What is a “Religious Progressive” Anyway?

Our Dear Overlords are at it again. “You there!” they growled from behind their omnipresent veil of cigar smoke. “Blogger!”

“Yes, O Majestic Keepers of the Paycheck?” we inquired, doing our best not to snivel overmuch.

“Give me nine hundred words on the definition of ‘progressive!'” O.D.O. barked, nearly upsetting their daily snort of Maker’s Mark and English breakfast tea while they lightly tossed a link from TPMDC at our head: Poll: Majority Of Americans Not Quite Sure What ‘Progressive’ Means. “Define it! Own it! Spare no expense! Send a telegram to the Soviets if you have to!”

We briefly considered reminding Our Dear Overlord that the Soviets had been superannuated back when he was still in grade school. But we like our knuckles un-rapped and our invoices signed, so we decided—not for the first time—that discretion really is the better part of valor. Besides, we weren’t entirely sure how one can chuck a link at someone’s head, so it was probably best to just let the whole thing drop.

As it happens, we hold a certain affectionate proprietary feeling for the term “progressive.” After all, we grew up in Madison, home base of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who ran for the White House on the Progressive party ticket, and whose journal survives to this day, headquartered down by the Essen Haus practically in the shadow of the Wisconsin state capitol.

For those of us lucky enough to grow up in the “Moscow of the Midwest,” progressive could mean generally any non-communist member of the Old Left (it is a distressing artifact of my upbringing that I can parse far better than the average bear distinctions between Socialists, Commies, Trotskyites, Wobblies, Hippies, Yippies and whatever the hell the Armstrong brothers were). But it also referred in specific to actual Progressives, the members of La Follette’s movement who managed to give William H. Taft such gas in the early part of the 20th century.

Progressive in that sense meant a kind of pro-government populism, not quite socialism, but the belief that “that the business of government was to serve the people.” The most lasting legacy of that commitment has been a higher education system at the forefront of economic development of the state, but there were other items on the agenda:

  • Primary elections
  • Worker’s compensation
  • State regulation of the railroads
  • Direct election of Senators
  • Progressive taxation
  • “A brat and a beer in every backyard”


Okay, we made that last part up. We beg Our Dear Overlords’ forgiveness. You get the idea: some “good government,” some items for the little guy, some political reform.

With a few updates, this is pretty close to how we at least understand the term “progressive.” Instead of worker’s compensation, substitute EFCA; for regulating the railroads, corporate regulation in general, particularly the largest companies; add a commitment to social justice and expanding personal liberties, and it looks pretty recognizable.

In fact, the list is more remarkable for what it does not mention: any kind of social or cultural issue. It’s more than that “God, guns, and gays” weren’t on the ballot back then. It’s that the original progressive movement took place before conservatives knew how to use cultural resentments to beat liberals over the head. (Racial resentments are another story: the progressive movement roughly overlapped a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan.)

Which brings us, Our Dear Overlords, to the salient question: what, exactly, is a “religious progressive?”

We are sorely tempted to give the smart-ass answer that it’s a progressive possessed of religious faith, but in light of our knuckle-invoice commitments, we allow that the question is usually posed this way: “Can you be a progressive and still be opposed to abortion, or to gay rights, or [insert hot-button social/cultural issue here]?”

The answer to that question, Dear Overlords, is a qualified “yes.” Yes, you can be an economic progressive and a social conservative. There are plenty of people like this. We even have a specialized term for such people: union members. What prevents one from being a religious progressive, our not-so-humble opinion, is allowing those hot-button issues to distract from or set back the rest of the agenda. You cannot be a progressive if you are constantly saying, “I’m in favor of progressive taxation, but only if we can pass a bipartisan package,” or “universities should take the lead in economic development, but only if they don’t promote abortion on their campuses or in their hospitals,” or “worker’s compensation is one thing, but we need to write in an exemption for faith-based groups so they don’t have to hire people from outside their religion.” Economic populism is for all people, good government is for all people, political reform is for all people, not just those who don’t scandalize our precious religious commitments.

And yes, Dear Overlords, if that means the economic agenda trumps the social agenda, then so be it. We are all for a big-tent sort of political movement, but we do have to wonder if a progressive movement that won’t fight for anyone is worthy of Bob La Follette’s legacy.

Now, speaking of progressive taxation, O Most Malevolent Ones, the IRS would like its share of our hide. If you wouldn’t mind putting your cigar down—just for a moment—and signing right here…