The Grand Narrative of Liberalism

by Sep 18, 2014Culture11 comments

Liberal Progressive Crusaders

Below is a one-paragraph summary of the grand narrative of liberal progressives, written by then-evangelical sociologist Christian Smith (in this book).

Despite Smith’s credentials and acumen, you don’t necessarily expect evangelical sociologists to be fair—even when they’re trying to be—when they distill the essence of the mission of their enemies. So what’s interesting to me is that this paragraph was quoted in its entirety and with evident approval by secular moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind is well worth reading). The liberal progressives are Haidt’s own tribe. Or at least they were; he says (and I believe him) that he has moderated somewhat.

Here’s the liberal progressive grand narrative, as described by Smith and approved by Haidt:

Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism.… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving. (p.82)

What has really struck me in the last few months since I read that (while doing some research for my own writing at BJU Press) is the last line: “This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

That nails it in my experience. Progressive liberals are not live-and-let-live, no-skin-off-my-nose, live-free-or-die libertarians. They are crusaders. And in a way, I say more power to them. In a way. I wish we could all live according to a life-defining moral mission. Just not theirs.

However, I’m not sure I want the conservative grand narrative Haidt cites either. I like the Christian one better.

sswIncidentally, the logo above—though in a more conservative form—is for sale. Are there any Christian schools out there still using the “Crusader” as their mascot, perhaps in a logo that was hand-drawn in 1982 and only exists in many-times-photocopied form? Call me.

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  1. Paul M.

    Goodness, Mark! Keep posting stuff like this and I’m going to start thinking you follow an otherworldly religion!

  2. Mark Ward

    I hope my blog makes clear that I’m against some of the same things (injustice, oppression, exploitation) and for some of the same things (freedom, equality, pleasure)—but only when defined by a Christian worldview. And I’m against and for those things, respectively, in this world as well as in the age to come.

    This particular post rose out of a discussion about major forms of liberalism that I’m now rewriting/editing. It does seem as though there are some people with progressive moral frameworks who nonetheless espouse a classic liberal position in their tolerance of dissenters. But the moral feeling I experience in most of the liberals I read and listen to (NPR) is a crusading one, not a libertarian one.

    • Paul M.

      Oh, I was joshing you, but I also meant “otherworldly” as a compliment, not a slight. I pick Machen over Kuyper (whose eschaton is entirely too much ‘already’ and not enough ‘not yet’ for my tastes).

  3. Mark Ward

    As if you don’t have anything better to do, I wouldn’t mind an elaboration on that point. I haven’t done enough original source reading—Machen and Kuyper—to justify claiming either. I’ve read their heirs, especially Kuyper’s. I’m enjoying the Bratt bio of Kuyper right now, though “enjoying” isn’t quite right for this phase of Kuyper’s life. He was something of an arrogant jerk to his fiancée.

    • Paul M.

      Well, both men have plenty of folks today still squabbling over who exactly best represents their patriarch (a la Machen’s “warrior children”). I’ll put it this way with Kuyper: if modern Netherlands represents what you get two generations removed from the most successful post-millenialist in church history, well, then maybe we should rethink our eschatalogical assumptions.

      I’ve admired Machen ever since reading DG Hart’s biography of him and doing a little research in his papers at Westminster. He embraced the otherwordly nature of the church without ignoring the thisworldly presence of believers. This made him the clearest, and most careful, anti-modernist theologian of his generation, in my opinion. He avoided the twin reductionist theological pitfalls of the time, that of a social gospel that reduced the kingdom to material amelioration and the fundamentalist obsession with cultural purity (as long as you preach regularly about the evils of drink, smoking, or chewing, well, exposition of the primary doctrines of the faith are optional). But Machen also engaged with art, literature, and politics, even testifing before Congress against the creation of a federal education department and before the Philadelphia City Council against an anti-jaywalking ordinance. I’ve got a weakness for Reformed theologians with libertarian leanings. (-:

  4. Mark Ward

    Just read Doug Wilson on this not too long ago: “There are two basic ways for evangelical Christians to care about the arts. One is the Kuyperian Reformed route, and the other is the way of bohemian pose-striking.”

    I won’t commit to agreeing with him there, because I think BJU has shown a substantial commitment to the arts without adopting Kuyperianism.

    However, I’d identify with everything you said about Machen—and yet I don’t see how, without the creation mandate blessing you/enabling you to engage with art, literature, and politics, one can justify them theologically. I need to read what Machen says. Are you saying he’s more of a 2K guy?

    I have also wondered about your argument re: Kuyper and the subsequent history of the Dutch.

  5. Paul M.

    Yeah, I’ve never seen Machen use 2K terminology, but I think it’s fair to say he was in that stream based on the distinction he drew between the proper role of the institution of the church and that of the individual believer. But his descendants in the OPC and PCA still fight over it, eg the clash between John Frame and Michael Horton, or Westmister California vs. Westminster East. Both sides want to claim the mantle of Machen–it’s not unlike how Lutherans battle over who represents the ‘true’ legacy of Luther, or Calvinists over Calvin–and because the conversation has evolved new terminology and Machen never wrote a full systematic theology, it’s open to debate. Here’s a (not very convincing) example of that intramural debate:

    As for myself, I’m attracted to James Davison Hunter’s concept of “faithful presence.” I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve already read “To Change the World,” but if not, I think you’d find it stimulating.

    Well, Wilson can turn a phrase, but he’s offering a false choice. It’s actually a pretty insulting one at that. I mean, fine, disagree with 2K people, but telling them that it’s either your way or “bohemian pose-striking” isn’t edifying. The most convincing debaters, in my book, are those who present the other side’s case so well that their opponent wishes he’d thought to say it that way; then, of course, you proceed to tear their case apart piece by piece.

    BJU does have a fine Fine Arts division, but I don’t think it stemmed from any kind of coherent position on how Christians ought to engage in culture. Instead, it’s a mix of BJ Sr.’s desire for middlebrow refinement (a theme that comes through quite strongly in the biography Uncle Jack is writing on him) and Jr.’s love of art and culture. It’s a tradition rooted in the quirks of the personalities of the Bob Joneses rather than any kind of systematic thinking about the Kingdom.

    So you end up with lots of peculiarities like the fact BJ Sr. didn’t typically engage in partisan politics, but he did campaign against Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign (from which we get the, probably apocryphal, “I’d rather elect a nigger than a Catholic” line). Or BJ Sr.’s public fight with J. Oliver Buswell, then President at Wheaton. Buswell, very much representing the wider fundamentalist opinion at the time, accused Jones of worldliness for putting on licentious operas and plays. Sr. responded with arguments about Christian liberty and the importance of cultural engagement for evangelism. Yet not less than a decade or two later, BJU shifted to a rather Buswellian view of cultural engagement in regards to culture. It was all quite haphazard because it was based on conditions rather than principle.

  6. Mark Ward

    I’m about 95% done with Hunter’s book, and I’m surprised how much I’ve enjoyed and agreed with the book given its apparent disagreement with one of my favorite books of the last few years, Crouch’s Culture Making (LeCrae name-dropped Crouch in his hit album, I hear—so you should like him too, Paul). But I’m getting right into the meat of what “faithful presence” is practically—I’ve heard criticisms that it doesn’t amount to much. But Hunter has upheld the abiding validity of the creation blessing/mandate. I don’t see him as very far away from Crouch.

    I have to agree with you about the post hoc justifications for the liberal arts at our alma mater. Systematic thinking came after tradition was already set in place. That’s not all bad, but it has borne some odd fruit at times. I think the time is ripe for BJU to discover the creation mandate rather than basing the liberal arts pretty much solely on the image of God. I’m eager to read your uncle’s book.

    Yeah, Wilson’s not going to persuade his opponents with that line. But I can’t help but read the guy if only for those turns of phrase…

  7. Paul M.

    Wilson can write, for sure, although like many brilliant autodidacts he falls prey to odd ideas since he lacks the “filter” provided by formal education (it’s a concept I got from Philip Jenkins in a conversation about Jack Chick). Thus his pro-slavery view of history and his role in the federal vision controversy.

    I agree with in re the creation mandate. But do you think it would fit at BJU? Isn’t “creation mandate” tied to the “covenant of creation,” meaning it’s a view in keeping with covenantal theology? How would a place like BJU with an uneasy (to put it mildly) relationship to Reformed theology adopt something that grows out of covenantal thinking?

  8. Mark Ward

    I think the creation mandate could come to be accepted at BJU because it plays to BJU’s biggest cultural strength: biblicism. It really is right there in the Bible. First page. Never abrogated anywhere else. It is an idea accepted commonly enough among non-covenantal theologians (I’m one—Eugene Merrill, to give just one other example, is another) that it shouldn’t be rejected because of guilt by association. And it’s super convenient, frankly. We already do a lot of cultural things that, in my mind, can’t be justified by our current standard theology. One example I often think of is choral music: I first fell in love with the really good stuff because I was exposed to it through Warren Cook’s chorale. We push for a pretty high level of excellence in that realm. I don’t know of any other Christian college in the fundamentalist orbit who does anything like it. Most other schools practice what I call shout-singing. But why should we bother to be excellent singers of John Tavener pieces when people are dying and going to hell today? I think the ultimate theological answer is Genesis 1:26–28.

  9. Paul M.

    Thou persuadest me! (-;

    Last Easter we went to a performance of the Messiah here in Centre County and, although exultant, it reminded me of the far better productions we used to hear at BJU.