I enjoyed reading Andrew Rurikson’s recent article, which describes Jim Jones’s People’s Temple 1978 mass suicide in Guyana as an allegory of the liberal West’s own disintegration. Jim Jones is an embarrassing figure for the liberal Left, indeed.
Though Jones has conveniently been requalified as a “religious extremist” after the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, he had somehow embodied the multicultural experiment when he was officiating in the United States. At a time when many churches were still racially separated, Jim Jones gained some fame for racially integrating his church and drawing a predominantly Black following.
A superficial examination — which happens to be the official one — would be that the People’s Temple started drifting towards a totalitarian sect because of Jones’s personal failings, chiefly his fantasy that he was some kind of messiah.
Thus, Andrew’s piece was spot on in stating that far from being an “accident,” the Jonestown massacre, during which 913 followers were forced to drink lethally poisoned Kool-Aid, was the logical conclusion of Jones’s fanatical inclusivism.
Any ideology or religion that negates the necessity for it to be rooted in a particular people and a genuine tradition will, sooner or later, devolve in an oppressive cult, since only coercion can make different people keep being part of the same religion, nation or civilization. Western liberalism, which was intended as a a liberating doctrine for the ascendant bourgeoisie — and only for it — became a totalitarian ideology once its proponents had deplored that men being born unequal, freedom had paradoxically to be equally enforced on societies so that everyone could become equally “free” at last.
This seeming paradox—the transformation of a supposdely liberating doctrine, classical liberalism into a totalitarian ideology, modern liberalism—was noted by James Burnham in his prophetic essay Suicide of the West.
Burnham convincingly argued that this transformation of liberalism—which explains why the word “liberalism” has a more modern meaning in the Anglo-Saxon world than in continental Europe, where it retains a more classical sense—was inevitable because of the antagonistic nature of liberty and equality. A society, Burnham argues, cannot be free for all; either it renounces equality, or liberty. Though he failed to recognize the devastating effects of liberty itself, Burnham provided a compelling case for radicals who want to understand why what happened had to happen because of structural flaws.
Which brings me to a minor problem I see in Andrew’s article. If we are to believe that only a bad tree can bear bad fruits, according to the Biblical parabola, how can a Christian explain why Jim Jones, who started as a Christian priest, became a self-proclaimed atheist and Marxist who ended up founding a religion dedicated to himself and comitted to a multiracial worldview? If the American experiment was doomed to failure because of the Founders’ materialistic and rationalistic professed ideals, then why couldn’t it be argued that in the same manner, Christianity’s universal outlook enabled later heresies like the People’s Temple? This question is opened and, at this point, I do not have a definitive answer to it, so I would like to leave it open for Andrew and our readers.