Can the Earth Stand Still? The Idea of a Transcendent Moral Order and Social Progress

By Caleb Strom

I recently re-watched the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In this science fiction classic, a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C., and a suited figure, who we later learn is named Klaatu, steps out as the craft is surrounded by the U.S. army. The situation does not go well. U.S. soldiers accidentally fire on Klaatu, and a killer robot named Gort almost destroys humanity before Klaatu intervenes. Klaatu, a humanoid alien played by Michael Rennie, carries a message of warning for humanity: stop wars of aggression. If humanity doesn’t, it will be destroyed by Gort to ensure that humans don’t bring their aggression to other planets.

The film was made in the early days of the Cold War, when the first use of atomic weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima  in 1945 was very fresh in the public imagination. It was also a time when the world was locked in a power struggle between two nuclear-armed superpowers. The public, and many activists and intellectuals, were very worried about the threat of nuclear war. These public intellectuals included Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and, ironically, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bomb.

UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) were becoming a cultural phenomenon. The Roswell incident had happened a few years earlier in 1947. People, especially in the United States, were concerned about what was in the skies above them, whether they were hostile aliens or Soviets. In this sense, The Day the Earth Stood Still reflects the spirit of its time, which was an era marked by fear of nuclear weapons, fascination with outer space, and hope for a better future.

The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves updates the specific issues of the film, replacing nuclear war with environmental destruction as the cosmic offense of humanity. The question looming over the 1951 film and the remake is what will it take for humans to change their destructive ways? What will it take for sinful humanity to repent?

What strikes me about the 1951 film today is how it reads like a right-wing version of Gene Roddenberry’s socialist utopia depicted in the Star Trek universe. Whereas in Star Trek, the reason that the galaxy is peaceful, except for the Klingons and Romulans, a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Soviet Union and Maoist China, respectively, is that humanity has overcome its evil side through social progress. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the galaxy is also peaceful, but only because it is  patrolled by a race of killer robots that will destroy any civilization that gets out of line. Both visions depict a peaceful future, or at least the promise of one, but the Star Trek future is peaceful because of galactic solidarity, whereas Day the Earth Stood Still depicts a future that is peaceful because of alien law and order.

Nonetheless, the movie feels less like fascist propaganda and more like humanity being given an ultimatum to submit to a transcendent moral order, like the ultimatum that the Israelite God gives to the ancient Hebrews in the Book of Deuteronomy: either obey God’s law and live or disobey God’s law and be driven from the promised land into captivity. In the film, humanity must submit to a transcendent moral order or be destroyed. There is an indication that the aliens themselves believe in a divine reality. At one point, Klaatu mentions “the Divine Spirit,” which he believes is responsible for giving life and to which he and his people  are morally accountable and to which humans should also be morally accountable.

Marxists have famously criticized the idea of a transcendent moral order, considering it to be just another way that the ruling class tries to assert its control over subaltern classes. Although there are valid points to this critique, there are notable examples where belief in a transcendent moral order has inspired, or at least encouraged, social progress or progressive ideas. 

The film itself inspired tales of UFO encounters with benevolent aliens, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned humanoids who came to be called Nordic Aliens because of their appearance. Early UFO encounter stories involved these aliens coming to specific humans and warning them of the danger of nuclear war and, later, environmental destruction. They usually claimed to be interested in helping humanity in their next stage of spiritual and social evolution. Nordic Aliens often came with a message of universal love and solidarity. A modern example of the belief that aliens are coming to help bring about a new age of superior morality is the Disclosure Project, initiated by retired physician Steven Greer. Contact stories involving Nordic Aliens and the Disclosure Project are examples of the fascinating, but seldom explored intersection between ufology and progressive politics.

A very strange example of this intersection is Fourth International Posadism. Juan Posadas was a socialist activist who believed that only a socialist society could achieve routine space travel and that visitation by flying saucers was evidence that alien societies had achieved socialism. He believed that the advanced extraterrestrials visiting Earth were all peaceful socialists and that they would play a role in bringing about the worldwide revolution against capitalist imperialism. 

These beliefs have done little to inspire actual anti imperialist movements. Posadism quickly devolved into a strange UFO cult that did more harm than good in the end. Belief in a divinely appointed transcendent moral order that is rooted in traditional religions has a better track record for inspiring actual social change. Recent historical examples include the civil rights movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by religious leaders such as the democratic socialist Martin Luther King Jr., whose Christian beliefs played a significant role in his actions. Other examples include liberation theology-inspired movements in Latin America to overthrow oppressive regimes like that of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and religious anti-war protesters, such as Philip Berrigan and Daniel Berrigan, who risked arrest or faced imprisonment to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

In fact, social progress arguably requires some sort of moral order even if it is not based on a traditional religious tradition. Social progress implies that there is a point toward which history is moving. For most social progressives, that point, as King said, is justice. Many people have found reasons to fight for social progress. For some, it has been the belief in a transcendent moral order that governs the world, whether this order be divinely appointed or enforced by extraterrestrials.

Contemporary science fiction tends to depict the future cynically, with interplanetary or galactic empires that act little different from their real-world terrestrial counterparts. Extraterrestrials are sometimes portrayed as being either indifferent to human concerns or malevolent, but prominent examples of benevolent extraterrestrials, such as those in Arrival and Interstellar, remain. The continuing interest in advanced benevolent aliens is evidence that we still thirst for a superhuman power to provide a transcendent moral order in which to ground our lives. For some, this means adherence to strict rules regarding class, gender, and race. For others, universal solidarity is more important. Humanity has not gone galactic, but the struggle for solidarity is a planetary struggle.

Caleb Strom is a PhD student studying planetary science. When he is not exploring the universe, he writes about science, faith, technology, their intersection, and how they can be brought together to make a better world.

Image credit: