to 4 percent growth next year, or more.  That’s Pelagian assumption.”  Wow!  The GOP is “proselytizing” the false gospel of Pelagianism in their economic plan.  I highlight this to show how charged this statement is comparing the GOP (and Trump too for he pushed forward this economic plan) to proselytizers of heresy.  It seems to me that Olasky does not fully understand capitalism or the concept of the “total depravity of man.” 

Capitalism works because the players are rewarded for bringing new products to market and keeping their business going profitably.  Related to this, a company will want to keep up the wages paid to employees comparable to the market because if they don’t then the good employees will move on to other companies that do pay them appropriately and the original company will lose out.  During tight markets where there is little profit, companies can often get away with keeping the wages down, but when markets improve, it is often in the interest of the individual company to raise wages.  In fact, we are seeing this effect today with the success of Trump’s economic plan.  Employers are paying their workers more and hiring more people as they expand.  Not only that but we are seeing the economy booming with real growth at 3.3% in the third quarter of 2017 and reported by Reuters to be near 4% for the fourth.  

Olasky seems to think that the “total depravity of man” means that mankind will ALWAYS do the very worst action.  This is not what the “total depravity of man” means!   Sometimes the unredeemed do the right things in spite of the fact that they are unredeemed and God uses it for his own ends. For example, a CEO may like his people and give them a raise to make sure they stay around.  Both selfish and altruistic motives may be involved.