Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Why I’m not a “Progressive”

I remember a conversation with a religiously and politically conservative U.S. Army Chaplain while I was at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio. This Chaplain had found Celestial Lands, and had specifically read the article entitled “Unitarian Universalism and Military Chaplaincy“. About two days into the two-week course, he asked me if I was “That Celestial Lands” guy…

With a bit of a smile, I asked him what he thought of the article, and he said “Well, I disagreed with almost all of it, but at least you are not ashamed to call yourself a Liberal, instead of a “progressive”. We had a few more minutes of conversation about what he disagreed with, and he admitted that he was not the audience for that article… but what has stuck with me was his comments about being a “progressive”.

I have never connected with the term “progressive”. I know, it is good marketing, but I feel my blood pressure rise each time I hear someone use it. A few weeks ago, I heard a seminarian refer to Unitarian Universalism as “Progressive Faith” and I had to do a breathing exercise. My seminary has added that word to its tagline. My second-favorite radio station calls itself “progressive”.

Let me be clear. I am not a progressive. I am a Liberal, a dyed in the wool, flaming Liberal. I am a Liberal in politics, I am a Liberal in religion, and I am a Liberal in outlook and worldview. They can try to turn it into a curse word all they want to, but that does not change my deep commitment to Liberalism. Let me quote a sermon I preached last year.

You see, liberalism is not about belief. It is about how you relate to your beliefs. Liberalism is a methodology. Liberalism is not what you believe… it is how you believe.

The liberal is someone who recognizes the past can only serve us as a guide. To live in or worship the past is never to move forward.

The liberal is someone who accepts that doubt is something to be cherished, for it is the signpost to deeper understanding.

The liberal recognizes that the world is so complex and dynamic that he or she must care about many different aspects of it, and not focus their attention on just a few issues.

The liberal is someone who finds their truth in authentic relationship, and that kind of relationship is never defined in terms of right vs. wrong, left vs. right, or us vs. them. Humanity is more generic sumatriptan tablets complex that that.

The liberal is someone who can apply a set of core principles across a whole range of issues, principles such as liberty, equality, justice, compassion, faith, and hope.

The liberal is someone who recognizes that their perceptions create the world they view, and that this creates many different understandings of reality. Far from being threatened by this complexity, the liberal is someone who seeks to learn from these many different perceptions.

The liberal is someone who seeks to ask and answer the deeper questions about their beliefs… it is not enough to oppose war, but rather you must also seek to understand why you do. The liberal looks at their own motivations for holding beliefs, and that those motivations are always, always deeply spiritual and personal.

Most importantly, the liberal is someone who is willing, in asking those deeper questions and in seeing the ever changing complexity that is human relations… the liberal is someone who is willing to transform their beliefs as much as they are willing to be transformed by them.

Because for the liberal, no belief, no assumption can be more important than the principle that inspires it… and no principle is beyond repeated testing.

I have come to the conclusion that the idea of Progressivism may be more dangerous to Liberalism than Conservativism is. (I know, a lot of ‘isms). Progressivism implies a re-assertion of the late 19th century philosophy that humanity is on this upward curve towards some kind of perfection, and while that ideal is something I hope we aspire to, I do not think it is an accurate reflection of human history.

Just as the Conservative movement is in danger of being called away from holding a principle-based ideology in favor of standing in opposition, the Liberal movement is being seduced away from holding a principle based ideology by the desire for progress, when our lens for what constitutes progress is very, very near-sighted. We are moving towards a “progressive” future, with only a limited understanding of what that future looks like, and we are de-emphasizing our Liberal method inspired principles to get there.

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I get it… its easier to be a progressive. Being a progressive asks much less of you than truly being a Liberal. Progressivism is a commitment to a set of beliefs, not to a methodology of belief.

No, I’m not a progressive… I’m a Liberal.

Yours in Faith,


22 Thoughts on “Why I’m not a “Progressive”

  1. Another well thought out post, David. It inspired me to change information on my Facebook info! 🙂

  2. Dudley Jones on Monday March 2, 2009 at 10:30 +0000 said:

    Liberal is indeed a good word, and you are rightly proud of it.

    I tend to think of progressives as being harder-edged and harsher than liberals. Liberals typically do not demonize their opponents.

    Best wishes

  3. Liberal is indeed a good word. It’s most regrettable that so many self-described “liberals” make ‘liberal’ a bad word by behaving in ways that make a total mockery of it’s dictionary defined meanings. . .

    “Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.”

    “Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.”

    “Tending to give freely; generous,” aka “generous in temperament or behaviour.”

    Archaic “Permissible or appropriate for a person of free birth; befitting a lady or gentleman.”

    Unless perhaps “morally unrestrained; licentious” isn’t quite as “obsolete” as the dictionary definition pretends of course. . . If only some “liberals” weren’t so excessively “loose or approximate” in their interpretation of the meaning of the word ‘liberal’ and their practice of liberalism.

  4. Charlie Talbert on Monday March 2, 2009 at 12:35 +0000 said:

    Thanks for deepening my understanding of what a liberal is. Everything you’ve written about one applies to what I value; at least I aspire to these qualities.

    Much of your description could also apply to people who consider themselves progressives. You write, “The liberal is someone who recognizes the past can only serve us as a guide. To live in or worship the past is never to move forward.”

    “Moving forward” is another name for progress. If moving forward depends upon valuing doubt, applying core principles across a whole range of values, seeking to learn from many different perceptions, understanding one’s own and others’ motivations, and other attributes that you ascribe to liberals, then an effective progressive would want to embrace these qualities as well.

    I think I’m a liberal, but I also believe that a wave of moral progress is radiating through the eras of human history, and that each person has the power to accelerate its inevitability. That’s not to say that we’re going to reach the perfection that you mention, nor that the rise is even or constant. But it’s hard to look back even in modern times at the abolition of (most) slavery, the introduction of child labor laws, the civil rights movement, feminism and GLBT justice in the mainstream, and the growing awareness of needless animal suffering and not see that progress is being made, even if it’s still incomplete (as it always will be).

  5. Hosanna!!!! Can a brother give you a shout out: Yessir!! Tell it, my brother!

    I am printing that off and putting it up in my office at work!!!! It is such a balm to encounter another unabashed liberal!!

    I tend to think of liberals as less calculating in terms of their own interests than progressives.

    Thank you…thank you very much.

  6. I’m not sure I understand how you are defining “progressive” and indicating that it is different from “liberal.” I’ve thought of them as pretty much interchangeable terms. Help?

  7. Thank you all, you have helped clarify my thoughts on this.

    Tracie, and Charlie put your finger directly on the most crucial point, and that is that it is hard to separate Liberal and Progressive. In our common political usage, they are used as synonyms, one just more PC than the other. Partly that is because there are Liberals who are also Progressives, and Progressives who are also Liberals.

    Even in myself, there are parts of my vision that touches on “Progress” (as the moving forward comment from the sermon shows), but that does not necessarily make that focus on progress the defining aspect of my political or theological liberalism, just as my preference for pickle does not turn my hamburger into a “pickle sandwich”.

    At its core, the distinction between the two is that being a Liberal is an internal commitment to a way of deciding upon what you believe. James Luther Adams said that Liberalism is “the conviction that people should be liberated, indeed should liberate themselves, from the shackles that impede religious, political, and economic freedom, that impede the appearance of a community characterized by a rational and voluntary piety, and that impede the reality of equality and justice for all.”

    For me, progressivism denotes not a conviction that people should be liberated, but rather a commitment to a particular social agenda that some have developed in response to the idea of Liberalism. However it is not the only particular social agenda that the spirit, the method of Liberalism may call one to. (Minority Power movements are an example of another social agenda, inspired in part by the internal committment that I am calling Liberalism. They are certianly separate from Progressivism, although they often make common cause on certain issues).

    Now, I support many of the policies that make up what it means to be a progressive… such as universal health care and protection of the environment, but what inspires me to that support is not an inherent commitment to the policies, but an internal commitment to a Liberal mindset.

    In my current thinking, the opposite of Liberalism is not Conservativism, but rather it is Fundamentalism. I have met plenty of Fundamentalist Progressives. Not fundamentalist in the Christian sense, but fundamentalist in that they have found their TRUTH, and they will ram it down the throats of all who disagree or do not show their fervor… They are more committed to the policies and determinations of the current progressive agenda than they are committed to the intellectual, spiritual, and social methodology of Liberalism.

    I apologize that this is not as clear as it could be. Some of you know that this blog is my pre-writing for sermons… I use it to try and get to some clarity around an issue that is amorphously floating around in my thoughts before I try to preach on it. When others engage with me, they force me to go deeper into my own understanding. So, I come here for just such engagement. Thank you for helping me get deeper into understanding what I am sensing here… and keep it up!

    Yours in Faith,


  8. And one more thing… I said this in the main article, but I should say it again. I question whether the reality of human experience is “Progressive” in its nature. I think we in western culture (including myself) have been indoctrinated into this idea of progress, but it is not represented by our reality.

    We have made great “Progress” in technology, but this has led to ways to kill more of us in a shorter amount of time for less effort. Progress?

    We have made great “Progress” in communication, but this has led to a disease of humans who feel more isolated than ever because they lack real personal contact. Progress?

    We have made great “Progress” in building a global economy, but we see some of the results of that every time we turn on the television. Progress?

    We have made great “Progress” in many areas, but in every case I can think of each has lead to new complications and regressions, and a return to the same kind of problems that humanity has faced for tens of thousands of years, just on a different scale.

    Charlie, you mention the abolition of slavery as “Progress”… and yet what has its result been? Now, I am all for the abolition of slavery, but we have not really done so, we have just driven slavery underground. Millions of women are today held in sexual slavery around the world, and in every decent sized town in the U.S. Whole countries (such as North Korea) are held in a servitude that rivals the worst atrocities of African American slavery in the U.S. Billions of people are held in slavery to a racist and failing global economic system that does not even meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. While I would have served right along with others to end slavery in the American Civil war, neither that war nor the Emancipation Proclamation “Abolished Slavery”. It is just less obvious today than it used to be. It is more insidious. I do not call that progress. I call that complicated.

    I believe our world is too complex for the limited understanding of “Progress” that we humans seem to have for Progress to serve as the guiding banner for a human social movement inspired by Liberalism.

    I seek not progress in human society, but rather I seek a deepening in the human soul. It is that deepening and commitment to the spirit of liberalism that I believe will change the world… not another ideological agenda.

    Yours in Faith,


  9. Charlie Talbert on Monday March 2, 2009 at 17:52 +0000 said:

    You write in your last paragraph, “I seek not progress in human society, but rather I seek a deepening in the human soul. It is that deepening and commitment to the spirit of liberalism that I believe will change the world… not another ideological agenda.”

    I’m wondering if you are ascribing “ideological agenda[s]” to only positions that you disagree with. In other words, in the above statement would you be willing to substitute “progress in human society” with causes that believe will change the world positively, so that it read, for example:

    “I seek not universal health care, improvements to the environment, equal rights and justice regardless of race, creed, gender, or affectional orientations; but rather I seek a deepening in the human soul. It is that deepening and commitment to the spirit of liberalism that I believe will change the world… not another ideological agenda.”

    If to be a liberal, to borrow from your quote of James Luther Adams, is to remove the shackles that impede the reality of equality and justice for all, then one must form positions and act upon them to make Adams’ vision a reality. And liberal, reasonable people are going to disagree on what those positions should be and how to most effectively implement them. These disagreements may spawn name-calling (e.g. “ideologue”, “TRUTH knower”, “throat-rammer”, etc.) which are not helpful to compassionate or useful communication, or to change in the world.

  10. Charlie,

    I see what you are getting at… and I will ponder it. Here is my initial reaction though…

    What I am trying to get at is whether it is possible to transcend a social agenda and still be pursuing a Liberal ideology? I believe the re-phrasing of my earlier statement that you present is a valid one, even if it is not how I would formulate it. The reason is not that I dont support such things, but because without a deeper transition in humanity I do not believe any of them will be lasting or will really create what they claim to. Universal Health Care will not lead to everyone having access to health care… it may better the lives of many, but it will create new injustices. I’m not saying dont pass policies for Universal Health Care. I’m saying do not think that policies will fix such problems. They just shift the problems around.

    What I am trying to test is whether or not multiple different and widely varied social agendas can be inspired by a more theoretical understanding of Liberalism. Progressivism is one such attempt at a social agenda inspired by my theoretical understanding of Liberalism. It is for me not an inspiring one, and I am exploring if others are possible, and if so what they could be.

    I agree that the principles and ideals we associate with Liberalism require a social agenda to make them real… what I am wrestling with is whether what we conceive as progressivism is the only form this could take.

    You are right, there are some value judgements I am making here. We humans are value-judging creatures. I want to thank you for pointing out the value-judgement-laden words that I used in the earlier post. Such interpretations are indeed distracting from what I am actually trying to look at.

    I will ponder, and probably in the next few days write another essay, in which I seek to take my personal stand (based as much on intuition as reason) against the formulation of Progressivism out of the discussion. If I were to write it now, it would be an exploration of the Liberalist vs. the Fundamentalist methodology, which is where I think I may be going eventually with this argument.

    The question I ask you though, and the core of what I am trying to touch, is whether the modern formulation of Progressivism is the only way that we can seek to make the “Liberal Spirit” real within human society? If not, what would a different kind of social agenda look like?

    That’s the sermon I’m trying to birth.

    Yours in faith, and with deep thanks for the engagement,


  11. Patrick McLaughlin on Tuesday March 3, 2009 at 0:48 +0000 said:

    You’re tangling religious and political liberalism up.

    It’s easy–and tempting–to do. Particularly for those of us who are both.

    I think I’m liberal, liberal, and progressive too (and a pragmatic–absolutely that). But then, I’m not uncomfortable with Self-Culture. I think that the notion of achieving perfection–or trying–being problematic is amusing; I suspect it’s perhaps like Zeno’s Paradox, and getting closer only means that it’s harder to get even closer. Let me know when you reach lightspeed, and then we’ll worry about it.

    Besides, I think that perfection is misunderimaginated (if I can sort of echo… mockingly…) as a rather flat, simple, unchanging and hideously boring thing. There, welcome to Perfection; aren’t you sorry you arrived?

    Bigger. Richer. Vastly more vibrant and complex and nuanced. A tropical rainforest where a mountain range falls into the sea at the fecund delta of a mighty river–compared to the sand dunes of a desert of common imaginations of “perfection.” Lots of getting there–or even close–to be gotten before we worry about whether the notion of being able to is absurd.

    I’ve got a harsher view on what big “C” conservatism is. Here’s a nice, blunt expression of that:
    It likes to masquerade as being other things…

    “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man,” wrote a great–and flawed–American. Me too. And as far as I can tell, conservatism always settles back to wanting to impose some sort of tyranny on the mind of humanity.

    I’m agin it.

  12. Patrick,

    You are right, I am collapsing any distinction between Political and Religious liberalism… and I’m doing it on purpose.

    What I’m trying to identify under the term “Liberalism” are the attitudes and deep core principles that bring someone to a method of living and thinking that cherishes doubt, that continually questions belief, that does not over-honor the past, that engages with those who think other than they.

    What I am trying to identify is what the core internal committments of being a Liberal are… and I think those internal committments span both political and religious liberalism — so therefore the collapse.

    I am attempting to separate those core values and ideas from the ways in which we “practice” our liberalism in the world, to gain a deeper understanding of the deeper motivations.

    My working hypothesis is that liberalism represents the core values and beliefs, and that most of the things we think of as “liberal” (including progressivism and liberal religion) are applications of the basic theory of liberalism… but no one has done the work to really understand the theory.

    To study it, I’m first trying to isolate it… and one conclusion I’ve come to is that the Liberalism that inspires political liberalisms (including progressivism and minority power) and the liberalism that inspires religious liberalism (including UU and Liberation theology) is the same Liberalism… the same kinds of internal committments. Hence the collapse of the distinction at this apex level.

    Yours in Faith,


  13. I’m sorry, David, but it all seemed pretty straight forward to me. No offense to those who required a deeper understanding or restatement, but the political and theological ideas of liberalism always seemed distinct and separate from progressivism.

    The only issue I’ve ever had is that too often, in their desire to hear all voices, liberals allow themselves or the oppressed to be defined by those whose pollitical views are shaped by their fears and insecurities.

    One of my big concerns about UU’s however, is best described by the discussion that is going on concerning your opening statement. We too often are a faith for endless reductive discussions about policies and ideologies, instead of a faith of action.

    Too often we chuckle about how much UU’s love to talk about things instead of doing, when in reality we should flinch.

    Ready for your “push-back”

  14. Chuck,

    No push-back from me… I agreed with almost everything you said… with one small exception.

    I think you are the exception that proves the rule, in that progressivism and liberalism have always seemed distinct to you. I agree with your assessment that they are separate (or rather, I think that one grows from the other), but I think that in the common thought of many both on the right and the left, the two terms have become jumbled in our common usage. Hence the confusion I am hoping to work through. I have heard it said that the word “progressivism” is being used as a more politically correct synonym from “liberalism”, and I know that conservatives are operating as if they are synonymous.

    I agree we should flinch when the joke is made that we talk to much and do not do… at the same time I want what we do to be based upon a theory of liberal values and principles that has coherence. I think we need both. But I’m afraid that we are losing the one in the focus on the other. Especially when our endless discussions are not on values and principles, but on what we would do if we could. I want the theory and the vision, and from that theory and vision positive action.

    Let me know if we disagree, and if so where… but I don’t think we do.

    Yours in faith,


  15. yeah…like I’m gonna disagree with that….as if.

    You know, this discussion seems to dovetail with Lizardeaters’, east of midnight’s, T&P and cuumbya’s.

    All seem to be aimed at the “root” of what we are.

    The conservatives are asking if we have a mission and seem to find resonance with a very self-directed idea of being a UU. They consider themselves a community of seekers for whom aiding others is a choice, but not a drive of the faith. (which in my bias saddens me, because that seems such a small vision)

    Lizardeater’s group is discussing the definition of a UU calling and that there can be a spirirtual and logical definition. That another word for calling is vocation. (It depresses me that we have UU ministers who only consider this a voaction like lawyer or social worker)

    T&P is following a parallel track to Lizardeater. Though the idea of lay people being called to be a UU came up.

    East of Midnight was asking if we had a liberation theology. The asnwers seem to be: well sort of, but not really.

    As much as I agree with you, I am afraid that in the end the continuum of our faith is rather unflattering. Where others range from Liberal to Fundamentalist, ours seems to range from Liberal to Self directed.

    The self directed only want to follow their path and not be bothered by outside issues unless they decide to be. The freedom they see in our faith is not the freedom to accept all with the idea of reaching out and making this a better world, but the freedom to be accepted for not wanting to help others or even reach out at all, the freedom to do their own thing and be left alone.

    I tend to call that Libertarian UU ism.

  16. Or, as I often think of it in my mind…

    Unitarian Universalism as a faith that asks little of you.

  17. Thanks, David, for ‘splaining that in more detail.

    Will be digesting it for a while.

  18. And remember, Tracie, I’m still digesting it myself. Such is what the public sections of this site are for.

  19. There’s a book coming from Beacon Press in 2009 written by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, both leaders in Unitarian Universalism. The book is A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century (Hardcover). I hope they read your post and the comments so they can address the liberal/progressive concept.

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