Charles Taylor treats Reform - the larger movement that includes the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and their precursors - as the social movement that ultimately and without intending to produced today's secular subculture. His argument is surefooted and dense. At one point, though, he makes this remarkable admission:
“a very long-lasting bent in European culture towards Reform, in the widest sense … [is] the attempt by elites to make over society, and the life and practices of non-elites, so as to conform to what the elites identify as higher standards. This is a remarkable fact. I don’t pretend to have an explanation for it.” (242)
His main point is that the religious mission to fully Christianize the masses had a secondary goal of civilizing them. The irony is that civilizing, which was to be a secondary benefit of evangelizing and conversion, came to displace evangelizing as the primary goal. And this is doubly true of all the many subsequent social reform movements, which are still largely carried about by religiously motivated elites.
I have been puzzling over the "remarkable fact" for which he has no explanation. I put this question to the Theory Camp this morning. "Scott" (not her real name) offered that the elites might want to reform the masses in the elites' own image as an exercise of power. Scott apologized for offering so cynical an explanation. We then discussed the various "hermeneutics of suspicion" as a distinctively modern way of understanding - and undermining - seemingly well-meant actions.
I am disinclined to a cynical view. To be sure, every social movement is tinged with pride and self-assertion. Still, I think that the many movements to lift up the poor, marginal, and even self-destructive are primarily motivated by a good desire to help. They may be misguided, soft-headed, and produce unintended consequences. But the motivation is, on the whole, good. And the fact that a segment of the elite is moved to help the worse off is a basic fact about our society.
Taylor says that the great ethical issue for a secular society is whether this movement toward mutual benefit can really be produced by secularity itself, or whether it is parasitical on a prior religious culture, and draws mostly from religious people today. My observation is that people who stick with good works for the badly off are mostly religious people. In principle a sustained good works movement of secularists could be possible. But I don't think it likely. When secularists want the poor helped, they make the state do it, and tax everyone to pay for it. A move which produces more unintended bad consequences than good works that voluntarily come from the (religious) heart.