For many ethical progressives, there is an absence of active malice. They are most likely to see their own condescension as a kind of empathy for the less fortunate. Their goal is to help the poor and working classes escape the forces that progressives see as oppressing the poor and powerless…
For those of us with a traditional and/or conservative frame of mind, progressivism and its acolytes are the enemies. Often, we are so sure of the rightness of our causes that we simply cannot understand how an honest, thinking person can possibly object to them.
Certainly, there are those who wear the progressive mantle because it gives them power and authority. Their motives are cynical and often cross the line into actual evil. Unfortunately, the same thing can be said for some on the traditional side of the political/social spectrum. These people are not the subject of this essay.
The people whom I am discussing here are people motivated to progressivism through motives of goodwill, and there are many of them. I have been teaching in a variety of public schools for most of the last thirty-three years. I know many such people. They are kind, honest, genuine, and caring. Often, the trouble that many of us have understanding them is similar to the problems that they have understanding us. Many of us have tried to convince them to the truths of our positions to little effect. These attempts are also not the motivation for this essay. Books on conservative political philosophy and Christian apologetics abound, and I have no intention of trying to improve on their authors’ work in so brief a space as this.
However, in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi’s admonition that we “should not so much seek… to be understood as to understand,” I offer the following.
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about progressives. His point was that the progressives of today are radically different from the progressives of the first two decades of the twentieth century—men like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. My response was that the differences were the accidents of the times in which they lived, but that there was an essence to progressivism that remains largely unchanged. As I contemplated that conversation over the next couple of days, I attempted to define that essence.
The following list of progressive core beliefs is the fruit of that contemplation.
- The average person is unable to control key aspects of life, especially in terms of economics and politics.
- The common person is often a slave to his/her own biological impulses. These cannot be controlled, except through an unhealthy process of psychological repression. Therefore, the best that can be achieved is some level of control of the consequences that arise from those impulses.
- Traditional morality, ideas, and ignorance often blind the individual to his own best interests, so he needs to be protected from the ill effects of his own bad decisions.
- Collective actions in pursuit of the common good are generally preferable to individual initiatives, which are inherently traditional, self-seeking, inappropriate, and/or unstable.
- It is often necessary to deceive the common people to achieve those ends that are ultimately in the best interests of the society as a whole.
- The government is the only available equalizer in the struggle between the individual and the economic and political forces that are beyond his control.
- Centralized national government actions are more equitable, more efficient, and more beneficial than the actions of communities or local governments.
- While some level of democracy is desirable, the real work of government should be done by trained experts rather than left to the whims of a largely ignorant population.
Basically, the ethical progressive replaces the traditional concept of God as the benevolent provider of all good gifts with a kind of faith in the state.
Interestingly, many progressives embrace traditional Christian concepts as a guide for their own personal behaviors. However, that faith does not carry over into their judgements about the actions of others. Those of us in the pro-life community have agonized when hearing honest and normally kind people say something like, “I hate abortion, and would never have one myself, but it would be wrong for me to force my standards onto others.” These same people would have a similar response to a discussion of marriage, prostitution, drug use (at least in moderation), or “gender issues.”
However, these same people are quite willing to use government to control other behaviors. A good example is the use of tobacco. A whiff of smoke coming from the open window of a passing car will send many progressives into fits of rage. Another practice that most progressives would like to prohibit is the private ownership of firearms. The sight of a piece of paper in the trash can rather than the recycling bin will drive many progressives over the edge.
So, then, what is the difference between choosing to smoke and choosing to live together in a pseudo-marriage without the benefit of clergy? Why do progressives hate the former and yet think that the latter is purely a matter of personal preference?
The progressive would tell you that second- and third-hand smoke affects the lives of many other than the person actually choosing to smoke. That is a fair argument. However, who can deny that the rise what used to be called the illegitimate birth rate has no harmful effect on the overall community? Why, then, are progressives unwilling to extend the logic behind their anti-smoking stand to other aspects of life?
First, a large multi-national company profits from the sale of tobacco products. Anything that enhances the profits of corporations is automatically suspect to those on the left. Progressives might also add that those companies spend lavishly to make their inherently unhealthy product appealing to the uninformed.
Second, in the modern world, smoking tobacco is an activity of the working class. There is an elitist strain in many of the judgements made by progressives against the goals, entertainments, and priorities of the lower classes—especially if those members of the lower classes are white. One can hear similar tones of condescension in discussions of pick-up trucks, country music, and gun sports. These are the people that progressives say are blinded to their own best interests.
Third, one can see an interesting combination of the two factors mentioned above in the progressive attitude toward traditional Christianity—whether Catholic or Protestant. Working-class, traditional Christians are dismissed as advocating certain beliefs because they are just too ignorant to know better. This attitude is especially prevalent among the secularists, but is not unknown in liberal Protestant circles. At the same time, the leaders of traditional Christians are likely to be seen as charlatans or control-addicts. Therefore, anything that conforms to a traditional religious view of the world is viewed as unfashionable, oppressive, and/or ill-informed.
It should be emphasized that, for many ethical progressives, there is an absence of active malice. They are most likely to see their own condescension as a kind of empathy for the less fortunate. Their goal is to help the poor and working classes escape the forces that progressives see as oppressing the poor and powerless. Progressives see corporations and traditionalist religious leaders as forces that should be limited in order to help the poor escape their harmful influences. They often see the legal process—especially the rulings of activist judges and administrative agencies—as the most effective ways of accomplishing this end. Hence, they will fight very hard to ensure that these aspects of government go on unimpeded.
Among these progressives, traditional Christianity is viewed with disdain. This runs the gamut from seeing the influence of traditionalists as unfortunate, to perceiving a force that is demonstrably evil. As the world’s oldest and largest organization, the Catholic Church is viewed by many progressives as having profited from the oppression of the ignorant. It is simply an ingrained part of the progressive worldview. As such, it is not a premise that will be easily abandoned.
So, what do we traditionalists do about this situation? First, we need to present the truth constructively and positively. Second, we need to continue to point out the horrible actions of those who would use the power that progressives undoubtedly have to radicalize the nation. Understanding the motivations of progressives does not mean lying down when progressives attempt to enforce obedience to their agenda. We need to stand clearly on the side of objective truth, while understanding the reasons that some find the concept of “relative truth” attractive.
In doing this, however, we must remember that most progressives are not radicals, and they resent being treated as radicals every bit as much as we traditionalists resent being portrayed as fascists.
Several months ago, I read a truly remarkable book, The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan. The author had grown up in a home that was thoroughly secular—not just non-religious but actively anti-religious. Having a father who was well known in the world of 1960s New York City radio gave Mr. Klaven the contacts that he needed to begin a successful career as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Slowly, however, the conviction grew in Klaven that Christianity was real and true.
Perhaps the most moving thing about Mr. Klaven’s story is his description of what he lost in his gradual embrace of Christianity. The struggles against parents and community would be familiar to many who have experienced a religious conversion. However, what was really remarkable was the description of the extent that Mr. Klavan feared losing much of his own self-image to embrace Christianity. He specifically notes his fear that becoming a Christian would change his books and screenplays and cause him to become a “Christian novelist.” It drove home to me the fact that the ethical progressive risks the loss of many of the elements of his own personality in the process of conversion.
Mr. Klavan did not become a thorough-going traditionalist; his story largely ends with his baptism by an Episcopal clergyman. As anyone who has viewed his commentaries on The Daily Wire or YouTube knows, he is more libertarian than traditionalist. However, a traditionalist who wants to become aware of the sacrifice that he is asking when he urges a progressive to embrace Christian tradition would do well to read The Great Good Thing carefully.
I am sure that Mr. Klaven gained far more than he lost (and I believe that he would agree), but that truth is not at all apparent to the individual who is going through the process of conversion. It takes a great grace to be able to endure it. It remains that the most important thing that we can do to help our society turn from its current disastrous course is to pray that Our Lord may give the gifts of grace to ethical progressives. To play our role as messengers of that grace we cannot embrace—or even appear to embrace progressivism. At the same time, we do need to understand the hearts of those to whom God in His grace may send us.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.