The (Religious) Problem with Conservatism and Progressivism

January 22, 2016

Politics in the United States has, for some time, assumed a binary structure. On one side stand the Republicans, who represent conservatism. On the other side stand the Democrats, who represent progressivism. But what most Americans fail to see is that conservatism and progressivism are similar in one significant respect. Both ideologies are “moving targets” that lack transcendent norms, which leads to a nearly endless variety of social ills. It may, at times, be appropriate to be conservative, and at others progressive. But when these designations become normative, they become idolatrous.

Political Conservatism and Progressivism as Ideologies


Conservatism is an ideology that views a civilization’s, or a nation’s, cultural history as normative. For those of us in the United States, we see this manifested most often in the Republican Party. Conservatism identifies social reform agendas as evil, because it fears that macro-level social changes will have unintended negative consequences. Political conservatives seek utopia by reaching back into the past to recover a supposedly golden age.

Conservatives are open to social reform, of course, because the only way to bring backthat elusive golden age is to reform the present one. But they want reform to be careful and deliberate. As political scientist David Koyzis writes,

If reforms are to be attempted, then they must be small in scale, incremental in pace and firmly grounded in past experience. The conservative prefers to see people attempt to alleviate poverty in their own neighborhoods than to try to eliminate it throughout the entire nation. Because of its local nature, the former is a much more realistic and manageable effort than the latter and is thus more likely to meet with success.[1]

As Christians, we acknowledge that every change brings with it unintended (and often negative) consequences. The bigger the change, the bigger the consequences. However, we also note that negative consequences are not the sole propriety of “change,” as if a changeless society would be a sinless one. Negative consequences arise not because society is changing, but because we live in a fallen world. Conservatives are too immersed in their own context to see that their own traditions, their own recollections of some “golden age” of the past, are in reality a mix of good and evil. All human efforts to order society and make culture have been inevitably tainted by sin and its consequences.


Progressivism is the opposite of conservatism, in that it looks to the future instead of the past. In the American context, progressivism as an ideology often aligns with political liberalism. The two, however, are not identical. In its broadest sense, liberalism refers to ideological emphasis on liberty and personal freedom. As we discussed earlier, nearly every American—Democrat as well as Republican—is a political liberal in this sense. And liberalism, as we have shown, can easily take on idolatrous dimensions when it elevates individual freedom and autonomy to ultimate status. This idolatry crosses party lines: it pairs just as well with conservatism as with progressivism.

Progressivism, as distinct from liberalism, is an ideology that elevates “social reform” to the status of deity. While conservatism looks back over its shoulder to a golden age of the past, progressivism tries to peer over the next hill to a golden age of the future. And it is often, though not exclusively, driven by government initiatives. In our context, progressivism is the rallying cry of the Democratic Party.

Progressivism tends to define itself in contrast to conservatism. Thus social conservatism acts as the primary evil from which society needs to be rescued. To put it simply: progressives are suspicious of the past and optimistic about the future. Positively, progressives rightly recognize certain evils in a given social order. There are always sins of our past that we should avoid repeating, and sins of our present that we must eradicate. But progressives too easily conflate those societal ills with the social order itself. They, like the conservatives, throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

Conservatives are wrong to react reflexively and negatively against change. Progressives are wrong to react reflexively and negatively against traditional values. Neither conservation nor progress is the core problem. The core problem is idolatry and its twisting and distorting effect on politics. Every nation in history has proven a lush environment for idols, and every modern political ideology suffers the ill effects of idolatry.

The Problems with Idolatrous Conservatism


A significant problem with both conservatism and progressivism is that, unlike socialism (on the left) or libertarianism (on the right), these more time-bound ideologies are always “on the move.” They are not abstract ideologies but contextual responses.

This may embarrass many conservatives, who consider conservative principles immovable and universal. They are not. What counts as “conservatism” in one country will have very little to do with “conservatism” in another country. While conservatives in the United States might be trying to conserve the economic and political policies of Ronald Reagan, conservatives in another country might be trying to revitalize the Stalinism of an earlier era, conserving, as it were, authoritarian socialist communism. What a society aims to conserve will vary wildly depending on the nation and its history. Pure conservatism, as David Koyzis notes, is an ideological parasite that feeds off of other ideologies.[2] It has no identifiable doctrinal position of its own.

Even within a single nation, conservatives have a hard time making strategic alliance with one another. What exactly are we aiming to conserve? Wealth? Race? Morality? Americans are seeing this right now in our country. Some conservatives are more primarily motivated by a free market agenda, others by maintaining “white America,” and yet others by Judeo-Christian moral issues. These competing groups make good tactical allies because they all oppose progressivism, and also because they often have a common desire to conserve their own power and privilege. But they should not be assumed to be ideologically identical.

Lack of Transcendence

Conservatives, despite their high opinion of the past, cannot merely accept all of it uncritically. So when conservatives do criticize their own tradition, as they must, they are forced to rummage around for some norms that transcend history (e.g. opposing slavery). Pure conservatives, therefore, often find themselves in tactical alliance with Christians, even if they cannot stomach a long-term strategic alliance with them. Conservatism pairs well with Christianity when—and only when—conservatives are using Christians as a means to an end.[3]

But being a “means” to someone else’s “end” is tricky business. Evangelicals in the United States, for instance, might be surprised to learn that many of the powerful conservatives in the United States view evangelicals as useful idiots. Evangelicals may fancy that political conservatives stand with them ideologically and strategically, when in fact many conservatives would reject many of the deeply-held convictions of evangelicals. The alliance is more temporary and tactical, perhaps, than it is long-term or strategic. In upcoming years, as evangelical Christianity looks more and more strange to American society, evangelicals may no longer be viewed as useful idiots. We may be seen merely as idiots.

The Problems with Idolatrous Progressivism


Progressivism, like conservatism, lacks consistency. It is always “on the move,” lacking a doctrinal creed that other ideologies—such as socialism and libertarianism—have. What counts as progressive in one nation may have nothing to do with progressivism in another nation. For instance, progressives in the United States are currently pushing for the expansion of federal regulation into nearly every sector of society. But progressives in China are doing the opposite, pushing for smaller government. There is simply not enough direction in progressivism as such to command ultimate allegiance.

Lack of Transcendence

Like conservatism, progressivism lacks transcendence. When progressives criticize a traditional social order, they have to root around in their rucksack to find some principle or preference they can elevate to the level of a transcendent standard. But whereas conservatives have the entirety of history from which to borrow their ideas, progressives are at a disadvantage. Their god is the future, but the future is quite a bit more hazy. Thus they are forced to borrow their standards from another ideology, sometimes almost arbitrarily, to suit their particular agenda.

In the United States, progressives tend to pair with liberalism in pushing for social reform that maximizes individual autonomy. In order for individuals to have maximum autonomy, especially sexual autonomy, progressives seek to redefine what it means to be human, what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means to be moral.

In relation to humanity, many progressives want to redefine what it means to be a human person. Human beings, they argue, are not created in the image and likeness of God (to be created in God’s image would make us accountable to God, after all). Human beings are, instead, advanced animals who only differ from animals in their consciousness and functionality.

In relation to gender, many progressives want to redefine the human person along the lines of ancient Gnosticism (though they hardly ever make this connection overtly). They want to separate a person’s identity from his or her body. The true “self,” in this understanding, is independent of the corporeal, so much so that a person can mutilate his body in order to bring it into conformity with his true identity. We are not men or women by birth, but by choice. Technology allows us to gain more and more mastery over our bodies, but that mastery becomes increasingly arbitrary.

In relation to morality, many progressives want us to suspend judgment about good and evil As J. Budziszewski notes, progressivism promotes a type of tolerance that requires us to avoid having strong convictions—except, ironically, for the convictions they deem good.[4] When and where progressivism overturns traditional morality, it attempts to absolve itself from responsibility for decisions: “I am not pro-abortion; I am pro-choice.” In order to overturn morality, progressives are willing to usurp the rightful place of family and religion in moral instruction and formation.

This progressive overturning of the moral order has caused numerous problems in American society. By overturning traditional teaching about human dignity, we have turned the safest place in our society—the womb—into the most dangerous. As public data indicates, we have killed nearly 60 million babies in the last half-century. By attempting to overturn nature, we have turned gender—an aspect of God’s creational design and one of society’s bedrock realities—into an artificial construct devoid of stability or meaning. As R. R. Reno recently argued, this dismantling of traditional norms and rules is surely one of the reasons for society’s disorientation in general, and destructive behaviors in specific. It is no surprise that in a society as disoriented as ours, suicide and drug-related deaths are on the rise. We no longer have certainty about the most basic (and previously obvious) facts of life.[5]


Christians throughout history have been alternately conservative and progressive. For us, we must decide what in our culture is worth conserving and what needs to be rejected so that we can progress beyond it. These sort of decisions must be made based upon Christian worldview convictions. In other words, standing alone, conservatism and progressivism are both insufficient and even idolatrous. They are both indebted far more to culture than to anything transcendent.

Conservatism treats history, rather than God, as the source of social and moral norms. It seeks to conserve the past, but does not have within its own resources the transcendent norms necessary to critique the past even as it is conserving the past. It locates evil (falsely) in progressivism rather than locating it in the human heart and identifying it wherever it is found, whether in conservative or progressive norms.

Progressivism also treats history, rather than God, as the source of social and moral norms. But instead of the history we know, it creates, ex nihilo, a history that has not yet come to be. The dangers of such an approach are manifold: future history cannot be verified, but none of us wants to be “on the wrong side of history” (whatever that means). Further, progressivism locates evil in social tradition, failing to understand that the origin of evil is now, has been, and always will be the human heart. We rebel not because of our past, but because of sin.

To pursue politics in a robustly Christian manner, we must not embrace American versions of conservatism and progressivism en toto. Instead, we want to “pair” our preferred political ideology with the transcendent truths of Christianity, allowing those truths to reform our ideology.

[Editor’s note: this is the fifth installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]

[1] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 77.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 109-11.

[4] Ibid., 99-101.

[5] R. R. Reno, “Deadly Progressivism,” First Things (November 4, 2015). http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/11/deadly-progressivism. Accessed on November 6, 2015. For a brief summary of the Princeton research see Gina Kolata, “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds,” in The New York Times(November 2, 2015). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html?_r=0.

Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.

Bruce Ashford

Dr. Ashford has been teaching at Southeastern since 2002 and became the provost in 2013.  His goal in teaching is to encourage his students to bear witness to the truth, goodness and beauty of the gospel and to work out its implications in all facets of their lives and in … Read More