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

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11 replies to this post
  1. While I agree with your conclusion, I don’t give “progressives” the benefit of the doubt as you do when you say “motives of good will” and this lack of giving the benefit of the doubt because of your sentence: “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.” I’d correct that sentence by ending it, “…faith in self” or “humanity” as opposed to God. The entire progressive mentality is to replace God with the self which makes the psychology of Genesis 3 so accurate. The end result of the “progressive” agenda is to regress society back to the ways of our pagan ancestors, the reason I call “progressives” regressives. That they will use government to control the behavior of others, and here I mean firstly what we call politically correct “tolerance,” is proof enough that all progressives end in self-righteousness and not in the righteousness of God, though they will use Christian ideas outfitted in pagan form, or as you say, “…progressives embrace traditional Christian concepts….”

    Although a traditional conservative can critique capitalism and corporations, the stances “progressives” take against these is their self-righteousness finding evil in the world, but not in themselves hence “progressives” always speak about “changing the world” rather than themselves. They cannot comprehend what the late Canadian author Robertson Davies once said: “You are working for mankind are you? Well, the best thing you can do for mankind is to devote your best energies to making the best possible job of yourself: then you will have something to give mankind that will really rouse its attention.”

  2. Shortly put, progressives already have their religion, the State is their load-star, a rather clumsy, wasteful thing that is always being forgiven and absolution for the mind numbing platitudes and absurdities that they clutch with a passion grotesque to the Normal among us.

  3. Obviously, there are millions who consider themselves progressives. I know that some of them are charlatans and opportunists. However, that does not excuse those of us on the right – whether we call ourselves conservative, libertarian, or (as I call myself) traditionalist – from the need to acknowledge that many progressives hold their beliefs through higher motives. For us to say that they are all evil creates the same sense of injury that I felt when Mrs. Clinton referred to us as a basket of deplorables or when I heard President Obama’s dismissive remark about “people who cling to God and guns. If we dismiss all progressives as unreachable, we will never be able to convince them.

    • I do not disagree with you. My experiences are a bit different in regards to dealing with progressives. Seeing what has especially happened since the Occupy movement, to the BLM, Antifa movements, and a great deal else that arose during the 2016 elections, it all appears to be more of a masked communism then it is anything else. At least that is what I am seeing. Mrs. Clinton I think is a masked communist and Bernie Sanders is an unmasked communist. Not so much a calling of names, as it is recognizing what I am seeing as they present themselves publicly. It is becoming rather unsettling to say the least.

    • We do not dismiss the sinner, but the sin. The basic premises of the progressive ideology are in error with two of those being that the people cannot help themselves, so a self-chosen elite shall take care of them. Take Nancy Pelosi’s Inaugural Day statement that Republicans “pray in church on Sunday and then prey on people the rest of the week…while we’re (Democrats) doing the Lord’s work….” There are so many things wrong with the statement but for this discussion it is a prime example of how grossly progressives deceive themselves with their religion of humanity and believe themselves better than others. It is not simply a demagogue spouting rhetoric, but a statement that reveals the arrogance and self-righteousness inherent in the progressive ideology and certainly the type of sinfulness that the Lord spoke of when reprimanding the Pharisees. Every statement in your list of progressive core beliefs has in it or at the least implied the words “average,” “common,” or “elite” thus separating one type from another and of course Pelosi is of the better type. When one of the most important premises of an ideology carries with it the sin of self-righteous pride, that sin must be called out and dismissed even while hoping the sinner recognizes the error and corrects their ways.

      By the same logic, if we dismiss some progressives but not others from this criticism, then we make ourselves judges and must beware that we do not deceive ourselves in the same sin. But this sin has its origin with the change from traditional theological morality to a humanity-centered morality and its progenitor in Genesis 3.

    • Regarding your last sentence – you won’t convert them anyway. Left wingers (I refuse to call them “Progressives”) treat their ideology as a substitute religion, and no amount of being civil or engaging in facts based debate is going to convince such people that their “Religion” is wrong.

      • I agree in the sense that only the Lord can convert any, and we only be messengers of truth if they will have ears to hear.

  4. Is it good that someone has come to Christ, even if it is a process of barely getting their feet wet? Yes, as it hopefully will open more doors allowing for full immersion over time. Much of the modern church teachings have become so watered down that there is barely anything there in some cases. Although, for someone who has never experienced Jesus, even tiny bits is better than nothing at all. It is a start, and perhaps it is a start that will lead to further knowledge and experiences that open them more to God.
    On progressives…hmmm, unfortunately, it seems that progressives, as they are presented by the Media, by various political parties, and by society in general, are far too close to communism then they are to early 20th century progressives. Will some have experiences that will allow their thinking to change as the person you mentioned, yes, there is always that possibility. So many progressives seem to lack any rational and logical abilities to discuss anything without their emotions immediately taking over and turning it into an emotional tirade, which has been evidenced since the Occupy movement of several years ago. Now it has become even worse with the BLM and Antifa movements; there is no discussion, there is no room for compromise, there is only room for change things the way we want them or there will be violence. Nothing progressive there, just communist revolution.

  5. John Trainor – I agree that the State is the load-star of progressivism. However, there are many who believe that the state is the way that God has ordained to be the process through which our society helps the poor. You could see this in the way that some mainline Protestants criticized those who opposed Obamacare as being uncaring about the needs of the poor. Certainly, I believe that their theory has serious flaws – and I suspect that many progressive mainline Protestants don’t realize how much they believe in the state as a function of religion.

  6. It seems to me thus far, there are two common kinds of “good willed” progressives. Of course, this is just a guideline from what I am aware of.

    The first kind is generally warm and approachable, while being limited in knowledge about what they dislike or support. Often times it is their assumptions and prejudices that test new information. Still, they usually respond well, at least with skeptical curiosity, when entered into calm discussion not debate. Ask plenty of clarifying questions, which will make them reflect on their own thoughts. Sure, they may not come to full realization, though they will acknowledge the void of knowledge, being more likely to try filling it due to the seeded curiosity.

    The second is more knowledgeable, while not as personable. They tend to be somewhat moderate in their stances, seeking the “nuance” of what interests them. Challenging conversation if not debate tends to be more effective than casual discussion, since they will not take it seriously if the discussion starts to lead towards traditional, conservative, and/or Christian premises. In short, do not intellectually approach them with big questions; they become wary when someone wants to assess principles. To reach such inquiries, dialectic about the “nuances” is the best avenue.

  7. HighDesertHistorian – I agree that many progressives are for more shrill than they were twenty or so years ago. I do not think that they are more communist than were early twentieth century progressives. The name of Max Eastland is not well known today, but he was prominent in US progressive circles in the early 20th century and his views were very communist. John Reed was so communist that he actually went to the Soviet Union and lived the last couple years of his life there. (The Warren Beatty film Reds offers a biased view of his activities.) The journalist Lincoln Steffens travelled to the new Soviet Union, and on his return said, “I have seen the future and it works.” Compared with Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders is a lightweight. Last, let us not forget the repression of the Wilson Administration during and just after World War I.

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