Or are you progressive?
Both terms bother me.
To be a “conservative” implies that your primary impulse is to conserve something valuable from history or tradition. But not everything from history or tradition is worth “conserving.” Much of the past has been relegated to the dust heap, and deservedly so.
To be a “progressive” implies that your primary impulse is to progress beyond the present and lead the way toward better days. Sounds great. But not everything we foresee in the future is worth pursuing. Much of what society considers progress today could one day be tossed aside as ridiculous.
So, conservatives appeal to the past, and progressives appeal to the future. And since the problems of the past are on full display and the problems of the future are often unknown, the conservative task is difficult in every generation, for the conservative must make a careful case for retrieving and cherishing good aspects of the past without wanting to “go back.” The progressive has an easier job, since the term itself implies growth toward the common good.
But when we take a deeper look at how the progressive label is applied, we often see people appealing to an imaginary calendar instead of providing sound argumentation.
The Imaginary Calendar
There’s no reason to assume that the position we hold to is right because it’s Tuesday and not Monday. And yet, that’s the kind of ”appeal to the calendar” we often witness in popular progressive circles.
To paraphrase our secretary of state’s warnings to Russia: “We’re living in the 21st century now! You just can’t do that anymore.” To which the Russians giggle and proceed to defy the calendar we have imagined into existence.
“I realized it was time,” politicians say about why they are now in favor of redefining marriage. “It’s time” may be rhetorically powerful to some, but it shouldn’t be confused with actually making a case.
- N. T. Wright calls vague appeals to “the future” a smokescreen.
- C. S. Lewis believed it was chronological snobbery to appeal to progress as if the future is assured and the past is irrelevant.
- G. K. Chesterton believed that democracy means listening to the dead, not just the living. Dissenting is a sign of life, for ”a dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
Progressives want to be bold and courageous, to take their place at the vanguard of the future, but there’s nothing particularly world-changing about seeing where the train of history appears to be chugging, throwing yourself on top of the engine, and then imagining you’re the one making the train go.
Besides, if the past is any indication, the history train makes plenty of unpredictable turns.
Progressives and Eugenics
100 years ago, progressives were falling all over themselves to affirm eugenics. Sterilizing people from unwanted groups would purify the gene pool and lead to a better society. Who could be against that?
Most people today, thankfully.
Those who dissented from the cultural orthodoxy surrounding eugenics a century ago were seen as hopelessly backward, but it was their position that stood the test of time. The “progressive” eugenicists eliminated themselves from the pool of popular opinion, although remnants of eugenic thought still persist in institutions of higher learning.
Progressives and Abortion
One of the most contentious issues facing our nation today is that of abortion. Views on abortion that get called ”progressive” always seem to be in favor of relaxing restrictions. Why is that so? If we see the abortion debate from the standpoint of protecting humans from a violent demise, then shouldn’t the protective measures enacted in the last decade be seen as “progressive?”
Flash back 200 years ago. “Progressive” doctors like Horatio Storer were rallying to expose abortionists, shut down abortion mills, and protect women and children. All their work was later undone by a “progressive” Supreme Court decision that sanctioned the slaughter of fifty million little human beings. See the problem? The label of “progress” lets us down.
Progressives and Divorce
When it comes to marriage, somehow it’s “progressive” to relax divorce laws and make it easier for a couple to abandon their covenant commitments and walk away from their children.
But has no-fault divorce led to “progress” for the family? It’s only progress if you see marriage as a commitment based on romantic feelings, and the needs of children as second to our emotional unions. Today, the world is full of children who know firsthand the pain of broken families, who, when grown, often repeat the cycle in their own lives.
Progressives and Sex
It’s “progressive” to say that all consensual sex between adults is acceptable. But has this led to progress for women? Is cohabitation without marital commitment “progress” for the family? Whatever one thinks about sexual morality, is it accurate to call the sexual brokenness and female degradation we see today “progress?”
It’s “progressive” to argue for sex-change operations, as if we are purely spiritual beings whose physical bodies are irrelevant to who we really are inside. But what if, a century from now, people look back at today’s “progressives” with horror: How could they celebrate the mutilation of their bodies? They thought this was progress?
Progressives and Marriage
It’s “progressive” to be for same-sex marriage, overturning the male/female definition of marriage that has been supported by every civilization for thousands of years. But just how is it progress to envision a family unit where a child is denied the blessing of a mother and father?
In the past, we’ve mourned the tragedy of a child losing a mother or father to death or divorce. Today, we’re seeking to enshrine such a vision into law, to celebrate a family where gender is irrelevant. Is this progress? Or is the bandwagon trampling common sense?
The Myth of Progress
The list could be multiplied. A century ago, the progressives were the ones smashing saloon windows and pushing Prohibition. Today’s progressives look back at such antics as antiquated and backward.
All this to say, progress and progressivism are powerful myths, but they remain just that – myths. Just as the conservative needs to carefully consider what in the past should be “conserved,” the progressive needs to think deeply about how we define “progress.”
After all, totalitarian regimes from Nero’s Rome to Hitler’s Germany have always claimed their policies will usher the world forward in a utopian state, and they use both “conservative” and “progressive” arguments to make the case. The Russians thought they were pushing progress during the Cold War, with Kruschev saying “History is on our side and we will bury you.”
Today, the United States imagines a calendar of progress solidified by our military and economy, with our way of life responsible for spreading freedom to the world and overcoming evil. But not everything we view as “progress” is worth spreading.
Progress must always be measured by a standard.
We make progress as we work hard and move toward an ideal. The temptation, however, is to change the ideal. And that’s why we’d rather trade the ideals of heaven for the shifting sands of popular opinion. To exchange God’s design for human flourishing with our paltry human inventions.
So take note. What passes for “progress” today is often just a slow and steady burrowing into the ground. And the minions below don’t care what we call ”progress,” as long as we are in descent.