Contemporary progressivism is a wolf disguised as a sheep. That is the way I see it. And I cannot let go of it until I have done all I can do to expose it as such. For months, I have been reviewing books that advocate or criticize “progressive Christianity.” Today I will begin a short series dealing with the secular side of the progressive movement, which after all is the true inspiration for progressive Christianity. In this series, I will argue that contemporary progressivism is empty of positive principles, sterile, parasitic, incoherent, destructive, arbitrary, and above all, deceptive.
What Progressives Celebrate
Cultural progressives routinely celebrate events that they think signify progress and lament those they view as retrograde. Progressive changes are welcomed as “historic,” “marking the advance of history,” or as “firsts.” To resist these historic advances is to stand “on the wrong side of history” and attempt “to turn back the clock.” For the progressive left, expansion of LGBTQ+ rights and privileges and so-called reproductive rights and promotion of people with intersectional identities (combinations of race, gender, ableness, etc.) to positions of visibility and power represent the cutting edge of progress.
This moment in history presents a confluence of forces nearly impossible to disentangle. Different political and moral visions, religious attitudes, cultural sensibilities, private and group interests, and rhetorical strategies flow out of past conflicts only to collide again in the public space of contemporary society. The progressive wolf is very good at disguising itself as one of the redeeming forces in this struggle. Only patient and careful scrutiny can unmask the lupine nature beneath the sheep costume.
What is Progress?
I have addressed this question in past essays (See especially the February 21, 2014 essay), but I want to reflect again on this theme in the present context. At least in the contexts celebrated by the Left today as progress (LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, and intersectional identity), progress is measured by the advance of individual freedom. Individuals in these groups are freer to pursue happiness today than they were in the past, and the cultural left celebrates this change as progress. Progressives treat the individual’s right to pursue their happiness as a basic moral principle, a human right that must be honored in every case and at all costs. (Call it the “Freedom Principle.”) Anyone who attempts to restrict these newly declared freedoms offends against a self-evident moral principle. What kind of person would resist the outworking of a self-evident, universal human right? Only a morally obtuse, irrational, and hateful person!
The Self-Contradiction in the Freedom Principle
Progressives appeal to the Freedom Principle as a universal rule. However as soon as they attempt to apply it, its incoherence and absurdity become obvious. On the one hand, progressives tell us that we should be free to pursue our happiness in whatever way we want. On the other hand, they demand that we respect the freedom of others. That is to say, my freedom must be restricted so that others may exercise their freedom. To apply the principle to one person we must withhold its application to another. Progressives, then, both affirm and deny unlimited freedom—an obvious contradiction. Hence, the Freedom Principle cannot carry the weight demanded of a universal moral principle or a human right capable of guiding our social relationships.
Not only is the Freedom Principle incoherent, it reduces to absurdity in application. Applying the Freedom Principle universally would destroy the distinction between right and wrong, rational and irrational, and good and bad actions. Progressives use the principle to justify a general moral claim, that is, that it is wrong to restrict a person’s freedom to act for their happiness. But applying it consistently would lead to some very unwelcome consequences. For there is nothing within it to discourage people from pursuing happiness by committing violent acts toward others. Indeed, applying the principle consistently would obligate me and everyone else to stand by as an individual violates the most sacred human rights of even the most vulnerable. Not only so, it would obligate me to refrain from defending my own life and liberty. Clearly, the Freedom Principle alone cannot sustain the contemporary progressive vision.
The Insufficiency of the Freedom Principle
In isolation, freedom is anarchic, amoral, and destructive (See my essay of January 24, 2022). Progressives, of course, do not wish to be seen as embracing anarchy. But how can they avoid this implication? To do so, they must adhere in some way to other principles (or arbitrary decisions) that limit and direct freedom toward constructive ends and harmonious relationships. Freedom needs help in discerning the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, rational and irrational. Expanding LGBTQ+ rights, advancing abortion access, and promoting people with intersectional identities are indisputably progressive moves only if progress is measured exclusively by growth in the sphere of liberty for these activities.
But progressives’ celebration of these advances does not make sense apart from the assumption that these causes are good, right, and rational. For practical reasons, all societies allow their members to engage in some activities they deem wrong, bad, and irrational…but they do not celebrate them. Likewise, progressives would not be celebrating growth in these freedoms if they believed them to be evil, wrong, and irrational. Progressives do not celebrate the freedom to steal, lie, murder, rape, and commit genocide. They would not approve of a freedom to engage in hate speech, misgendering, and racism. By what principles, then, do progressives justify the conclusion that their favored activities are good, right, and rational whereas others (hate speech and racism) are not?
To be continued…