We're All Progressives Now
One of the great myths of our times stamps secularists and neo-pagans as well as conservative Christians. Progressivism is our leading unexamined assumption.
Dear friends and supporters:
The term “liberal” to describe the elite political vision of our time has gradually fallen into desuetude. It’s being replaced by “progressive.” While “liberal” is a term highlighting condition (freedom), “progressive” connotes dynamism (movement).
In the United States this language first came to the forefront in the Progressive Era, from the late 19th through the early 20th century. It was marked by a strong reaction by the professional class against what they considered large, conglomerate interests, big-city political bosses and national corporations. Corporate monopolies in bed with powerful politicians were, according to the early progressives, undermining democracy. A textbook example of this progressivism was Teddy Roosevelt, who from his days in the New York state legislature all the way to the presidency, wielded his moralistic billy club against all corruption, real or invented.
When today’s progressives use the term, however, they are generally not thinking about the Progressive Era which, incidentally, coincided with a decisive shift in the meaning of liberal: from individual liberty, the philosophy of the Founding, to the employment of the federal government’s billy club to cut big business and provincial but big politics down to size.
Rather, the historical parent of today‘s progressivism is the European Enlightenment. Its most towering figure, Immanuel Kant, defined Enlightenment as man’s emancipation from external authorities like kings, priests, and the Bible. The very terminology, moreover, displayed historical periodization: The Greco-Roman world lit a candle for the benighted ancients, but it was almost extinguished in the Christian medieval world, the “Dark Ages,” so-called, but in the 18th century figures like Kant, Voltaire, and Hume reignited the flame of knowledge and reason against divine revelation and other superstitions.
Enlightenment can never be static. Intrinsic to it is progress. Light is shining increasingly all the time, and dispelling darkness as it increases (an alternative to Jesus Christ as the light dispelling the darkness). To be enlightened is to be progressive.
Naturally, this view of progress includes man himself, notably his perfectibility. The conventional (and biblical) assumption that man has a fixed nature was considered a retrograde conviction that stifled social advances. Everything progresses, including the very nature of man. New Man replaces traditional man.
Until the 18th century almost all societies (even the Renaissance, which supported historical recovery more than progress) saw a major responsibility of culture to be the preservation of the leading elements of the past. By contrast, Enlightenment societies wanted to be judged on the extent to which they correct or, increasingly, abandon the past.
Scientific and technological progress was simply undeniable and was by every account a boon to the modern world. It was almost everywhere assumed, however, that intellectual and moral progress naturally parallels scientific and technological progress. I-phones are obviously superior to rotary phones, and gender fluidity is obviously superior to heteronormativity. In Kenneth’s Minogue’s description, “Whatever comes later is better.”
Progressivism pervades modernity, and the terms are now almost synonymous. Progressivism is not a particular limited perspective from which to view the world, but in modernity it is an (perhaps the) overriding perspective. Not surprisingly, it includes planned obsolescence: products (and ideas) are created for the purpose of their swift replacement by newer, better. My Chevrolet Impala 2013 is far, far out of date, despite the fact that it runs just fine. It was built to be soon out of date.
More momentous, of course, is ethical obsolescence, the almost universal idea that the deepest ethical convictions of our predecessors were perfectly fine for their day, but now belong to the ash heap of history. There is a heavy dose of Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectics in this viewpoint, by the way, since in abandoning moral absolutes, progressivism could never say, for example, that opposition to homosexuality is always and everywhere wrong, but only that it is wrong today because humanity has come of age. We must topple and vandalize statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee not so much because they were evil men in their own time, but because the memorials today honor what we presently know to be evil.
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“Today it is no longer possible” Mentality
One of the leading 20th century Christian philosophers to have outlined the development of progressivism is Augusto Del Noce. He declares that progressivism can be identified by the “today it is no longer possible” mentality.
“Today it is no longer possible” to bind humanity to external moral standards. Or: to argue that homosexuality and abortion are morally wrong. Or: to intelligently believe that the universe did not evolve from nothingness and chance but rather was created by an infinite personal Triune God. It is not so much that these ideas are wrong as that they are simply unthinkable to thinking people, which is to say progressive people.
Progressivism as myth
Christianity has not been immune to progressivism by any means. Protestant liberalism crested, not surprisingly, a little over 100 years ago, coinciding with increasingly secular views of progress. The supernatural elements of the historic and biblical Christian faith had to be left behind, because “it [was] no longer possible” to think in terms of the supernatural. In the parlance of massively influential New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann, the faith therefore had to be “de-mythologized,” that is, progressivized. He had things just backwards: progressivism is the untested myth that supplies meaning for a culture that has lost faith in God’s revealed meaning for the cosmos. (Listen to “Progressivism as Myth”).
The Conservative Progressives
It would be a mistake to assume that this capitulation to progressivism did not infect conservatives. Protestant evangelicalism increasingly becomes a succession of “movements.” If we consider merely the successions over the last few decades, we encounter the seeker-sensitive movement, the missional movement, the Emergent movement, and most recently the evangelical iteration of Critical Race Theory. These short-lived movements seem to have their heyday and then they dutifully depart stage left, to be replaced by the latest shiny movement. Progress and planned obsolescence meet the conservative church.
In U. S. politics, the Democrat Party is rife with progressivism. The media routinely refer to Joe Biden as “moderate” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “progressive,” despite the fact that Biden has promised that passing the pro-LGBTQ+ “Equality Act” is his first legislative priority. Less than ten years ago cutting-edge progressives were advocating same-sex unions as an alternative to the hugely controversial same-sex “marriage.” That idea is now considered archaic even by most leading conservatives. Same-sex unions are so 2011. Joe Biden and AOC are both progressive, just differently situated on the ever-shifting progressive continuum.
Progressivism is not limited to Democrats. Republicans and even many of the most conservative among them are not immune.
President Donald Trump manfully resisted aspects of the progressive agenda like abortion on demand, cancel culture, and anti-Americanism. In others, however, he reflected the indelible impress of progressivism. For example, he congratulated himself on being identified as the most pro-gay president ever. And, in fact, he is the only president in U. S. history to have taken office supporting gay “marriage.” Barack Obama only “evolved” ( = progressed) to that conclusion during his presidential term under the influence of his teenage daughters.
The president is not the only well-known conservative to have exhibited progressivism. Fox News is widely known as a conservative news network, but one will almost never hear any editorial opinion opposing same-sex “marriage” or homosexuality. These are things you just don’t talk about publicly. “Today it is no longer possible” to express this viewpoint in enlightened company.
Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, denominational mainliners and evangelicals, young and old — we’re all progressives now.
The Progressives’ Moral Postulate
Behind the idea of relentless progress, of unchangeable change, is the single moral postulate eroding all others: “History [is] an irreversible process toward the disappearance of religious transcendence… the intra-worldly process of historical transformation” (Del Noce).
In simpler terms, whereas God and his revelation was once the touchstone for everything, the touchstone has now been dragged down into and immersed within history itself, and cut God off at the roots. We gain earthly salvation by inexorable progress, destroying the past in the mad dash to utopia, despite the fact that we cannot know what it will look like. The important thing is the process of progress itself, not the destination.
This new religion embraces the “primacy of the future over the past, as recognition that the future is entitled not to be limited by the past.” Therefore, life is “a sequence of discontinuous instants.” For man, therefore, “perfect novelty is his oxygen.” Thus Augusto Del Noce.
Conclusion: A Battle of Two Progressivisms
Ironically, Enlightenment progressivism is the secularization of the entirely Christian notion of progress. Richard Tarnas observes:
But perhaps the most pervasive and specifically Judeo-Christian component tacitly retained in the modern world view was the belief in man’s linear historical progress toward ultimate fulfillment.… Humanity’s future fulfillment would be achieved in a world reconstituted by science. The original Judeo-Christian eschatological expectation had here been transformed into a secular faith.
Secular progressivism is de-Christianized progress.
For the Bible, progress is incremental conformity not simply of individuals but also families and churches and cultures to the word of God under the power of the Spirit of God. The Bible certainly does not posit a static view of history, nor a cyclical view, nor a declining view, but, rather, an ascending view: God is working out his good purposes and moving toward holy victory.
For this reason, the frequent conservative and Christian attempt to escape from history to a timeless, unchangeable eternity is a fool’s errand. Some Christians seem to believe that a return to something like Plato’s distinctive of the eternal, unchanging Forms is a cure to modernist progressivist change, but this is an illusion. The conflict in the Bible is never one of time versus eternity but of the Lord of both eternity and time versus a rebellious Satan and autonomous humanity.
For this reason, John Frame has exposed the error of traditionalism. If the error of progressivism is that later is better, the fallacy of traditionalism is older is better. Both are wrong. Biblical is better. Frame is addressing the problem of traditionalism in theology and the church, but the application is wider.
The proper Christian response to modern progressivism is not traditionalism, attempting to reproduce a particular historical era, which always had his own problems, but to work in all areas of life toward greater conformity to God’s word.
This entails embracing comparatively modern ideas in line with God’s word (free market economics) and abandoning modern ideas a variance with God’s word (secular progressivism), as well as preserving older ideas with Biblical support (the family hierarchy) and jettisoning older ideas without biblical support (divine right of kings).
Ours is a battle of two progressivisms: Christian, biblical progressivism versus anti-Christian secular progressivism. Ours is a Spirit-drenched progress toward historical victory.
I pray that your family enjoyed its most memorable Thanksgiving ever, despite the draconian lockdown threats and orders. Here are just three photos from our Thanksgiving. The middle photo is of me with my Dad. You can get his short but practical, Bible-saturated devotionals by signing up here.
Next week I intend to write on “Separation of Church and Statism,” a particularly germane topic in the present Covid drama. I hope you can order my new book on the church advertised above.
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Yours for the King,
Founder & President
Center for Cultural Leadership
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