Progressive Fundamentalism

The Quest for Certainty in an Uncertain World

[D]o you submit to regulations “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians 2:20b-23

Some months ago, I received an email from a very concerned friend. His message was brief, showing only a screenshot from his Facebook feed and a string of question marks. Apparently, due to the mysterious logic of social media algorithms, he’d gotten a notification that I had “liked” a certain Facebook page. To him, this website was on a contemporary iteration of the List of Forbidden Books which no Christian in good conscience could afford to read.

Thinking to put an end to his fears over my supposed transgression, I assured him that this was nothing to worry about. First, I had committed this “cyber-crime” many years ago and had had nothing to do with these outcasts since. Second and more importantly, I had, over the years, “liked” a great many websites. Some of these were because I actually liked them, but for others I’d chosen them precisely because I didn’t like them.

In my roster of “liked” Facebook pages, there are far-left sites alongside far-right pages, careful and rational organizations sitting beside groups that are decidedly less so. Okay, I’ll admit that sometimes I’ve liked looney pages so I can laugh at the nutty folks on the other side of issues, but these don’t normally last long, as my patience is worn down even as my humor at their follies fades.

For the most part, however, I try to include a variety of viewpoints in my news sources. I may not read them beyond the headlines, but doing this at least keeps me more aware of the goings-on in the world than if I were only to see “approved” perspectives. It’s not a surefire method, but it’s my personal plan to step out of the echo chamber.

Alas, for my friend, this was not enough, and he doubled-down on his objections. This website was so out of bounds that even being passively aware of its perspective was too much to bear. They made arguments which cut against some of his prized positions, so there was no reason to consider or even hear them.

Lest you think that my friend is some sort of crazed Fundamentalist, determined to “know nuthin” but the accepted truths and afraid to hear any “lib” counterargument, the opposite is closer to the truth. The offending website is a rather obnoxious arch-conservative page and he is decidedly to the left of them on several issues.

Or, perhaps, he is a Fundamentalist after all, and perhaps he isn’t alone. Perhaps the best way to think about some of the acerbic language that passes for civil discourse in our uncivil age is that the podium of our cultural dialogue has been snatched by a mob of Fundamentalists. But, as they would incessantly remind you, theirs is not your father’s Fundamentalism.

This is the Fundamentalism of the progressive dawn, the restrictive reading lists of the enlightened elites. In their zeal to create a new world that is unlike the one which they left, or the one they define themselves against, they have become just as blinkered and intolerant in their thinking as the reactionary “Fundies” they like to deride. As my friend G. Shane Morris has noted on occasion, the antics of conservative Christian activists in the 1980s and 1990s, with their boycotts and anti-Harry Potter hysteria, have been reincarnated in these last days in the left-leaning blogosphere and insta-pundits.

Now, we may all wish that such things were only a reflection of my poor taste in friends. Or, maybe it’s just the denizens of Facebook-world that need a lesson in pots and kettles, as social media is notorious for shallow and spiteful rhetoric. Sadly, we all know all too well that it’s in more than this one locale that we find prudish progressives. They have escaped the confines of the World Wide Web and made their way onto the highways and byways of daily life, and even into the corridors of power.

Consider the way that conservative pundits are de facto banned from speaking on college campuses for fear of having students hear a prohibited opinion, or the hounding of Christian judicial nominees in Congressional hearings. Think of the recent cyber-shaming of Chris Pratt by actress Ellen Page for attending an “infamously anti-LGBT church.” Notice. He wasn’t rebuked for his ideas. He was chided for merely being in association with a tainted organization.

What about NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, twin brother to newly announced U. S. Senate candidate Mark, who had to apologize to the Twitterverse after favorably quoting Winston Churchill? You know, the guy who pretty much saved the world from the perils of Nazism. Think of the nonsensical pseudo-boycott of Chick fil A. It’s not because the staff of the chicken restaurant is actually discriminating against anyone in their business or hiring practices. No, it’s simply that some of the leadership has held beliefs about human sexuality that are now held to be heretical to our present orthodoxy.

No one claiming fealty to our culture’s reigning paradigm can pretend righteousness if they associate with such a “corrupted” organization. For good Fundamentalists, those wanting to be considered moral, by the world or themselves, can afford to be found to be a fellow traveler with any suspect ideas or people. It is not enough not to hold errant beliefs; we must also distance ourselves from those who hold them.

So, what is going on here? Why is there this resurgence of zealotry and intolerance flowing from the very people who self-define as anything but Fundamentalist? One possibility is that we are “incurably religious,” a point made by Samuel James in National Review just a few days ago and by yours truly this past September. While I certainly do agree with James and (obviously) myself about this, I want to move in a slightly different direction. Part of the issue has to do with certain characteristics of the progressive worldview, and another part comes from something innate to the human condition.

One of the key, albeit generally unstated, tenets of the progressive worldview is the idea of enlightenment, both in the sense of the Enlightenment in Western history and in the more Eastern emphasis. To be a progressive is to be one who is made aware of the realities of life. This may be through education, where you learn intellectually what you once did not know, or experience, where the emotions or inner persona are realigned in some way. The true nature of the world and humanity is there for all to see, provided, of course, that we have true hearts and informed minds.

Think for a moment about the way progressives self-identify and the language employed to convey their meaning. They are progressives, those for progress, meaning all others are . . . not. They are the “woke,” the “socially conscious,” the “socially aware.” They are in favor of “starting a dialogue” or “conversation” or “raising consciousness” or “awareness.” The emphasis is on a mental and emotional reorientation which enables the, dare I say, convert to become a morally responsible human being.

An implication of this is that those who do not follow the party line are not “woke.” They are not informed or aware of the truth of the world and the human condition. This makes evangelizing for this new gospel a vital duty for the progressive person. The lost need education, and, if they refuse, they need correction until they conform to be enlightened. The anger in progressive social discourse flows from the belief that only the ill-informed or those of ill-intent will resist the clear and obvious truth before them. If the truth is clear, then only the mentally or morally deficient will fail to grasp it.

If those on the conservative end of things are feeling comfortable about now, your turn will come, too. After all, they entire logic behind this piece is that the progressives are acting just like the fundamentalists they despise, the conservatives they despise. Fundamentalist behavior is not unique to only one end of the ideological spectrum. The tendency to hide away in social media echo chambers, to refuse even to read counterarguments, to express disdain for not only “them” over there but for any of “us” who might associate with “them,” to write off contrary information as “fake news,” – none of these is the sole property of a single faction.

How many conservatives have been quite content to go along with this same sort isolationist behavior, just in another context? Yes, I’ve met progressives refusing to eat at a restaurant because it was in the same building as a conservative organization, but I’ve seen much the same from conservatives. When BreakPoint cited a New York Times article that was critical of a Republican politician, a reader retorted that we shouldn’t have shared that since this was obviously a biased source. As much as conservatives “tut-tut” their progressive friends and family for qualms over Chick fil A, I’d bet that we’ve all known someone who won’t do business with someone because of our own moral uneasiness.

The problem is deeper than progressives and conservatives. While the cultural left these days seems to be specializing in it, and there’s something in progressivism that lends itself to judgmentalism, this same propensity can be seen in us all. We all react in this way at times because we all suffer from the same Fallen condition.

As human beings, we’re all desperate for certainty, a commodity we’ve had precious little access to in recent days. The confidence of ancient times in the authority of tradition did not hold up to the pressures of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Yet, the turmoil and tyranny of the 20th century had the same ill-effect on the confidence in science and the managerial state. In our own day, we’ve yet to reconstitute any semblance of certainty, yet our longing for it remains.

The conservatives among us lean on the old ways, the ways of tradition, the faith of our fathers, and the customs of culture. The progressives put great stock in the shifting mores of contemporary society and try to glean some living fruit from the dead soil of modernism and human autonomy, even as they reject many of its core beliefs. For each of these, any threat to our warring twins of authority is a threat to our philosophical equilibrium and must be contested accordingly.

What each of these holds in common is the false certainty that these human authorities can provide the absolute vantage point from which we may build our worldviews. What each also holds in common is the intrinsic fallibility of the human element. They are doomed to fail because we are fallen.

The Christian Worldview does not fall under the sway of either of these philosophical Sirens because it both provides for our needs and takes account of our failings. The certainty we crave is provided and the frailty with which we perceive it is accepted. As an artifact of divine revelation instead of human imagination, the message of the Bible will not let us down under pressure as we live it out in the world. However, as two of its key components are human finitude and falleness, there is the intrinsic recognition that we will constantly get it wrong.

Unlike many other worldviews, whether religious or secular, the power of Christianity is not found the ability of its adherents to understand all things. In fact, a fundamental element is accepting that we do not and will not understand all things. Instead, we are called to trust the One who does know all things, who has told us things what we had no way of knowing ourselves, and who will provide for us all that we need. The fundamental characteristic of living out the Christian Worldview is not in being “woke” or otherwise certain in our own strength and knowledge but in knowing that we are cared for by Him who holds us in His strength.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

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