A Lesson for Us All from the Rise of Bernie Sanders

We often call Vermont the perfect socialist laboratory, and it has certainly been that for the last 50 years. Two factors are often cited–one geographical, one sociological. It has been just near enough the metro East media/academia spotlight that any experiments can be conducted and studied with little effort, but its population is also small enough that any failures are difficult for the opposition to call attention to as anything more than a local irritation.

But what happened to the rock-ribbed Coolidge conservatives, whose great-grandfathers had repulsed Kemper and Lang to the left of a certain copse of trees, whose grandfathers had left stone walls and cellar holes and tiny family plots where now only the beeches murmur, whose mothers had balled up every inch of string “just in case”? Such as were epitomized in the tale I grew up with, in which the Selectmen, counting votes after Town Meeting, are not at all surprised by the sole D ballot which has shown up ever since the quirky-but-accepted-for-trying-hard flatlander bought half the Macomber farm for his A-frame a couple years ago–but when a second D surfaces, old Colonel Jeffords mutters “B*d voted twice.”

What happened to these? And their children, my childhood classmates?

The third factor bears attention by all of us now if we are to comprehend what made both Bernie and Jane possible, as well as Donald, and it is irreducibly theological. Dig up the covenant statements of the Congregational churches founded from 1780 to 1820 and you will find strong echoes of the 1658 (London) Savoy Declaration, that lesser-known adaptation of the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith (gold standard of Calvinist doctrine) to Congregational polity. Not everyone was Christian–our stock drew heavily on misfits who were not considered polite society further down the Connecticut valley and thought it safer out in the woods–but those who were, were pretty staunch about it; slavery was explicitly abolished in the Constitution, Rutland boasted Pastor Lemuel Haynes, the “Black Puritan”, throughout that span, and even iconic local hero Ethan Allen–though having taken Fort Ti without a shot “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress”–was soundly rebuked for his later Jefferson-on-steroids jettisoning of all Christian doctrine–save its ethics–in his rambling ode to the Enlightenment, Reason the Only Oracle of Man.

The tide started running out around 1820. The West was beckoning young men to shake off the old ways, Finney-inspired revivalists “didn’t need no book-larning” to find Bible verses to tell people how to live right, and the professional minister, who would be all smiles and Transcendental platitudes while moving up the ladder at intervals of about 7 years, increasingly replaced the faithful pastor who would lay down his life getting his one little flock ready to die with their hope fixed on the person and work of Christ alone.

Along the way, those mountainous and craggy Doctrines of Grace, the faith that was delivered once for all to the saints, were suffered to slide into the sea, being replaced by the molehills of civic morality. What was amazing, in Vermont’s case, was that echoes of the foundation lasted as long as they did, even among a culture which almost universally rejected the doctrine of Original Sin, had they even known what it meant. In retrospect, even for those “rock-ribbed conservatives”, the writing was on the wall: they had pulverized the foundations and didn’t know they were standing on quicksand.

Mom remembered, as a young girl, through her bedroom window seeing burning crosses at a temporary encampment on a valley bottom of the White River during the resurgence of the Klan in the early 20s. Even Dad–who as a radar operator was charged with spotting buzzbombs en route to Antwerp, tracking them, flipping through the tables so he could call out altitude, azimuth, fuse length and countdown to the boys outside, on a slow day decided to put his high school geometry and algebra to good use, got a sheet of plywood, drilled a lot of holes in it, and made an analog calculator which shaved valuable seconds off the process–by ’72 voted happily for McGovern and never, I think, got on friendly terms with Reagan. Neither Mom nor Dad, lifelong and committed churchgoers, really ever heard the Gospel of salvation through Christ preached in my childhood church until the 1980s, when a young and zealous Reformed man served briefly as pastor thanks to the votes of a faithful remnant.

That rejection of Original Sin allowed so many, while going out of their way to exemplify ethical behavior (which is, bluntly, NOT the heart of Christianity), to simultaneously project their own view of themselves as basically good people onto every hare-brained schemer who came along. So by the late 60s, it was a few nudist hippie camps out in the woods. What harm could come of that? By the 70s, it was the enshrinement of the cultural significance of basket-weaving at UVM. What harm could come of that? By the 80s it was a Socialist mayor of Burlington. Dang, how did he pull that off? But what harm could come of that? By the 90s it was homosexual marriage. What harm could come of that? (Who even *knew* a homosexual, except maybe old Sadie up the hill, and who in their right mind would even go up to see her unless she might be giving away extra fiddleheads?) By the oughts, there were rumors of heroin beginning to devour Rutland like a funnel cake at the Fair, but it was probably just some jackass kids blowing off steam. And really, what harm could come of that? Back to Bernie’s Jane, she was bringing in fresh new ideas, getting things moving again, so who really cares why she’s doing it? What harm could come of that?

And that movement from a conservatism which was grounded in theology, then moved to mere ethics, and thence to mere pragmatism, which is so easy to trace in the easily-ridiculed history of Vermont’s awful choices, I posit has now come upon us as a nation, not only in the current attraction of a socialist, but particularly in the ease with which so many of us have completely forgotten the principled ground on which we could have been standing, having chosen instead the thoroughly pragmatic and wholly ungodly boasts of our own presumed savior.

What harm could come of that?