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What is a Progressive Anyway?

What is a Progressive Anyway? February 18, 2013

This post is by Bo Sanders a self-confessed progressive who will sketch how he distinguishes progressive from liberal.

Questions: Who are the progressives? Who are the liberals? Do liberals see themselves as progressives?

Roger Olson caused some ripples last week when he posted “Why I am not a Liberal Christian”.  Then Scot McKnight went and took it even farther with “What is a Liberal Anyway”  and said: “Evangelicals have successfully made “liberal” a pejorative term. So today many liberals call themselves “progressives.”

My contention is that saying progressives are really just liberals who don’t like the ‘L’ word is like saying that athletes and baseball players are really just the same thing. While baseball players are athletes, not all athletes play baseball. It’s an inexact statement. They aren’t exactly the same thing.

There is as big a difference between liberal and progressive as there is between evangelical and emergent. There may be some overlap, but to equate the two is unhelpful.

Here is the most basic definition I can provide – it comes from John Cobb, the greatest living American theologian:

  • Liberal simply means that one’s experience is a valid location for doing theology.
  • Progressives are liberal folks who have learned from Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques. *

We all read Roger Olson’s 6 point definition last week, but when it comes to liberals there is something more categorical that would be helpful for our current distinction. Liberal is simply a constellation of positions and answers to question that were established in the Enlightenment.

Liberal is a settled matter. It has accepted the basic inherited framework to be the as-is structure and conceded the basic ground-rules as given.

Progressive on the other hand is to question, to wrestle, and to push. Progressives don’t  necessarily think that all progress is good and certainly don’t think that history is inevitable.

Liberals are predictable -because the matter is settled. If one takes the basic considerations handed down from enlightenment concerns, liberals are just the other side of the coin from conservatives. Take any issue – miracles, Biblical authorship, other religions, etc. – you know exactly what you are going to get from both conservatives and liberals.

They have been doing this dance with each other for a long time. One takes the high road and the other takes the low. One makes a move right. The other secures the left. This is why they are both easy to pigeon hole and caricature.

Maybe an example would be helpful. Let’s take economics.

Capitalism is the default economic theory of the Western (liberal) society. While conservative and liberal Christians would believe different things within a capitalistic framework (tax brackets, incentives, government programs, and social involvement) what is not in question is capitalism itself. The system is both beneficial and unquestioned to both teams. Like Yankees and RedSox fans stress how much the dislike each other and the opposing team’s tactics, what is never in question is the goodness of baseball in the first place. That is assumed.

Progressives call the system into question and call out a different set of concerns. Issues of globalization, free trade, deregulation and disparity come in.

Liberals want a slightly nicer, kinder, more equitable, more accessible version of capitalism than conservatives do. Progressives question the whole enterprise and may go so far as to say that the ethical teachings of Jesus about how were are to treat other humans are incompatible with the workings of the capitalist machine.

We could do this with any number of issues. My only point is that progressives are not liberals shying away from the ‘L’ word because it has been made a pejorative.

So even if you just want to say that progressives are aggressive liberals, that would be more accurate.

Liberals concede the rules of game, they just want to pick the better of the provided options. Progressives question the as-is possibilities of the given structures. This causes progressive to engage in critical examination and to re-evaluate both the road ahead and the road that delivered us here.

*  He said this during a Homebrewed Christianity interview for episode 101.


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