Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Progressives versus Conservatives: What is at Stake?

Last evening, I was reading Peter Hitchens' The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost Its Way, and I found his assessment of the current political landscape to be well-stated. He stresses that the concept of "Right" and "Left" in contemporary politics is, in a way, obsolete. He is not so much calling for an abandonment of these categories, however, as for their re-definition. He overstates his point for effect, but I think it is a valid point:
"Conventional Wisdom's biggest single mistake is its thought-free, obsolete idea of Left and Right. This still relies on categories and symbols which were dead long ago, and only kept from decomposing by the refrigeration of the Cold War: capital versus labour, state control versus free enterprise, NATO versus the Warsaw Pact, 'democracy versus Communism', the stuffy censoring establishment versus the vibrant, unconventional fringe. These deserted battlefields have little to do with the real divisions which now exist between idealist, optimistic 'progressives' and anti-utopian, pessimistic conservative. Capital and organised labour combine against small business to favour regulation and globalism. Trades Unions long ago abandoned shop-floor struggles, and now mainly act as lobbies for more spending on the public sector where most of their members now work. they also range themselves with multinational corporations in campaigns for globalist and regulatory policies. The NATO alliance symbolizes this survival of outward forms, despite the shrivelling away of the conflict that originally created them." [my bolding]
Hitchens is quite correct to point out that the key ideological divisions that dominate contemporary politics are not easy to define using the labels of the past. Western politics has undergone a fundamental lurch to the left, which has turned the center into the right-wing and all but destroyed the old center.

The old center was political liberalism undergirded by the influence of Christianity on the majority of the population. Political freedoms could be extended because people had some capacity for self-discipline because of their religious training. Thus, Christianity made modern, liberal democracy possible. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of parliamentary democracy, common law and limited government (which started with the limitation of the power of the monarch), the human race reached the highest pinnacle of human freedom in the whole of human history.

Think about that for a moment. We are talking here about past accomplishment, not future aspiration, about concrete reality not Utopian dreams. Western civilization is unique. No other civilization in history ever had such prosperous and free citizens of all social classes. This is not open to debate; it is historical fact.

The role of Christianity in this cultural accomplishment was crucial. As Alexis de Tocqueville famously said of the American constitution: this constitution was made for a religious people and is suitable for no other. Religion makes democracy safe. Democracy without the moral restraints of religion, the civilizing influence of the family and the self-discipline that arises from the fear of God, is dangerous, Utopian, oppressive to minorities and destructive of order.

You can have secularism or you can have democracy; you can seek both but you will lose one or the other eventually.

It is ironic that the most radical, forward-thinking, optimistic people in the world - political liberals - are now considered to be conservatives. And it is ironic that people like Peter Hitchens can casually label us who are conservatives as "pessimistic." It is ironic because we are actually extremely pessimistic about human perfectibility while simultaneously extremely hopeful about human possibilities because we take seriously both man's glory as a creature made in the image of God and also his fatal flaw as a creature fallen into sin. If this realism seems like pessimism it is only so in comparison to the naive, unrealistic, one-sided optimism of Utopian progressivism.

Progressivism is more than Marxism, although Marx and Rousseau are the main sources of progressive ideas. Progressivism is an umbrella movement that includes many streams and variations on a theme. From Fabian socialism to Communism to Dewey's pragmatism and the Social Gospel, all forms of progressivism have one thing in common: they reject the Christian doctrine of original sin. So the argument over whether Obama is a socialist or not is quite irrelevant. We know he is a Progressive and that is all that matters.

Sometimes they see man as an angel; other times they see him as an animal. One moment they revel in the thought of social engineering to create Utopia and the next moment they engage in eugenic methods by which they label some humans as sub-humans. They are perpetually extremists as they swing wildly back and forth in their estimation of the value of human beings.

The Christian doctrine of original sin, which presupposes the creation of humans as good and as in the image of God, allows for a balanced view of human beings that sees them as good, but fallen, creatures and as capable of great good, yet in need of redemption. This kind of balanced view of human potential was the basis of Western civilization and the denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin by Rousseau, Marx, Dewey, Nietzsche, and so on, will bring about the destruction of the West.

Progressivism is not about progress, but about regress. It regresses back before Christianity to a worldview that has no place for sin, redemption, grace and God. It could be said to be "half of Christianity," in that it is a doctrine of heaven without a doctrine of hell or judgment. It is a doctrine of redemption without a Redeemer. It is a doctrine of man which fails to take into account the fact that man is a sinner.

What is at stake in the battle between Progressivism and Conservatism? Merely the preservation or destruction of our civilization. In the name of Utopian dreams, Progressives are busy undermining the foundations of civilization including Christianity, the family and traditional sexual morality. In the name of "Progress" they would undo the basis of freedom and justice.

Only conservatives think that limited government the rule of law, individual liberty, free enterprise, traditional morality, the family and free speech are worth conserving. Let us be honest: any form of "Progressivism" that sets its face against these beautiful and good things will not lead to progress but to the abyss.

1 comment:

Peter Leavitt said...

Yes, the key distinction is between those who anchor their liberalism within the constraints of Judeo-Christian religion and morality and those who in various forms advocate utopian autarchy, whether from the libertarian right or the libertine left.

Both Burke and Tocqueville understood this. Burke saw the extreme danger of forceful utopian revolution that ultimately led to the assorted disasters of the twentieth-century.