Editor's Note: The terms “progressive” and “progressivism” are being widely used in the secular and religious worlds. Most people hearing these words have no idea of their manipulative context and what many who use them actually intend them to mean. “Progressivism” has a political/historical background that must be understood by pro-life, pro-family people and people of faith in order to prevent them from falling prey to its dangerous agendas. We asked George Neumayr to write this instructive piece for the benefit of all LifeSiteNews readers. After reading this you will better understand the need to question anyone referring to “progressive” ideas or calling someone “progressive.”
February 14, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The English author George Orwell wrote that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In the history of manipulative political language, the term “progressive” surely occupies a high place.
The term is used incessantly to describe policies, political figures, and churchmen, among others, whom a liberal elite deem enlightened. Through repetitive use of “progressive,” modern liberals have hoped to gull the public into equating progressive with progress. But no such equation is justified. The gulf between the rhetoric of “progress” and the reality of progress is glaring.
The darkness of the twentieth century is sufficient to dissuade anyone from confusing “progressive” with progress. Its vilest ideologies were all presented as “progressive.” In the name of bettering humanity, self-described progressives felt emboldened to “progress” beyond the most basic precepts of reason and the natural law.
While some causes labeled “progressive” in the twentieth century qualify as either innocuous or at least debatable, many were unmistakably evil. The century’s eugenic schemes, for example, came not from so-called reactionaries but from proud self-described progressives. The West’s leading judges and university presidents championed eugenics openly before World War II.
In the 1920s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, considered a pillar of progressivism, thought nothing of calling for widespread sterilization of whomever the elite considered inferior. After all, he wrote, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for the crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Long before Hitler’s Final Solution, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was writing about eliminating the “feeble-minded” and undesirable minorities. Long before the architects of Obamacare conceived of death panels for the elderly, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, a darling of progressives, blithely proposed extermination panels: “You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence?”
“Progressive” California, the epicenter of eugenics in the 20th century, didn’t pick up its schemes from Hitler’s Germany. Rather, bloodless German social engineers picked up their eugenic ideas from California. Edwin Black, the author of War Against the Weak, has noted, “Only after eugenics became entrenched in the United States was the campaign transplanted into Germany, in no small measure through the efforts of California eugenicists, who published booklets idealizing sterilization and circulated them to German official and scientists.”
Supposedly progressive places like Pasadena and Palo Alto (Stanford’s president in the early twentieth century, David Starr Jordan, was a loud proponent of eugenics) were beacons of enlightenment in Hitler’s eyes, according to Black:
Hitler studied American eugenics laws. He tried to legitimize his anti-Semitism by medicalizing it, and wrapping it in the more palatable pseudoscientific facade of eugenics. Hitler was able to recruit more followers among reasonable Germans by claiming that science was on his side. While Hitler's race hatred sprung from his own mind, the intellectual outlines of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were made in America. During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany's fascist eugenicists. In Mein Kampf, published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. “There is today one state,” wrote Hitler, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Self-described progressives also entangled themselves in the roots of Russian communism. “I have seen the future and it works,” remarked the journalist Lincoln Steffens after visiting Russia in 1921. Bolshevism and progress were viewed as one and the same.
“Most liberals saw the Bolsheviks as a popular and progressive movement,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left. “Nearly the entire liberal elite, including much of FDR's Brain Trust, made the pilgrimage to Moscow to take admiring notes on the Soviet experiment.”
In view of this dark history, contemporary uses of “progressive” should merit the greatest suspicion. Indeed, one might have expected the word to fade away. Instead, it has enjoyed a revival. To many politicians and journalists, “progressive” now sounds better than “liberal.”
In 2007, at a debate during the Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton declined to call herself a liberal and chose instead to call herself a progressive. She explained:
I prefer the word 'progressive,' which has a real American meaning, going back to the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive – someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we're working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life, get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family. So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive, and I think that's the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics.
Her vague definition of progressive makes it sounds wholesome and harmless, as if progressives stand for nothing more than up-to-date food inspection standards and a robust civil society. In truth, progressivism sparks off secularist and socialist notions of human perfectibility and social engineering divorced from God and the natural moral law that have proven disastrous for the human race.
If progressivism is difficult to define, that’s because it rests on nothing more than the ever-changing will of man. It has no criterion of progress apart from whatever those in power call “progress.” The false and empty philosophy underlying it allows for the most sinister forms of subjectivism and ideologies of power.
Of course, self-described progressives would like the public to believe that their political, economic, and religious ideas have the same proven character and measurability as technological progress. They push the idea that society will improve under “progressive” politics, economics, and religion to the same extent that, say, computers have improved under measurable and undeniable technological progress.
That assumption drives progressivism, but it has no sound philosophical basis. Equally unsound is what C.S. Lewis called the “chronological snobbery” built into progressivism—“the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” A true idea does not cease to be true simply because those in power no longer hold it.
The irony of progressivism is that its policies almost always entail a return to the bad ideas and corrupt practices of ancient times. It is old barbarism in a new guise. What exactly is new about euthanizing the elderly, killing babies, celebrating promiscuity, and so forth? Even its more sophisticated notions of a “living Constitution” and a collectivist federal government (ideas which are hallmarks of the American Progressive movement) are simply glorified versions of tyrannies well known to the ancients.
The term progressive invariably attaches itself to policies that might have even made debauched pagans blush. Self-described “progressive” Democrats, for example, have no qualms about extending the term to openly brutal practices like partial-birth abortion. Barack Obama, who takes pride in the term “progressive,” couldn’t even bring himself to oppose laws against infanticide as a state senator in Illinois.
In ordinary language, progress refers to the gradual improvement of a thing. In its political and religious uses, “progressive” more often than not refers to regressive and primitive practices and ideas that deform life and undermine the development of civilization.
As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the truly progressive person is the one who stands athwart a false idea, whatever its labeling, and moves in the direction of truth.
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be,” he wrote. “And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
Authentic progress, in other words, is inseparable from the truth about the good of man. Any ideology with a criterion of progress not rooted in that truth can only mean gradual corruption and disorientation. As evident in the mania for gay marriage in the West, “progress” is now defined not by greater and greater adherence to the natural moral law but by the natural law’s total abolition.
Similarly, the media’s understanding of “progress” in the Catholic Church is not measured by growing adherence to holiness and truth but by departures from them. It crowns churchmen “progressive” if they appear to be substituting modern liberalism for orthodoxy.
The incorporation of modern liberalism into Catholicism is the destination point toward which “progressives,” both inside and outside the Church, wish to go.
Moving beyond “truth and falsehood” into an alliance with the “world” is the antithesis of the Church’s mission. But progressives, such as Hans Kung or the leading dissident National Catholic Reporter paper in the US, drawing upon a Darwinian conceit, will always claim that the latest development, whether in religion or politics, is the best one. All changes are cast as perfective, not destructive.
Bitter experience should have taught the public by now that “change you can believe in,” as Obama put it, is usually an alarming mutation. “Progress,” as applied to politics and religion, falls into Orwell’s category of self-serving rhetoric designed to silence opposition to whatever is under proposal. It should at the very least invite skepticism, not submission.
To paraphrase Lincoln Steffens, we have seen the future under progressivism and it clearly doesn’t work.
George Neumayr is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and co-author of No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.