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Progress does not always mean advancement

A misguided ideology carves a destructive path as it marches on

A person holds a rainbow flag during a pride march in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 5, 2022 Associated Press/Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

Progress does not always mean advancement
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As the New Year is upon us, it’s important to remember that the advancement of time does not necessarily mean the advancement of the human condition, better culture, or saner politics. For modern progressivism, it’s just the opposite.

The politics of pronouns. Umpteen genders. Drag queen story hour and queer theory for kindergarteners. There is a sense among us that people nowadays are going crazy. But no, it’s not “people.” Not even people in politics. It’s what progressivism and its advocates are allowing under the umbrella of “the new normal.” Much of the current nonsense can be traced to this distinct view of what we are as human beings and the way the universe is, and the driving hope it inspires in them.

They take the name “progressive” because they are ever chasing after what they believe is “progress,” always pushing past the oppression of the present to what they imagine is the better beyond, always “making history” with a “first.” So, just when you think we’ve reached peak crazy, it soon looks old-fashioned. Rights for women? Feminism? How antique.

Progress, as it’s sold, is first technological. This is the ever-widening conquest of nature through modern natural science. There was a time when we were at the mercy of our surroundings. Nature did whatever nature wanted to do, whether by storm and disease, or by the dark and cold of night. Life was circumscribed by stubborn distance and time. We have always invented things to help us—wheels, cloth, swords. But technology is the marriage of human making with our knowledge of nature’s inner secrets that modern science unlocks. We see this progress in medicine, food production, transportation, and word processing. But we also see the same challenge in nuclear weapons, Covid-19, and whatever Instagram and Twitter are doing with our brains.

The hope of progress is also moral. We expect and demand ever-expanding individual autonomy. This demand began with limited government that protects your ability to live well and otherwise leaves you alone. But government too has progressed! It now liberates us ever more radically from the constraints of tradition, religion, and nature. That’s progress! What is the past to me? Who is God to say? And consider the constantly receding frontier of liberation from our biology by abortion technology and “gender affirming” surgeries. “Biology is not destiny,” they repeatedly reassure us.

Modern progress has no resting place, so it becomes ever more radical.

But we are not created for this, and so we cannot find peace and happiness this way. For this reason, progress as permanent revolution becomes incoherent. For example, feminism gave us the sexual revolution which in turn gave us gay liberation which cleared the way for transgenderism which in turn is destroying feminism. The monster devours itself, tail first.

Progress is not like post-millennial eschatology, which expects things to get better and better before the Lord’s return. That position is disciplined and bounded by God’s Word, with a definite end in view (Habakkuk 2:14). But modern progress has no resting place, so it becomes ever more radical. Progress must constantly prove itself as progress by always exceeding itself. “Conservative,” on the other hand, is always just what it is—the principles of the Founding; Christian morality; philosophy, politics, and economics that support the family, the community, and religious institutions. If that is looking increasingly radical, it does so only from the perspective of the progressive vanishing point.

The conservative temperament is the opposite of the progressive, which explains much of the conservative-progressive disagreement in our politics. It is Christian insofar as it is a sober assessment of what we can do with this world, of human frailty, and thus of the latest bright idea. A conservative need not be a Christian but can be (and, I would argue, ought to be). In pre-Christian, classical terms, it recognizes (again soberly) that injustice tends to predominate, whereas virtue is rare. The ancients warned that the gods set limits to our aspirations, limits that assert themselves when we fly too close to the sun on our waxen wings. Christians know that the kingdom of peace comes down from God as the New Jerusalem, not up from man like the Tower of Babel. Our hope is in the Lord, and He tells us what that is. We don’t dream it up.

Much of the current brassy boundary-pushing, delivered fresh daily, grows out of this revolutionary excitement over the latest liberation of the human spirit that, because it is false, binds and oppresses. The thing to remember about revolutionary intoxication is that it inevitably exhausts and discredits itself. But the Christian hope remains unchanged and is well to remember what we both sing and know to be true: “God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”

Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to add the word “not” to the first sentence. 

David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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