I live in Vermont, and if there is one word that you could use to describe a vast majority of our political environment, it would be progressive. Spurred on by the incredible success of our Senator Bernie Sanders in his 2016 Presidential campaign, I have noticed that this adjective has become even more prominent in our local politics than it was before, or maybe I am just noticing it more than I ever did before.
Whichever is actually the case, I started thinking about this idea of progress and what truly makes one progressive. G.K. Chesterton had a very specific understanding of the idea of progress in Orthodoxy that I think most people would agree with on a fundamental level. “Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem.” Of course, many of us may disagree on what the New Jerusalem actually looks like, but when we think about the idea of progress in itself, there is the inherent idea that we are moving towards something desirable. When you read the platform of the progressive party in my state, it begins by saying, “The Vermont Progressive Party offers this platform to preserve and sustain democracy, guarantee inalienable rights, and promote the general welfare of the citizens of the State of Vermont.”
This statement implies a few things. First, we are not to this ideal place yet. After all, why would such a party exist if we had already arrived at the destination? They understand that there is still work to be done. However, the second thing we have to notice is that there is a target this political party is aiming towards. In this first sentence, they have three main areas that they want to focus on. There is a standard that would constitute what democracy actually is, and that is what they are trying to preserve and sustain for example. Finally, the third thing we have to notice is that the standard is indeed a good thing to achieve. The Vermont Progressive Party is obviously pushing for ideas that they believe are good. That is why they made them their target.
You can apply this concept to anything that claims to be progressive, and I think you are going to find these common threads that fit perfectly with Chesterton’s definition. We have a starting point that is not ideal, we have a destination we want to get to, and that destination is a good thing.
The contention naturally comes down to whose vision of the New Jerusalem is the one that is worth pursuing. Chesterton also pointed out something very important to remember about this idea of being progressive. “Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road— very likely the wrong road.” You can make progress down any road, but no one is saying that it is the right direction. I can make progress towards Florida by jumping on I-95 South, but if I am actually supposed to get to Montréal, that progress is in the wrong direction even if it does meet all of the criteria for progress. I am moving in a direction toward a target, and I believe it is good, but it might not be the right target if that isn’t where I am supposed to end up.
The problem in that situation is that I have changed the target. I wanted to go to Florida, so I moved on a road to go in that direction. However, it was not the right target. In the words of Chesterton, “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision.” We cannot change the vision to what we want, or we are going to miss out on what is actually good. We will see what is good in our own eyes, but it may not be what is objectively and ultimately good and true.
Therefore, one always has to ask the relevant questions about any movement that brands itself as progressive: you are making progress, but are you making progress in the right direction, and how do you know that you are? What standards are you measuring yourself against that demonstrates that you are making progress on the right road?
Chesterton preferred the term "reform" to the term "progress" because it provides a very important differentiation. “But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.” This feels a lot like the above definition for progress. We know that the situation we’re in is not ideal, and we have a target that we believe is good. However, we know what shape we want to put it into. We have an objective vision of what is good. Then, we can clearly measure whether or not any progress we are making is in the right direction. That is the process of reform. It is progress with an objective purpose.
That seems to be the critical flaw in a variety of progressive movements. Defining that objective purpose is very difficult. Even the statement above from my own state’s political party sounds objective in theory, but finding that underlying purpose as to why these things are fundamentally good or right is hard. Ideas fall in and out of fashion so quickly, that there is often times not any opportunity for these thoughts to take root. As Chesterton recognized, “As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.”
If the vision keeps changing, it is hard to move towards that objective reality. I think that many of the progressives I know would vigorously disagree with me here and claim their ideological purity for the past fifty years, but in my experience, very few political parties are ideologically where they were even just five years ago. After all, consider the impact that Senator Sanders had on the Democratic Party platform in 2016. According to Washington Post writer James Downie, “Overall, this would be the most progressive Democratic platform in history.” In an introduction to a series of essays on progressivism, the Center for American Progress speaks about the myriad of causes that have been embraced by progressives through history. “Progressivism was built on a vibrant grassroots foundation, from the Social Gospel and labor movements to women’s suffrage and civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar activism, and gay rights.”
I come back to the same question about the progressive movement in general. They continually are changing the direction, so how are they making progress toward any type of vision of their own New Jerusalem, whatever that may look like? Being a progressive prior to 2008 would have looked a lot different than what progressive looks like today. Going way back to 1920 and many of the Social Gospel activists, they would have never imagined what the progressive movement would look like nearly 100 years later. Because it is a human-defined measure of what progress really is, it is no surprise that we see it move further left, further right, up or down. I would be willing to bet that even though the article I referenced above from the Center for American Progress tries to bring together the unifying themes of the progressive movement over time, there would be significant differences. That’s natural, and I understand why that happens, but it is a clear illustration of Chesterton’s point. Without a point that is fixed, progress is extraordinarily hard to measure. Without that objective reality, how do we know that we are headed down the right road? Or what if everything changes polarity and being progressive meant moving one direction, but ten years later, being progressive meant walking back all of that initial progress?
But Couldn't Morality Evolve?
Chesterton realized that some would respond to this charge by saying that morality is simply evolutionary. We get better at being good as time marches forward. We are increasingly moral in 2018, and that is why we reject things that perhaps our ancestors were okay with hundreds of years ago. We become more enlightened, and the world becomes a better place. That is perhaps why progressives 100 years ago might be different than progressives today. The spirit is the same, but the target is different because we have a better understanding of morality today than we did back then.
Unfortunately, this fails to meet the first test of a permanent standard. “A splendid and insane Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts. How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab, when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little fast or the cabman’s a little slow?” If morality is evolutionary, then it is unreasonable for me to expect everyone to move at the same speed. Something that may have been right for me centuries ago is not right anymore, but that brings us back to the question of what type of progress are ultimately making? We are moving in a direction, but without some type of transcendent standard we are moving towards that goes beyond our man-made ideas, the pendulum of progress may undo all the work people have done for generations before for good or evil.
The Christian Reformer
Chesterton would suggest, and I would agree with him, that any ideology, political or otherwise, that fails to reckon with this necessity of an objective standard for morality is bound to fail. In that way, the Christian is both the ultimate progressive, but more than that, the Christian is the ultimate reformer. Yes, we intend to make progress. We intend to make the world a better place. Where there is evil, we seek to demolish that stronghold. We attempt to come alongside those who are in difficult situations like the orphan and the widow to provide assistance. We advocate for life from conception to the grave.
We do all of this because the standard has not changed. Yes, Christians have had many shortcomings over the past few millennia. There are blemishes and wounds that we have caused because we are individuals with free will who use that free will wrongly. I don’t deny that.
However, God’s standard has not changed, so we attempt to reform our world. We know the shape the world ought to be, and we do our best to help it conform to that shape. The Christian has not only the desire to see progress but the bearing to know which direction to move in. This is something that any secular organization, I would certainly not limit this to progressive political parties, is going to struggle with. They are not going to be able to provide the fixed, objective point that will help them determine when progress is actually progress toward their specific New Jerusalem and not just movement for the sake of movement in any direction the wind blows. Chesterton realized, “So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 159, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 162.
 Ibid., 164.
 Ibid., 163.