Progressivism’s Decline and Fall

After the remarks President Obama made at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, it would be well to ask him: “So who, or what, do you represent when you compare the Islamic State to the Crusades or to the Jim Crow South? By what standard is this critique being made?”

In an insightful reflection on the Prayer Breakfast, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat cautions us not to allow the president’s call for national humility to obscure the fact that he is just as partisan as the jihadists, segregationists, and medieval Christian knights he condemns, and that the banner the president fights under is emblazoned with a single word, “progressivism.”

What exactly does progressivism mean? It’s well worth considering it as a cultural, and not merely political, concept.

From a Catholic point of view, the history of the West can be divided into a three-act drama. In the first act, the ancient and medieval Christian worlds dominated the stage, and the reigning cultural paradigm was one of “pilgrimage.”

While the image of the pilgrim is of course more appropriate to medieval Christian Europe than to pagan Greece and Rome, nonetheless in pagan antiquity life was understood as a narrative, a story in which the human being as hero endeavors to realize the full potentialities of his nature in virtuous action.

Life, in short, was a journey toward natural fulfillment, and, at least in some strains of ancient thought, a journey in imitation of the divine. Christianity did not eliminate this narrative but deepened it, introducing Christ as the real hero, the Savior who rescues us from the tragic consequences of sin and, through his grace, makes of our life a divine comedy.

In the second act, the cultural paradigm of pilgrimage gave way to one of progress. This was not a development of the old paradigm but a disruption of it. While the new progressive narrative took from the old one a sense of life’s forward motion, it eliminated any sense of the terminus of that motion being the fulfillment of nature’s potential.

Interestingly, however, moral anarchy was not the immediate result. The Enlightenment project cobbled together enough elements of the older paradigm to the new paradigm of progress to maintain a certain degree of rational order. But this makeshift order was always going to be a wobbly one, and with the help of Nietzsche many finally came to regard its story as incoherent. (Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and Rev. Servais Pinckaers O.P.’s The Sources of Christian Ethics are just a few of the good guides to this development.)

Tower of Babel: Conflict of Laws (chromogenic print) by Du Zhenjun, 2010 []
Tower of Babel: Conflict of Laws (chromogenic print) by Du Zhenjun, 2010 []
So we come to the third act of the drama of the West, the act we are all still living. In this act, many claim to have discovered that life cannot be lived either as a pilgrim or as a (unreconstructed) progressive. They claim – relying on the apparently ironic progress of modern science – that there is no human story at all, only the futility of slogging through a life that has no ultimate purpose (see the collected works of Samuel Beckett).

Still, the paradigm of progress has not entirely gone away. Its proponents can still be found, in Silicon Valley and the National Institutes of Health, on both sides of the aisle of Congress as well as in the Oval Office. “Progress” has survived as a kind of mystical ideal, a secular religion focused on a paradise that, while always just out of reach, might one day, with enough effort, be realized on earth.

As a matter of fact, progressivism as secular religion seems to be gaining renewed traction in our own day. For example, another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently underscored the urgent need for secularism to provide the sorts of higher and richer emotional experiences associated with religion.

“An age of mass secularization,” writes Brooks, “is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves.” What sorts of burdens? According to Brooks, secular individuals, having done away with the old paradigm of pilgrimage, have to build their own moral philosophies, their own communities, their own “Sabbath,” and their own moral motivation.

Lifting these burdens requires not only a lot of effort, but also inspiration. Where is secularism going to get it? Brooks warns, “if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers – arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.”

If you think the idea of a secular religion, even a secular “Sabbath,” is a joke, remember Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity in the 19th century. Note, too, that the British Humanist Association, which includes among its members celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, not only advocates anti-religious political activity, but also performs secular rites at weddings, funerals, and “namings.” In 2011, members of the society presided over 9,000 such rituals. Apparently, secularists have anticipated David Brooks’s concerns.

A Catholic must regard this three-act drama, especially with its weird third-act spectacle of secularists aping the religious practices they despise, as a story of decline and fall. Only the person of deep faith, in fact, can see progressivism for what it is, a perversion of Christian hope, a futile quest for a paradise of man’s own making.

This same theological virtue of hope, however, is the one thing that can keep us from despair, firm in the conviction that Christ the Hero is still the moving force of culture and that his story has in no wise reached its end.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at