British author Will Jones has written a perceptive article on the difference between conservatives and progressives, pointing out that both sides are working from radically incompatible and opposing worldviews. These are not just political ideologies. Rather, they account for personalities, psychologies, and how people live. Jones favors the conservative perspective and shows why Christians tend to also, but it’s a little more complicated once we factor sin into both equations.
. . .The divide [is] between those who believe the world has a given order that ought to be respected because it makes things go best in the long run, and those who do not believe this and think invoking such order is little more than a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful against those they exploit.
The social order, says Jones, expresses itself in institutions such as the family and the nation-state, along with the ideas and practices that support them, such as sexual morality and the rule of law. Conservatives support them–with religious conservatives seeing them as facets of God’s creation–while progressives find them oppressive.
This conservative respect for natural and social order contrasts sharply with the progressive outlook which is typically hostile to claims of inherent order in nature and society. Progressives tend to follow Marx in regarding such ideas as devices created by the powerful (in Marx’s case, the owners of capital, these days, more likely straight white men) to perpetuate inequalities and restrict people’s freedom of action.
Progressives and conservatives both say they want people to be happy, but they understand very differently what this involves. Whereas conservatives see happiness as emerging from respect for the natural and social order, for progressives almost the opposite is the case: the individual’s pursuit of happiness must as far as possible be achieved by not conforming to the social order. This is because to do so is to become complicit in oppression and to succumb to the ‘false consciousness’ of being happy when enslaved. . . .
Conservatives and progressives differ also in their visions of freedom. Conservatives seek the freedom that comes from respecting the boundaries inherent in the created order. Progressives, on the other hand, aim for freedom from the created order – from biology, from the family, from the nation, from God. As a consequence, progressive freedom has a strong authoritarian bent. This might seem paradoxical, but in fact it follows directly from the progressives’ need to oppose by force the outworking of the order of nature, and to silence those who attempt to point out the problems with this.
So how does Christianity fit with this?
Yes, Christians do believe that God has ordained the family. The “nation-state” is a relatively modern invention, unknown in the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and tribal societies, but the “state” as some sort of social organization with earthly authorities that restrain evil and protect the good is indeed one of the God-given “estates” for human flourishing (Romans 13; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Also, Christians believe that moral truths are part of a reality built into creation and human nature (Romans 1-2). So by these definitions, Christians will tend to be conservative.
And yet Christians also have a strong belief in sin. Human beings and the world they inhabit are fallen. So individuals, institutions, society, and nature itself are not and cannot be in full accord with God’s created design. That design is still present and can be realized in part, but sin keeps insinuating itself. This prevents Christians from ever being able to say, in the words of Enlightenment rationalists, that “whatever is, is right.” This also prevents Christians from idolizing the status quo, as a fully-committed conservative might.
This conviction about the reality of sin also, of course, prevents Christians from buying into the optimism, constructivism, and cosmic rebellion of the progressives. The progressive view of freedom, for the Christian, simply removes all constraints and thus unleashes human depravity.
It would follow that Christians, while tending towards conservatism, would also be sensitive to some of the evils that bother progressives. But they would see them as violations of God’s design, rather than as an excuse to violate that design further. Christians would have at best modest hopes for what human governments and “nation-states” can accomplish, avoiding all utopian thinking–whether of the conservative or the progressive variety–in a spirit of realism and skepticism, even while they do what they can to advance the common good. The Christian’s hope is fixed not so much on this world, which will soon pass away, but on the world to come–on Christ who has atoned for the sins of the world and who will reign as King over the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Is this right? Am I missing something? How does this accord with Two Kingdoms theology?
I do think Jones’s analysis explains a lot, from our current political polarization to the behavior of people that we know. But does it follow that such extreme polarization is inevitable, that there can be no common basis for consensus and social unity? Is it impossible, in these terms, to have a “center”? How did we as a nation function in years past? Were there different ideologies at work? If so, might we bring some of those back?