April 28, 2005

A Progressivism of Doubt

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:52 pm

Andrew Sullivan, this progressive’s favorite conservative, has a lengthy article in The New Republic on the growing divide within conservative politics that is definitely worth a full read. He defines two conservative philosophies, the conservatism of faith:

This conservatism states conservative principles–and, indeed, eternal insights into the human condition–as a matter of truth. Because these conservatives believe that the individual is inseparable from her political community and civilization, there can be no government neutrality in promoting such truths. Either a government’s laws affirm virtue or they affirm vice. And the meaning of virtue and vice can be understood either by reflecting on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition or by inferring from philosophical understandings what human nature in its finest form should be. These truths are not culturally relative; they are universally valid.

…and the conservatism of doubt:

The alternative philosophical tradition begins in precise opposition to the new conservatives’ confidence in faith and reason as direct, accessible routes to universal truth. The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true…Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions–and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.

His dichotomy makes a lot of sense, and got me wondering about the world of progressives. Is there a similar spectrum of a progressivism of faith at one end and a progressivism of doubt at the other?

The progressives of faith, it seems to me, are the idealists who put their faith not in a Higher Power, but in the moral purity of the worker, or the poor, or women, gays, the third world, or atheism. If those in power (the government, foreign governments, men, big business, religions) would just stop their oppression and persecution, the weak but pure masses would be able to create their heaven on earth.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I identify much more with a progressivism of doubt. The weak are every bit as sinful as the powerful, but they do not have the ability to inflict the consequences of their sins on as wide a circle of the world. The rich are every bit as noble as the poor, but are faced with much grander temptations than the poor can ever dream of. The rich and powerful can use their resources for the good of humanity (Bill Gates, Bono) or for their own gratification at the expense of others (Dennis Kozlowski).

Christianity is founded on this doubt. Will humanity overcome our brokenness and achieve peace and prosperity for all? Or, inspite of being made in God’s image, will we drown our brokenness with greed, war and hate? The answer is always in doubt for each of us individually as well as corporately, which is why we desperately need God’s grace. Without this doubt, this understanding of our brokenness and the doubt of our very survival, we wouldn’t need God.

Progressives of doubt and conservatives of doubt share a distrust of moral certainty. Sullivan states:

Fundamentalism, by its very nature, eschews compromise. It is not an inferential philosophy, drawing on experience or history to come to a conclusion about the appropriate way to act or legislate on any given issue. It derives its purpose from fixed texts: the Bible or the Koran.

Its purpose is not just derived from fixed texts, but from fixed and certain interpretations of the texts. But if your understanding of the Bible is complete, and the Bible provides certain and complete moral guidance and assurance, there is no need to turn to God in prayer. We pray to God because of what we don’t understand, because of our inability to see clearly God’s meaning for us in the Bible.

Abortion is wrong, except in those cases when it is right. Extracting stem cells from embryos is destroying life so that we may save life from disease. Euthanasia is murder, except that it may be the most compassionate act we are able to take for a terminal and suffering cancer victim. There is so much moral ambiguity that we despair of ever being certain and have no choice but to ask God for his guidance, and his forgiveness.

So why am I a progressive of doubt instead of a conservative of doubt, like Andrew Sullivan? Because I believe we must at least try to ease suffering, hunger and poverty. Sullivan defends his conservatism by saying we must do no harm. This is true, but our calling doesn’t end there. We must also try to do good, for God’s sake.


  1. Very good post, Bob. In some ways not too different from where I ended up in my recent post on political philosophy:

    I do have to take issue with Sullivan on one point: is there any bigger leap of political “faith” right now than the drive to democratize the Middle East via U.S. military power? And Sullivan was among the forefront of those denouncing as “pro-Saddam” and “anti-American” anyone who questioned the wisdom of this little venture. It seems that he wants his skepticism applied rather selectively.

    Comment by Lee — April 29, 2005 @ 5:24 am

  2. Lee – very good point, I think you’re right. It used to be that conservatives were against idealistic military interventions and liberals were for them, but now it’s reversed. And it just shows that none of us are entirely consistent in our politics, not even Sullivan.

    Comment by Bob — April 29, 2005 @ 6:35 am

  3. I’m the most politically ignorant person on the planet, insofar as I have no idea what makes a Democrat just so, or a Liberal, or and Independent, etc.- Perhaps the most ignorant thing of all, is that I have no genuine desire to know what these groups are. . I am, however, a Born Again Christian, and while I struggle at times with what God says and the myriad choices we face on a day to day basis, I don’t see any room for the contrivances of politics inside the kingdom. I see the governing agencies of this present world fashioned after the only true and real power in the entirety of creation, but like everything else human, they’re flawed. The only correct recourse, then, is to take the Bible at it’s word, as God’s word, and follow it to the T. Put it this way: If a proposal, of any magnitude, opposes Love, then trash it. That’s if you desire to follow God’s word. If not, well, carry on. We’ll be praying for you.

    Comment by M — April 29, 2005 @ 1:05 pm

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