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

The Political Assumptions of Progressivism

I have found that most of the people who identify as some kind of religious “progressive” have done at least some basic work around the worldview and assumptions that they are implying by linking their religious faith so clearly with the concept of progress. While it is not the kind of faith I could follow, as I admitted in an earlier article it is certainly possible to be a religious progressive. Rather than give my definition of what it might mean to be a religious progressive, I think it is better if you seek to hear their thoughts in their voices. But, on the whole, those who so identify have thought at least cursorily about what it means for faith to be so linked to a source of meaning found within history.

Unfortunately, I rarely have seen that kind of reflection around the use of the term “progressivism” or “progressive” in the political sphere. It is in politics that I most often find this term dangerously entangled with “liberal”, “liberalism”, or even “Democrat”. As I think about it, that entanglement between progressivism and the Democratic Party is why I have identified as an Independent all these years.

As in the realm of theology and religion, the dangers of a progressive worldview manifest in several different ways in the political sphere. As I focused on in the article “The Dangers of Progress as a Source of Meaning”, progressivism in the political sphere continues to promise an end achievable in history that is impossible to be fulfilled in its perfection. It places one’s sense of political effectiveness and fulfillment in the hands of a process that is inherently internally unstable, and dependant upon many factors outside one’s control.

However, what I think is an even greater danger of progressivism in the political sphere than the religious is the danger of universalizing an individual perspective on what constitutes progress, and the corollary of how such a perspective dependant position can then be used to justify almost anything. I will simply say that my point about the danger of finding your source of meaning within history applies as much to politics and political work as it does to theology and to religious work, and allow that article to stand on that point. In this article, I will focus on the danger of perspective in progressivism.

I have a thought game I like to play, both with myself and others. It goes like this: think of anything you wish that you could or would identify as progress… and then intentionally try to shift your perspective and look at the issue again. For example, in response to an earlier article of mine on the issue of progress, someone held up the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of slavery by the Civil War as an example of progress. Ok, we are all taught that in school… there was slavery, we fought the civil war, and now there is no more slavery, right? (And, I feel I have to say this, not only do I hope I would have been an abolitionist, I probably would have put on a Union uniform. I am not attempting to discredit the Emancipation Proclamation or the formal end of American slavery, only to highlight complexity).

The results of the Civil War and the “freeing” of the slaves created a perpetuating underclass in this country based on skin color. The majority of the now “free” African Americans still could not vote or hold office, they were still tied in peonage to the land, they still worked (often now with less support) for the same white landowners. The ending of formal slavery in the United States freed racism from its formal social structures and allowed it to fester and boil until it exploded a hundred years later, during the movement for Civil Rights.

Neither of those Civil Wars or conflicts actually ended slavery. Change your perspective again, and you are looking at the “joke” of freeing the slaves from the perspective of one of the millions of women held in sexual slavery in this country… from prostitutes to battered women. Change your perspective again, and you see the millions of people so closely tied to corporations that have grown more powerful than the government that they are in effect indentured to those corporations by credit card bills and underwater home loans. Change your perspective again, and you see a nation that depends upon recruiting the disadvantaged in society to provide “for the common defense”.

You can change your perspective again, and again, and again, and if you are looking deeply you will see the same result… the reality of a world that is too interconnected and complex for anything to be simply viewed as “progress”. You will also see that what you define and value as “progress” depends greatly upon the cultural perspective and personal point-of-view that you bring to that definition.

Let me get at this another way… when I think of progress in my lifetime, I think first of all the amazing ways we now have to communicate across vast distances with one another. The internet allows me to share my thoughts on progress around the world. You can post your thoughts here, or send me an email telling me you think I’m off my rocker. Some of you who have my cell phone number can call me at any moment to voice your opinions. You might even be able to track where I am, or what I’m reading, or whether I am typing on Facebook. From my personal perspective, all of these advances in communication are wonderful “progress”.

Yet, amidst all of this wonderful communication, we are fueling an epidemic of personal isolation and lack of real human contact. We are substituting our need for personal and deep human relationship and connection for virtual experience. We are seeing increased rates of depression, anxiety, and lack of personal confidence that I believe is linked to our ability to replace the need to do our own work around identity by creating virtual identities of who “we would rather be.” This wonderful communications technology means I don’t have to deal with the issues deep in my own sense of self, because I can create an “avatar” on “Second Life” or a profile on EHarmony, and invest my sense of self and worth in an idol.

Is that really progress? Like everything in history, the answer to that question is both a yes and a no. It is too complicated for a simple answer. Whether I view it as progress depends greatly on the perspective that I bring to that decision… and this is the greatest danger, I believe, of Progressivism in politics. Progress is too vague a notion to serve as an anchor around which a political movement can be formed.

Let me try and put this another way, by comparing it to what it means to be a political liberal. To be a political liberal is to find one’s anchor in a certain way of viewing the world and your individual relationship to it. I have discussed some of that, some of the Method of Liberalism in the sermon “Being a Liberal Patriot”. For the liberal, the anchor upon which your political commitment is found within.

For someone whose political ideology is closely linked to progress, the anchor upon which your political identity is built depends upon results for validation. It is also built upon what ideas you individually project on what “progress” means, as well as the individual’s own interpretation of what would constitute an actual encounter with “progress”. This then can have two effects… when some people look at the world with the lens of “progress”, they can find examples of it everywhere that are only surface deep, but enough to give them a false sense of validation for their political work. The second is that when you look with any depth at those examples (or they are subjected to the dimension of time), your validation is shattered and you lose your commitment and hope in progress as a valid political end.

The ally of dismay is false hope. The worst disillusionment comes from having one’s hopes raised and then having them dashed. I believe that a political movement built upon the trickster God of Progress will create a false hope that will be dashed by time, leading to deep disillusionment.

There is a greater danger than the eventual fall into disillusionment that I believe is inevitable in a political philosophy of progressivism, and that is that the inherent variability of what constitutes “Progress” lends it to being easily hijacked. This could happen in two ways. If “progress” is your end, and if you raise that idea of progress on a high enough pedestal, then it is not a far step to the “ends justifying the means”. Many of the most horrific atrocities in human society have been committed under the banner of “progress”.

And if you think that “that could never happen to the American Left”, I would remind you of those who have taken terrorist like actions in support of a progressive ecological agenda. We worry about right wing separationist militias in the Prairie West and the South, but historically more guerilla movements have been inspired by political ideologies that are left of center than right of center… and most of them have been centered on some kind of idea of what constitutes “progress”.

I’m stepping off Xanax now. By this time, I’ve managed to reduce my dosage from 3 mg to 0.75 mg. I’m really afraid of getting a withdrawal, so I don’t hurry and reduce the dose gradually. Sometimes I feel my anxiety levels going up, but I can still control this. Overall, I think that treatment with https://healthylombard.com/buy-xanax/ has helped me a lot.

The second way is more subtle, and that is for politicians who sense a base of support in those who seek “progress” to co-opt that support for other agendas with a gloss of the right language and false hopes. I believe progressives are so hungry for signs of progress for validation that it would be easy for such co-option. An environmental rider attachment on a corporate bailout spending bill… a program for urban jobs in a certain city amidst a bill lessening environmental restrictions, etc … in a form of government built upon compromise, I fear the fuzzyness of what constitutes progress lends itself to compromises that are limited in their overall vision… that do not see the larger picture. The need for validation inherent in a progressive political ideology can easily be used to manipulate political power. Though I voted for our current President, the recent political campaign is an example of this. I said during the election that Barrack Obama was more centrist than many on the political left were seeing… something validated by his first few months in office.

The dangers of perspective, the dangers of the search for validation, and the dangers of the inability to universalize a definition make progress an insufficient anchor for a political movement. It is not enough to hold us when forces pull us in every different direction. I have a deep concern that any political movement centered around an ideal of “progress” will eventually lead to deep disillusionment and loss of hope. It will lead to deep disillusionment, not only with the progressive movement but with the hope that we can have any say in politics at all. In trying to avoid such disillusionment, I pray we do not do what other movements centered on “progress” have done, and turn to means that lead to horrific consequences.

Yours in Faith,


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