Christian Right, Progressive Left: Birds of a feather? 2

This post is a bit dated, and seems to have been written in the 1990s, but the comparison is certainly relevant in the present era.

Progressives and the Christian right are not normally thought to resemble each other. Certainly they don’t like each other. But since I’ve observed both at close quarters, have enjoyed both C.S. Lewis and Noam Chomsky, read Frank Peretti and Molly Ivins, meditated on Francis Schaeffer and Alison Bechdel, what strike me are the similarities.

I list some of the resemblances below. (You can find the differences yourself.) Perhaps each camp will recognize itself a little in the other. What they do with this alarming recognition is up to them.

  • Political correctness/ orthodoxy. Both are highly concerned with correct thinking. Of course only the leftists ever feel bad about this: “politically correct” evolved as a leftist joke. There’s always someone more to the left than you. But then, there’s always someone more fundamentalist than you.
  • Historicism. Both camps view of history as a drama where destiny is on their side. You can even see the same defense mechanisms at work: both good news and bad news are part of the plan– good news of course obviously confirms our impending victory; bad news confirms the dire predictions that are equally part of the ideological inheritance. And the derived tendency on both sides is to sit back and leave the struggle to others: if history is on your side, why exert yourself?
  • Schismaticism. Both camps have a tendency to divide into tiny factions, wasting their energy in fights over absurd points of doctrine. Both tend to admire the ideologically strict and to despise toleration and compromise.
  • As a corollary of this, both sides hate Clinton. (See also Puritanism.)
  • Both are given to conspiracy theories— a conviction that the Other Side is a monolithic unity dedicated to trampling goodness and decency. The idea that the Other Side is itself a fractious mass which defeats most of its own purposes, or that the course of the world is determined more by apathy and stupidity than by active evil, is completely alien to their mentality.
  • Both are convinced of pervasive media bias against them. Rightists babble about the “liberal media”; Christians complain about ‘secular humanism’; progressives are just as sure that the media are the mouthpiece of conservative moneyed interests. Neither side has any clue why its own shrill and narrow-minded magazines are not more popular.
  • Both have violent, separatist fringes (which the other side assumes are typical of the species). At the same time, paradoxically, if you want a pacifist, the two best places to look are in nooks and crannies of Christianity or the left.

  • Both criticize worldly (patriarchal) values. “Materialism” is a bad word for both sides. Both, in principle, reject consumerism and disdain worldly success (though both have a few heroes in their own fold who’ve attained success without losing their values). Buchanan criticizes Wall Street almost as much as the progressives do.(In its origins, Christianity is as distrustful of the rich as Marxism, and Christians have often been in the forefront of the struggle for social justice. But in this country, at least, the radicalism of the Gospel has been undercut by “prosperity theology”– the idea that far from entering Heaven less easily than camels thread needles, the rich man is specially favored by God.)
  • On both sides, there’s a substantial minority which truly attempts to live simply and live in community. Lesbian separatists form communes and food co-ops; so do Evangelicals. Sometimes they even end up in the same, non-worldly service fields: education, social work, counseling, even serving among the poor in the Third World.
  • They share some organizing tactics, notably small groups: Bible studies, housegroups, consciousness raising groups, steering committees. (Evangelicals often admire Communist cell-organizing.)
  • Both have a voluminous, self-referential, and impenetrable cultural production. Both have the ability to make readers out of people who would not ordinarily read.
  • Both are convinced that they speak for decent people in the country (the “moral majority” in one case, “The People” in the other).
  • Neither, however, has a wholly adequate commitment to democracy. Both have supported foreign dictatorships in the past if the dictator mouthed the right platitudes from their side. Both want to spread their message to the masses, but have no great interest in what the masses themselves want to do or to say. Both are willing to resort to censorship, and have tried to silence voices in the academy which dismay them.At root, I fear, both sides discount this business of democracy –mere democracy will never lead to salvation; you can only trust God/The Revolution; and the role of The People is to be instructed, not to speak.
  • Neither group has much patience for traditional politics — though both can put in the footwork for a cause they believe in. When grand success does not come, however, they tend to lose interest and dissipate their energy on radicalisms most people will never share: vegetarianism; creationism; concerns with lookism and animal rights; crusades against movies or singing in church. When it comes right down to it they prefer personal integrity to political effectiveness.
  • Both sides are more comfortable with communities than with individuals, and don’t make things comfortable for the independent thinker. And for both this value has declined over the years. Fundamentalists used to more or less ignore the world and– laudably– concentrated on their own sins, on “getting right with God”. Now they’ve stopped worrying about the logs in their own eyes, and spend their time deploring the supposed sins of outsiders.And leftists used to go out and organize The People, and work on issues most people could understand and support: unions, civil rights, social benefits, public works, day care. Now they’ve retreated into their Fill-in-the-Blank Studies Departments, and mistake the production of academic prose and review articles for social action.
  • Both tend toward puritanism. This may not seem to fit leftists; but consider the alliance between fundamentalists and ’70s feminists against pornography. There is definitely a segment of the left that is just as embarrassed about human sexuality as any believer is, and just as apt to consider women to be frail creatures defenseless against rapacious masculinity.
  • Both are concerned with spirituality. This was not true of the old-style Left, of course; but it’s been a strong and growing current in the left since the ’60s– what with chakras and crystals and Wicca and shamans, no one has any time to pursue one-world socialism any more.
  • Both are very concerned that other people will misbehave– the Christians, that they will fall short morally; progressives, that they will oppress each other. Both are right, of course. In both cases this concern translates into a zeal for ordering the lives of other people– not just their morality but their attitudes and demeanor– a zeal which the Other Side finds alarming and incomprehensible.

2 comments

  1. Interesting comparison, bu the similarities are essentially structural. As far as doctrine they are polar opposites the USSR and the RCC were polar opposites when it came to dogma. This all depends on how important you think structural similarities are. Such similarities are no surprise given that the left is a christian heresy. It replaces the redemption of Christ and his chiliastic reign with the the redemption of man by man with its material millennium. Rothbard has some interesting commentary of Marxism that supports this view. I’d like to see what would be left if all the Christian presuppositions of modern man were taken away.

  2. “Such similarities are no surprise given that the left is a christian heresy. It replaces the redemption of Christ and his chiliastic reign with the the redemption of man by man with its material millennium. Rothbard has some interesting commentary of Marxism that supports this view.”

    Yep.

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