Progressive Conservative or Conservative Progressive?


At my age I’m lucky to remember anything. So I do not chastise myself, God, or gluten for remembering something I read many years ago, while not remembering the name of either the book (it was a slim paperback with, I think, a gray cover) or the author (a prominent Christian writer of the generation before mine, but apparently not prominent enough for my brain to retain the name). The assertion that I recall is that any “moderate” position on an important issue should not be a mere averaging of the extremes (resulting in a tepid middling), but a position that itself retains the best of both extremes (and which one supports vigorously). He was writing of theological and ecclesiastical disputes, if I remember rightly, but it’s an insight with wide application.

And so I will try to apply it to an ongoing discussion I’m having with myself about the self-description I hazarded in my last post: “progressive conservative.” (I will eventually address why I prefer it to its inverse: “conservative progressive.”)

My first observation, typically perhaps, is that some of the central causes that progressives advocate are not, in fact, progress. And some of the things conservatives advocate are not worthy of conserving. Yet each of them has within their traditions core principles and values that I and society generally very much need. And I would say we need for both to thrive—and to butt heads—for the benefit of us all. Woe to us if either side eliminates the other (as happens in too many universities, cable news networks, and churches).

I suggested briefly in the last post some of the particular things that I find wanting in both progressive and conservative understandings of our current state. Let me list, also briefly and quite generally, some of the convictions that I associate with these terms that I want to characterize my own life. (Both sides will claim all these values and virtues as their own, but my experience is that each side understands and embodies some of them better than the other.)

Things that I want to characterize the progressive me: direct action on the part of the poor and afflicted (as opposed to “bootstrap” and “that’s life” responses to suffering); the faith that things can be better for everyone than they are now or ever have been in the past (human fallenness notwithstanding); significant reservations about profit—individual and corporate—as the ultimate measure of success in a society (while avoiding leftist sloganeering against the very systems that create the wealth we need to finance social progress).

And then there are the things I want to characterize the conservative me: realism about human nature (especially its inescapable mix of good and evil within each person: see Solzhenitsyn’s “line”); honoring of inherited wisdom from the past, including radical belief in the traditional virtues (rather than thinking we must be wisest because we have the most information); allowing a (central) place for transcendence and resisting materialisms and relativisms of all kinds; humility, including about what we know; a defense of responsibility—individual and communal—as necessary for asserting human worth.

And then there are values and virtues and wisdom that I think are part of a healthy expression of both traditions: the value of the individual; the need for a strong community (which, as my mentor EEE taught me, requires a valuing of the individual, just as the individual requires a strong community in order to flourish); a willingness to stand up to evil, even at great cost.

This melding of the best of both progressivism and conservatism is too rare these days and found in few politicians. “Moderates” is too often a term for people with their fingers to the wind (who are often characterized as “evolving” in their positions in one direction or another). My progressive self should be as passionate as the activists on the issues I affirm, even if I distance myself from their rhetoric (see my comments on “The Boston Declaration” in an earlier post). My conservative self should be as committed as my heroes (Solzhenitsyn, Bonhoeffer, Mandela, Sojourner) to advocate and suffer for the old triad: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

So why do I lean toward Progressive Conservative over Conservative Progressive? Because I think “conservative” better affirms my most foundational values and understandings, with “progressive” describing the energy and open-handedness and open-heartedness with which I must pursue them. The full truth lies with neither impulse; a committed fusion of the two gets us closer to what we need and were made to be.