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3315887620_5a70f1ff63Are you conservative?

Or are you progressive?

Both terms bother me.

To be a “conservative” implies that your primary impulse is to conserve something valuable from history or tradition. But not everything from history or tradition is worth “conserving.” Much of the past has been relegated to the dust heap, and deservedly so.

To be a “progressive” implies that your primary impulse is to progress beyond the present and lead the way toward better days. Sounds great. But not everything we foresee in the future is worth pursuing. Much of what society considers progress today could one day be tossed aside as ridiculous.

So, conservatives appeal to the past, and progressives appeal to the future. And since the problems of the past are on full display and the problems of the future are often unknown, the conservative task is difficult in every generation, for the conservative must make a careful case for retrieving and cherishing good aspects of the past without wanting to “go back.” The progressive has an easier job, since the term itself implies growth toward the common good.

But when we take a deeper look at how the progressive label is applied, we often see people appealing to an imaginary calendar instead of providing sound argumentation.

The Imaginary Calendar

There’s no reason to assume that the position we hold to is right because it’s Tuesday and not Monday. And yet, that’s the kind of ”appeal to the calendar” we often witness in popular progressive circles.

To paraphrase our secretary of state’s warnings to Russia: “We’re living in the 21st century now! You just can’t do that anymore.” To which the Russians giggle and proceed to defy the calendar we have imagined into existence.

“I realized it was time,” politicians say about why they are now in favor of redefining marriage. “It’s time” may be rhetorically powerful to some, but it shouldn’t be confused with actually making a case.

  • N. T. Wright calls vague appeals to “the future” a smokescreen.
  • C. S. Lewis believed it was chronological snobbery to appeal to progress as if the future is assured and the past is irrelevant.
  • G. K. Chesterton believed that democracy means listening to the dead, not just the living. Dissenting is a sign of life, for ”a dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Progressives want to be bold and courageous, to take their place at the vanguard of the future, but there’s nothing particularly world-changing about seeing where the train of history appears to be chugging, throwing yourself on top of the engine, and then imagining you’re the one making the train go.

Besides, if the past is any indication, the history train makes plenty of unpredictable turns.

Progressives and Eugenics

100 years ago, progressives were falling all over themselves to affirm eugenics. Sterilizing people from unwanted groups would purify the gene pool and lead to a better society. Who could be against that? 

Most people today, thankfully.

Those who dissented from the cultural orthodoxy surrounding eugenics a century ago were seen as hopelessly backward, but it was their position that stood the test of time. The “progressive” eugenicists eliminated themselves from the pool of popular opinion, although remnants of eugenic thought still persist in institutions of higher learning.

Progressives and Abortion

One of the most contentious issues facing our nation today is that of abortion. Views on abortion that get called ”progressive” always seem to be in favor of relaxing restrictions. Why is that so? If we see the abortion debate from the standpoint of protecting humans from a violent demise, then shouldn’t the protective measures enacted in the last decade be seen as “progressive?”

Flash back 200 years ago. “Progressive” doctors like Horatio Storer were rallying to expose abortionists, shut down abortion mills, and protect women and children. All their work was later undone by a “progressive” Supreme Court decision that sanctioned the slaughter of fifty million little human beings. See the problem? The label of “progress” lets us down.

Progressives and Divorce

When it comes to marriage, somehow it’s “progressive” to relax divorce laws and make it easier for a couple to abandon their covenant commitments and walk away from their children.

But has no-fault divorce led to “progress” for the family? It’s only progress if you see marriage as a commitment based on romantic feelings, and the needs of children as second to our emotional unions. Today, the world is full of children who know firsthand the pain of broken families, who, when grown, often repeat the cycle in their own lives.

Progressives and Sex

It’s “progressive” to say that all consensual sex between adults is acceptable. But has this led to progress for women? Is cohabitation without marital commitment “progress” for the family? Whatever one thinks about sexual morality, is it accurate to call the sexual brokenness and female degradation we see today “progress?”

It’s “progressive” to argue for sex-change operations, as if we are purely spiritual beings whose physical bodies are irrelevant to who we really are inside. But what if, a century from now, people look back at today’s “progressives” with horror: How could they celebrate the mutilation of their bodies? They thought this was progress?

Progressives and Marriage

It’s “progressive” to be for same-sex marriage, overturning the male/female definition of marriage that has been supported by every civilization for thousands of years. But just how is it progress to envision a family unit where a child is denied the blessing of a mother and father?

In the past, we’ve mourned the tragedy of a child losing a mother or father to death or divorce. Today, we’re seeking to enshrine such a vision into law, to celebrate a family where gender is irrelevant. Is this progress? Or is the bandwagon trampling common sense?

The Myth of Progress

The list could be multiplied. A century ago, the progressives were the ones smashing saloon windows and pushing Prohibition. Today’s progressives look back at such antics as antiquated and backward.

All this to say, progress and progressivism are powerful myths, but they remain just that – myths. Just as the conservative needs to carefully consider what in the past should be “conserved,” the progressive needs to think deeply about how we define “progress.”

After all, totalitarian regimes from Nero’s Rome to Hitler’s Germany have always claimed their policies will usher the world forward in a utopian state, and they use both “conservative” and “progressive” arguments to make the case. The Russians thought they were pushing progress during the Cold War, with Kruschev saying “History is on our side and we will bury you.”

Today, the United States imagines a calendar of progress solidified by our military and economy, with our way of life responsible for spreading freedom to the world and overcoming evil. But not everything we view as “progress” is worth spreading.

Progress must always be measured by a standard.

We make progress as we work hard and move toward an ideal. The temptation, however, is to change the ideal. And that’s why we’d rather trade the ideals of heaven for the shifting sands of popular opinion. To exchange God’s design for human flourishing with our paltry human inventions.

So take note. What passes for “progress” today is often just a slow and steady burrowing into the ground. And the minions below don’t care what we call ”progress,” as long as we are in descent.

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20 thoughts on “The Progressive Appeal to an Imaginary Calendar”

  1. Wesley says:

    Great thoughts Trev. – feeling what you are putting down here. I know I also cringe whenever I hear people saying things like “This is the 21 Century” and then just stopping right there as though that – all by itself – was the answer as to why something that has never been seen as good, is now good. I always wanna press them with, “Ok – it’s the 21st Century. And so that proves ….what again?”

  2. Dylan Dodson says:

    Thank you for coherently putting in words what I think many of us so often feel. Great post.

  3. Curt Day says:

    We need to venture out when applying either the conservative or progressive labels. For example, a long time ago, progressives challenged what was being said about slavery. Progressives also talked about rights for workers, civil rights, voting rights, rights for women, and challenged using war as a way of accomplishing foreign policies. So while the above list mentions personal morality issues, what about larger social issues.

    I agree that the labels progressive and conservative are too limited. And that we shouldn’t take an all-or-nothing approach to change or tradition. But there seems to be a concerted effort by some Christians to forever tie real Christianity with conservative politics. This is unfortunate for it promotes tribalism, an anthropological term for gang mentality, and that is based on an idolatry.

    Finally, the picture of the United States posted here seems to be an imaginary one. For most of what the US has done in terms of foreign policy is to protect business interests rather than to further ideals such as democracy. In addition, what is Russia doing that the US hasn’t been doing?

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    You make a good point, Curt, about avoiding knee-jerk conservatism, especially when it’s wedded to all-or-nothing perspectives. Chesterton’s words a century ago are helpful here:

    “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”

  5. Bill Newberry says:

    Point taken regarding those Christians who tie real Christianity with conservative politics. And yet, there are parts of political conservatism that align most closely with a biblical worldview so it is natural that Christians would support one political faction over another. The problem comes, I think, when Christians place too much or too little emphasis on politics. ON one hand Christians should participate in the political process so that biblical values have a chance to be salve for a bruised and battered world. On the other hand, Christians can put too much faith in political solutions and electoral outcomes and forget that history is going somewhere that God has already determined it will go. Our faith can be misplaced when it is placed on any election, politician, or party.

  6. Taylor says:

    So we fought in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam for business interests? I’ll never understand the mind that sees Russia or China as equivalent to the US.

  7. Andrew says:

    “And that’s why we’d rather trade the ideals of heaven for the shifting sands of popular opinion. To exchange God’s design for human flourishing with our paltry human inventions.”

    In the most pejorative sense of the word It’s just another form of prostitution that we engage in. Although, I suppose, you wouldn’t make many friends by telling people that it is often the bottom line truth.

  8. Brian Watson says:

    Since you refer to Chesterton, it is worth noting a couple of his quotes on “progress” from Orthodoxy. (I apologize for the lack of formatting. All the words below, save the citations, are Chesterton’s words.)

    It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable. If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress. It is worth remark, in passing, that when Tennyson, in a wild and rather weak manner, welcomed the idea of infinite alteration in society, he instinctively took a metaphor which suggests an imprisoned tedium. He wrote—

    “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”

    He thought of change itself as an unchangeable groove; and so it is. Change is about the narrowest and hardest groove that a man can get into.
    The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them. (Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [New York: John Lane Company, 1909], 63–64.)

    The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have among men, is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make the whole world like that vision.

    (Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [New York: John Lane Company, 1909], 193–194).

  9. Curt Day says:

    Being an anti-Capitalist Leftist and a theologically conservative Christian, I have to disagree with your assessment that conservative politics align close enough with Biblical Christianity that we should expect Christians to naturally favor conservative politic. I say this not to challenge but to say that we need to listen to each other and not to assume which set of political convictions best support Biblical Christianity.

  10. Curt Day says:

    WW II? No, but our imperialism did involve us in the Pacific theater, which is something Helen Keller warned us against in 1916. WW I? Yes. Coups in Iran, Gautemala, Chile, and Greece, just to name a few, along with supporting terrorist tactics in Nicaragua and paramilitary groups in El-Salvador were definitely done for business interests.

    Other interests besides business interests included the desire for hegemony, which makes business interests secondary, and that involved us in Vietnam and Korea. In both of those countries we were involved in a struggle between competing dictators and in Vietnam, we went against the Geneva Accords that would have allowed the South Vietnamese to use democratic procedures to decide on reunification.

    Also realize that while, in 1962, we called the placement of missiles in Cuba provocative, we had already placed missiles with nuclear warheads on Russia’s border in Turkey. And, because of our desire for hegemony, we had surrounded both the USSR and China

    Also, please remember two of the most recent enemies we once supported: Saddam and Osama.

  11. JohnM says:

    Curt Day,

    At least a part (no, I don’t imagine the whole) of our motivation for pursuing hegemony during the cold war was to ensure the USSR didn’t have it. That much was a necessary and worthy goal. Hopefully you’re not kind of anti-capitalist leftist who imagines that our not being innocent makes the other side good guys?

  12. Martin says:

    This is a terrible post … one insulting anyone with half a brain.

  13. Ken Abbott says:

    Please elaborate, Martin. What about it do you find “terrible” and “insulting?”

  14. Bryan P says:

    One of my favorite C.S. Lewis passages about progress comes from “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”: “But that would be putting the clock back, gasped the governor. Have you no idea of progress, of development?” “I have seen them both in an egg, said Caspian. We call it ‘Going Bad’ in Narnia.”

  15. Curt Day says:

    But the Soviet Union never threatened hegemony. Their conquest and control of eastern Europe was easily seen as a defensive measure considering the number of devastating invasions they suffered from Western Europe over the preceding two centuries. And Cuba only embraced the Soviet Union after terrorist attacks conducted by the US drove them toward the USSR. The “provocative” placing of missiles in Cuba only followed the much earlier placing of US nuclear armed missiles in Turkey, which is on Russia’s border. And there is no moral rhyme or reason for our hegemony of Asia nor is their moral rhyme or reason for the continued hegemony following the breakup of the Soviet Union. These facts make the claim that we were concerned with Soviet hegemony difficult to accept.

    In essence, our hegemony was based on the ends justify the means ethic, an ethic correctly attributed to Marx.

  16. JohnM says:

    The USSR very much did seek hegemony, or empire, or whatever name you want to give to their efforts to impose control and influence world affairs in the direction they desired. Even if you suppose they sought hegemony only over regions contiguous to their territory and purely defensively – neither being quite the case – it was still hegemony and still very much unwelcome by those most directly affected. That was one being difference between us and them. Our allies mostly (please observe when I qualify before you cite counter examples) wanted us there; their “allies” mostly did not. There is a reason why even to this day we have allies, far from our shores, who are not eager to see us leave. It isn’t U.S. hegemony they’re worried about. Again, if you want to criticize U.S. foreign policy, then and now, that’s fine, but don’t be so absurd as to make the likes of Stalin, or his successors for that matter, out to be nice guys.

    Now, all that said, at present I would like to see the U.S. a little less “projected” and a little less influential myself. Possibly for reasons somewhat different than yours and for a couple of perhaps seemingly contradictory reasons.

    You, I suppose, want to see America go home because you see Uncle Sam as something a bull in the china shop. Or an oppressive ogre swinging a wicked club. Now I can see that most of those against whom the club was swung in last seventy-five years or so were the monsters. It’s just I think America would be better off heeding John Quincy Adams when it comes to going abroad to seek their destruction, i.e. Adams said America doesn’t do that. Except of course now America does, to her hurt. We should stop that.

    On the other hand if I’m concerned for the good of America I also see America as something of a net bad influence in the world at this point, though I don’t think it was always so, not the net effect anyway. The bad influence derives from American culture, by which I mean first of all pop culture. I used blame the Europeans, but then Hollywood isn’t in Paris or Berlin. Besides pop culture we have put on display for the world the shiny baubles of consumerism, the cult of youth, and hyper-individualism. Did I leave anything out? I care about the good of America, but I think much of the world could do well to stop imitating us so much, as least as we are now.

  17. Martin says:

    In respect to Ken’s comment … Please elaborate, Martin. What about it do you find “terrible” and “insulting?”

    First of all, it should be known that I have often congratulated good posts of the TGC Blog website. And, to be fair, I made sure to read this post again. I am not addressing the comments to the post, only the post itself.

    This post reminds me of the typical voter’s guide distributed by a special interest group at election time. The issues (e.g. eugenics, abortion, divorce, sex, marriage) are carefully selected to bias the potential voter to the special interest’s side. Then, present the issue in such a way that anyone who disagrees would be seen as a complete idiot. And never present both sides of an issue in positive lights.

    It is a very good example of presenting partial truth and very appealing to the ‘herd mentality’. It is ripe for those who let faith and political views determine the facts that are presented.

    So here is the gist of this post … both progressive and conservative worldviews are warped to some degree. However, a conservative worldview is less warped because … “look at all the mistakes that progressive thinking has endorsed!” At least, that is what I come away with.

    I wonder how we should categorize the dynamic of exercising ‘faith’ – conservative or progressive? Answer: it is both. Faith is conservative because we look back to Whom it is tethered. Faith is progressive because we are take action and move towards what we do not with certainty know – hence, a potential myth! Yet, I hope we all want to be people of faith – and truth.

  18. brian says:

    Chesterton also pointed out that a chief end of man is to form doctrine, for doctrine is the piling of one truth upon another. I’ve thought of “conservatives” as those who adhere to such, and progressives as those who think one should be expansive in their thinking and to allow for truth to reside with what works for each individual. Does a gay lifestyle work for Sam? Then, good for Sam. Is sexual freedom a good thing a good thing for Sally? Then, good for Sally. You conservatives who say such things are bad for Sam and Sally and society are just closed minded, you see; we progressives are open minded. Or so it seems to go.

  19. Curt Day says:

    If you read the propaganda, yes. In actuality, they didn’t. Again, the iron curtain was a defensive shield. In both the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia faced multiple, devastating invasions from the West with the Nazi invasion being the worst–they lost 25% of their people. That they were interested in preventing invasions obvious. That they tyrannical with these nations meant that they were no different with Easter block nations as they were with their own people.

    Also consider, many of our allies had their own empires. The British had theirs and lost much of it to Japan and was dragged into negotiating for the freedom of India. The French went on to enlist our help for the reestablishment of their colonies in Indochina and then we went to take their place despite our violating the Geneva Accords that called for using the democratic process in deciding on reunification. BTW, we propped up one dictator after another in South Vietnam until they had sham elections. And talk about dictators, we supported dictators in South Korea. In addition we maintained proxy dictators in the Philippines and kept multiple military bases in places like Guam and Okinawa where, in essence, we ruled over the people.

    Of course, that was Asia where the USSR had no influence. But if you go to the Middle East, we, along with the Brits, organized a coup to replace the democratically elected gov’t of Mossadegh with an opulent tyrant, the Shah. We supported Saddam Hussein through most of his worst atrocities and we have supported the dictatorships in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Of course, none of this includes the nuclear missiles we placed on Russia’s border in Turkey which became an issue during the Cuban Missile crisis.

    As for Europe, we interrupted the democratic process in Greece to install a military dictatorship and there were other victims of our control there. And Central and South America has seen either US supported dictatorships overthrown by the people which moved us to support or even conduct terrorist attacks (see Cuba and Nicaragua) or supported coups to overthrow democratically elected governments to install dictators (see Chile and Guatemala). And none of this does not mention our support for what was done in El-Salvador where our supported violence begat the MS-13 gang. And none of this includes our overthrowing of the Haitian government.

    Now where was the Russian attempts at hegemony in our actions here? And why is it that we have allies?

  20. Kevin Bushnell says:

    Great analyis, Trevin. Your article also made me think of the arrogant phrase that many people use: “the wrong side of history.” How would anyone know that their particular beliefs will or won’t be supported by a future “history”? It reminds me also of Fidel Castro’s famous phrase from 1953 when he was on trial for his attack on the Moncada Barracks. Acting as his own lawyer, he ended his 4-hour self-defense with, “History will absolve me.” Up till now, “history” has done no such thing.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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