This past election cycle we heard a lot from so-called "progressive Christians," people who perceive themselves as more responsive to the needs of the poor, the afflicted, the uninsured than are other Christians. Is the appellation they have chosen for themselves an oxymoron, or is it possible to be both progressive and a Christian?
Those who found their political philosophy on using government to meet the needs of the less fortunate invoke a very natural and right response to human need: compassion. Compassion is what some moral philosophers call a form of "paraconscience." It is more than mere emotion. To be sure, it is a sub-rational motivation, in the sense that it does not entail reasoned consideration of the common good and individual duty. However, it motivates one to consider her duty to others and the common good and to respond accordingly. So, compassion works in conjunction with conscience to facilitate moral reasoning. We ought to feel compassion toward those in need (as a matter of inclination), and we ought to respond by treating those persons as we would want to be treated (as a function of moral reasoning).
One problem with progressivism is that it misuses compassion in order to obscure self-evident principles of practical reasonableness. It does so in two ways. (1) It misdirects compassion from its natural and right channel to an end it was never designed to serve. (2) It blows compassion out of proportion to other equally-important human motivations, and similarly elevates the corresponding virtue, charity, at the expense of other equally-important goods and principles.
First, compassion rightly and naturally serves the human good of grace, one important form of which is the virtue of charity. Charity is a right response to human need. Christianity has always affirmed this response in individuals. The Bible admonishes us to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to care for widows, to be our brothers' keeper. However, progressivism re-directs this right response toward statism. Whether I assist the poor or not, I ought to pay more taxes, and local institutions ought to cede authority to centralized institutions, so that the government will assist the poor. That is the progressive argument.
Many progressive Christians direct compassion to both its proper and its improper ends. Many take low-paying jobs with non-profits, donate time to charitable causes, even while simultaneously advocating for redistributivist and collectivist public policies. However, this is the place to mention that conservative Christians are at least equally as charitable. Studies have shown that conservative Christians are as likely to donate their time to charitable causes as liberal Christians, and that conservatives donate a lot more money than progressives do. These findings are consistent with the generalized belief that conservatives are, on balance, more likely to take jobs with wealth-creating enterprises, which make charity possible. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, the conservatives I know are at least as charitable as the liberals I know, they just talk about their charitable acts a lot less. (One progressive acquaintance of mine, who is actually paid to do charitable work, boasts to me about his good deeds at least once a month.)
The progressive defends the misdirection of compassion into statist and collectivist channels on the ground that the government is powerful enough to meet human needs and should be employed as one tool to do so. This defense is confused about the nature of charity. It presupposes that the end of charity is to accomplish some external purpose, such as the eradication of poverty or homelessness, or universal health insurance coverage. But charity is not an instrumental good. Grace (in all its forms, including charity) is a basic good. That means that it is something to be pursued for its own sake. Homelessness is not something to be eradicated. Instead, the homeless person presents us with an opportunity to share grace, to clothe, feed, and shelter a real, live, human person. And that person's good is something far more profound and vast than merely having something to eat and a place to sleep.
For this reason, a gracious act that accomplishes no practical purpose is still good. We rightly laud the heroes of the New York police and fire departments who sacrificed their lives trying to rescue those in the Twin Towers, even though they were unable to save everyone, and even lost their own lives in the effort. Conversely, a bad act that causes a good result is still a bad act. We would (and should) recoil in horror from curing cancer by performing lethal experiments on live human babies, even if the experiments were almost certain to be successful.
This observation is related to the second way that progressivism obscures practical reasonableness. Progressives focus on charity to near-total exclusion of other equally-important goods and principles. Progressives are, in fact, obsessed with human conditions. They think that human conditions -- wealth or poverty, sickness or health, suffering or pleasure -- are the really important things in life. But both practical reasonableness in general and the Christian tradition in particular reject this notion. Christianity teaches that the common good is far more expansive and multi-faceted than absence from want and realization of preferences (or even basic needs). What does it profit a man if he gains a sandwich and a cup of coffee but loses his soul?
So progressives are wrong to focus on human conditions and to use compassion as a trump card over equally important and countervailing moral considerations. In the progressive equation, compassion for the unwed, pregnant teen trumps the moral mandate to provide the most vigorous legal protection for the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn. Compassion for those suffering from Parkinson's Disease trumps the intrinsic value of unborn human life. Compassion for the homosexual trumps society's important interest in promoting and regulating procreative relationships. In each of these cases, progressives take a right response, compassion, and fashion it into a weapon with which to destroy the common good.
In the final analysis, the progressive project is to immanentize the Eschaton. They intend to eradicate poverty, homelessness, needless suffering, and puppy-killing. As we have observed before, this project is completely inconsistent with Christianity. "Progressive Christianity" is an oxymoron, and its attractions make it all the more deceptive.