The other night, Glenn Youngkin was on Tucker Carlson (which has long been my drug of choice) talking about his recent, stunning upset of Terry McAuliffe in the race to become Virginia’s next Governor. Here is a guy who, despite being 6’ 7” tall, had hardly been noticed by anyone until he decided to enter the race and make a difference. The issue on which he ran was not climate control, or COVID, or even the usual incompetency of politicians who like to manage other peoples’ lives.
Rather, his focus was the corruption of children at the hands of woke ideologues, who imagine themselves as the owners of their souls, free to instill whatever racist nonsense they find useful. It’s all about power and stripping parents of their right to determine the education of their own children.
His opponent, Terry McAuliffe, was perfectly on board with this woke agenda. But Glenn Youngkin stood tall in the saddle against it. “We are all created equal in the eyes of God,” he told Tucker Carlson, who was quick to embroider upon the point. The notion, said Carlson, “that one race is inherently stained, is disgusting and should be stopped.” Calling white people devils is no better than calling black people devils. That qualifies as “Nazi stuff and therefore totally un-American.”
So that was basically the pitch Youngkin himself made to the voters, who found it persuasive enough to smash the Democrat machine for the next four years. Nevertheless, in shoring up an argument reasonable enough to have convinced a majority of Virginia’s voters, Tucker Carlson went on to say something which gave at least this viewer pause. Yes, it is wrong to impute sin to other people, as though it were a species of blood guilt. But does it then follow, as Carlson went on emphatically to assert, that “No child is born with the stain of sin”?
Is it just my incurably theological mind that tells me this is simply not true? That here is a bridge too far? It is one thing, in other words, to assign a particular malign status to people you despise because of their skin color or ethnicity. To do so is, quite simply, racist and wrong. It is not malign, however, to acknowledge in every human being on the planet a very special stain that we call Original Sin, the existence of which antedates every distinction of race, color, or creed. Not only are we born in sin, we are likewise conceived in it as well. It is the worm in every apple, whose poison has insinuated itself deep down into the core of every piece of fruit. Whatever else we believe about ourselves, we all believe that there is something terribly wrong about ourselves.
What else do we need to be redeemed from? “Talk of original sin,” says Joseph Ratzinger, “means just this, that no man can start from scratch any more, in a status integritatis (=completely unimpaired by history). No one starts out in an unimpaired condition in which he would only need to develop himself freely and lay out his own grounds; everyone lives in a web that is a part of his existence itself. Last Judgment is the answer to these collective entanglements.”
But who believes this stuff anymore? Apparently not even witty and clever conservatives like Tucker Carlson. But how impoverishing that can be in a world infested with sin. It leaves one shorn of that ultimate standard by which to understand, much less judge, the shortcomings of others. Or one’s own, come to think of it, which are copious and recurrent enough. “What’s wrong with the world?” That was the question put to the readers of G.K. Chesterton’s favorite newspaper. His response was surely the shortest on record: “Dear Sirs: I am.”
“Most of us know, now,” wrote the critic and poet Randall Jarrell, “that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the Death Camps. Soon we shall know everything the eighteenth century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.” It is instructive that Jarrell’s point first surfaced in a review of Robert Penn Warren’s Brothers to Dragons: A Tale in Verse, consisting of an imaginative retelling of an atrocious murder of a black slave by the children of Charles and Lucy Lewis, brother-in-law and sister, no less, to that great icon of human liberty, Thomas Jefferson. “Who,” Jarrell acidly comments, “spoke and believed that Noble Lie of man’s innocence and perfectability.”
The title of Jarrell’s review, “On the Underside of the Stone,” is itself telling. He describes Warren’s book as having been “written out of an awful time, about an awful, a traumatic subject: sin. Original Sin, without any Savior.” Jarrell concludes by saying, “It wasn’t happiness Warren was in pursuit of, but the knowledge of Good and Evil.”
It is that knowledge, by the way, which distinguishes us from the beasts, including the higher primates we so often sentimentalize, picturing ourselves as only slightly more complicated cousins. (Are we really no more than “trousered apes,” to use C.S. Lewis’ apt image?) It is this capacity we have to make choices, to enact dramas that move us—almost, as it were, ineluctably—in the direction of either the light or the darkness that defines us as precious and unique. And so none of us has any preternatural edge or leg-up in choosing one over the other. It is a free market in which we stand equal before God and one another.
We are determined by our choices, and by our response to the grace God sends us to help make the right choices. None of us, therefore, by dint of color or race has cornered in advance the market on wisdom. If, as the poet Eliot reminds us, “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility,” is it at all likely that those who have this wisdom will be advertising their acquisition of it? Or lording it over others whom we, or the culture, have deemed unwise?
It remains, as always, a datum of human nature, intrinsic to Everyman. It will never become an exclusive possession of either white or black, but available to all. If the sum of two plus two is not a function of skin color, why should the sum of two thousand or more years of moral experience be any different?
How far we have come from the clear vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., set before us with such singular eloquence long before the race-baiters took over: that we are to judge one another not by skin color, which is boring and superficial, but by the content of character, which alone gets to the heart of the matter.