Today we conclude the three-part series on progressivism. We have not yet found an answer to the two-sided question we have been pursuing: by what principles do progressives decide that their favored activities are good, right, and rational whereas others (hate speech and racism) are not? Must we conclude that their decisions are arbitrary and unprincipled? In this essay, I will argue that progressives, though unprincipled in the usual sense of submitting to universal moral principles wherever they lead, are not completely arbitrary in their choices. Once you see the pattern, their decisions make sense.
I do not think we can understand it unless we realize that progressivism is a small current within the larger Western culture incapable of existing independently. It operates within a vast moral universe created by 2,000 years of Christian teaching about what is real, good, beautiful, and right. Christianity, of course, grounds its moral teaching in divine law, divine creation, the teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the hope of eternal life. Though progressivism possesses no moral resources within itself to ground the humanistic side of its vision, its location within the Christian moral universe enables it to take this fundamental moral order for granted while it works to advance individual liberty little by little. Progressivism needs an external order against which it can rebel but also to check its nihilistic inclinations.
At last, we have found the answer to the question about progressivism’s ability to exclude violence and hatred from the scope of liberty. Without acknowledging it, progressivism relies on the hard-won cultural consensus and moral capital created by Christianity. At the same time, however, it denies the foundational Christian beliefs that grounded this moral vision and made it plausible to the West. Progressivism assumes gratuitously that the humanistic values of the West will continue to be persuasive even after their theological foundations have been obliterated. Progressivism is a parasite that thinks it will thrive after it kills its host. But if progressivism actually destroyed Christianity, its sentimental language about compassion, love, rights, and freedom would be exposed as the groundless drivel Nietzsche said it was. The wolf of nihilism would no longer need to wear the itchy and ill-fitting sheep costume.
Why has contemporary progressivism chosen the particular causes it has? Nineteenth-century proto-progressives embraced the abolitionist movement quite plausibly as a moral imperative demanded by Christianity, and the twentieth-century social gospel and civil rights movements could draw in good conscience on the biblical themes of creation, liberation, salvation, and the kingdom of God. But late twentieth- and twenty-first-century progressives adopted sexual liberation, abortion, homosexuality, and now gender fluidity as their chief causes. And these causes cannot be supported by biblical teaching, though “progressive Christianity” vainly attempts to do so. Instead of viewing progress as the outworking of Christian principles, contemporary progressives view Christianity as the main obstacle blocking progress.
Nineteenth-century proto-progressives found Christianity useful because of its critique of sinful humanity’s greed, prejudice, selfishness, pride, and injustice. Christianity champions justice, love, unity, equality, generosity, and other humanistic values. However, Christianity advocates human freedom and dignity only within a divinely created order. This order determines the channels, boundaries, and guidelines within which human beings can flourish in true freedom and dignity. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, progressives had begun to view the moral order that Christianity championed as too restrictive, even oppressive and anti-human. Driven by the logic of unprincipled freedom, progressives launched into new frontiers of liberation: easy divorce, sexual freedom, abortion, decriminalization and acceptance of gay and lesbian activity, expansion of marriage to same-sex arrangements, and lately complete disengagement of gender identity from biological sex. According to progressives, the oppressive orders of family, marriage, and biological nature should be desacralized or abolished.
Profanation, Blasphemy, and Destruction
Why follow this trajectory, sexual liberation? Perhaps Freud was right in his Civilization and its Discontents that the human drive for sexual gratification is so powerful and chaotic that for civilization to exist at all this chaotic force must be brought under rules that channel it in safe courses. However, repression of sexual desire creates all sorts of psychosomatic disorders at the individual level. Sexual frustration and unhappiness is the price of civilization. Civilization is ever in danger of exploding in an orgy of sexual chaos.
I think there is some truth to Freud’s thesis. Christianity has been the chief champion of Western civilization for hundreds of years, but its hold on Western culture has long been weakening, and in the 1960s the dam gave way. But I think there is more to it than this. The way progressive culture celebrates and flaunts its new sexual freedoms, in the streets, universities, courts, Congress, and the White House, seems to involve more than merely enjoying the “innocent” pleasures this freedom makes available.
It celebrates triumph over the killjoy forces of wickedness. Its periodic festivity releases the tension built up in its ever-expanding sense of being trapped, enslaved, and encased in shells of arbitrary rules enforced by the wicked powers as the truth of God and nature. In its rage, it profanes what Christianity considers holy, defaces what it loves as beautiful, and blasphemes what it holds sacred. In other words, progressivism’s choices of what counts for progress are neither principled nor arbitrary. They make sense only as the negation of Christianity, which they see as the archenemy of human freedom, dignity, and happiness. What better way to profane, blaspheme, and destroy “uptight” Christianity than to put into practice what Paul McCartney called for in his 1968 song, “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road,” that is, return to animal innocence and abandon society-imposed shame! And if Freud is correct, progressivism’s choice to unleash the libido to explore its chaotic possibilities is not only a demonic attack on Christianity but the negation of civilization.
A New God Demands a New Law
But why is sexual liberation a good and right thing in itself, worthy of celebration? As I said in the first essay in this series (12/19/22), progressives aim to advance individual freedom, but that cannot be all there is to their philosophy. For one can permit something without approving of it. On what basis, then, do progressives judge abortion, homosexual practice, same-sex marriage, and gender fluidity to be good and right, not merely wrongs that society must tolerate? The one-word answer is “authenticity.” In traditional thinking, an action is good and right only if it conforms to the objective rules that govern that type of action. In contrast, an authentic act expresses externally what one feels inside. Authenticity is the harmonious fit between the self and its external acts. In progressive morality, a new law, “Obey your Self,” replaces the old law of conformity to an external standard, the Self replaces God as the legislator, and authenticity replaces righteousness as the measure of a good person. Progressive celebration of the Self is its act of worship and pluriform sex and abortion are its sacraments. It seems that progressivism is a kind of religion. It has an evil and good power, a gospel, a redemptive path, morality, and worship.*
Progressivism views the external order championed by Christianity—God, moral law, apostolic teaching, church, marriage, the created order of male and female—as oppressive and alienating to the inner Self. The Self cannot be itself, escape suffering, assuage its anger, and find happiness within this order. But when acts of abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and various gender identities express the inner Self authentically, they are by that very fact good and right and worthy of celebration.
Finally, we have the answer to the question that I posed in the first essay: why do progressives celebrate the things they do as progress? Answer: Because they think they have been freed from the clutches of a religiously sanctioned order, imposed by evil powers, to act according to their true (divine) selves and in this way to become happy.
*More precisely, it is a Christian heresy of a gnostic type. It rejects the Creator and the moral law and views salvation as liberation of an inner Self from the orders of creation and its evil creator. It is elitist and views outsiders as unenlightened and for the most part unredeemable.