Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Progressive Christian Impulse

Growing up if you'd asked me about my political beliefs I would have answered in the stereotypically conservative vein. Basically life was a whole lot better in the 40's and 50's, and our country would well to return to that period. Or you could bring back Ronald Reagan. Either one would be acceptable. As I grew up though my thinking began to change. I began to ask more questions. I also started dating a man who thought monarchy wasn't actually all that bad and could go on for hours about the problems with the Federal Reserve. We started debating things like minimum wage and moral/constitutional approaches to taxation. I learned about things like "just war" theory. During that time I was also studying English literature and philosophy. Since most of my classes were in political philosophy I spend long hours among all the various ideas that have comprised "good government" since before the rise of Christendom. My English classes applied as well because I saw these ideas translated into communities and families through the medium of text and observation. I was still a conservative. The last time I voted for a mainstream presidential candidate I voted for Bush (although with reservations).  Something didn't fit though. More and more I found myself questioning old values and our perceived need to return to some magical era, be it Queen Victoria's reign or Eisenhower's presidency, in which our ills would cease and life could once again relax into pleasant lines. Some years later the pieces have all fallen into place, and I can say quite truthfully that I'm a progressive leaning Christian.

Who didn't vote for Obama.

Who detests abortion.

Who supports traditional marriage.

Who loves Church history.

Who marvels at hymns written hundreds of years ago.

So what makes me a progressive? Perhaps it would be easier to understand if I said that I'm largely a conservative with progressive impulses. I just hate to put it that way because it sounds inherently ludicrous, and I think my position is anything but that.

Consider what we know about the conservative movement. As one would expect given their title they are frequently trying to return to something. They want to return to a particular era or set of morals or a time when a certain law wasn't in place. They talk about how things were under Reagan or when they were children or when their grandfathers was growing up. To a large extent they are interested in preserving a certain moment in history when everything seemed to be working. To be sure, I'm describing the principled conservatives here. I think most modern or "moderate" conservatives exist merely to keep the two party system afloat. Since they can't run as blue, they might as well run as red and try convince us that they are two very different things and not merely two different shades of purple. I, personally, have a hard time with the conservative impulse. Although I appreciate that are generally trying to preserve something worth having I think they often fail to see the problems in the era to which they wish to return and the kinds of thinking that have, by and large, led us into progressively more liberal policies. You must remember that the conservatives of one hundred years ago were often the liberals of one hundred and fifty years ago. The problem is knowing exactly what you're conserving and what you're going to do with it afterwards.

This is where the progressive impulse can be valuable because, in their skepticism of the past, they are able to look past some of the trappings to what was going on underneath. The 60's and 70's came after the 40's and 50's for a reason. There was the pseudo-religious hysteria surrounding WWI, Prohibition, the rhetorical posturing that war should be about secular ideals like democracy, Vietnam, the push for "no fault" divorce, and a hundred other things that happened but don't seem to figure very prominently into the conservative idea of what "life was like back then." Obviously I'm painting in rather broad strokes. There will be exceptions, but I believe the general outline are accurate. The point is that there are naturally parts of our historical understanding of gender relations or education or church liturgy that need to be scrapped as we move forward in the work of building Christendom. It's the job of progressives to clear away the brush and deadwood of bad ideas and jumbled thinking from around the oaks of righteousness so that the whole thing doesn't go up in a blaze at the first spark. It's the job of conservatives to make sure progressives don't start mistaking an oak tree for a privet hedge and run around yanking up anything with a working root system. We need both impulses, and its a pity that our modern understand has so completely divorced the two and left the progressive impulse to the liberal mindset which, as I hope you can see, is completely unnecessary.

I believe that the Church today needs to better integrate these two ways of thinking. For instance, now you've got college kids thinking that they've just now discovered what community means when the truth is that people have been dealing with largely the same issues since the beginning of time - or at least since the beginning of modern English hymnody. Speaking of which, there's something a little screwy when the conservatives all are singing Mat Redman songs, and the crazy libertarian/progressive kids are all singing Issac Watts and Charles Wesley. It's not completely true, but it's enough true to make you think.    Anyway.    Progressives need conservatives to keep them grounded and to puncture their smug bubbles of "self-awareness" and "radical" faith. Conservatives need progressives to keep them honest about the problems of the past and focused on the issue of conserving an actual, defineable moral good which we wish to remain present no matter what form society takes. This isn't progress for progress's sake or conservation for conservation's sake. This is two different groups of people seeing their need for each other and being willing to work together to overlook each other's blind spots in order to build an enduring Christian vision.

What do I think this means practically? I'm really not sure. It probably just boils down to boring stuff like talking to folks at church and realizing both the good and the bad in their political and social impulses and realizing the same about your own. But I do think it means that for those of us who aren't as conventionally conservative it's ok to have your own perspective. That perspective should be submitted to God, but God can use both of you. Sometimes God calls us to return, and sometimes He calls us to leave. A lot just depends on what he's saying to you now and whether or not you're listening.


  1. My takeaway from this is this: If you take all the typical political positions of either the conservatives or the liberals, you're probably wrong on some points. Herd instinct doesn't tend to increase correctness. I agree!

    I want to hear a defense of monarchy. That sounds exciting... and rather British. :)

  2. Well, and part of what I was trying to get at is that there are Christian conservative impulses and Christian progressive impulses that really have very little to do with today's political parties and that both impulses are good.