Liberal Progressivism’s Presumption

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Illustration: Landscape with the Expulsion of the Harpies by Paolo Flammingo, c. 1590 [National Gallery, London]

By Randall Smith, The Catholic Thing, July 5, 2017

In his famous 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard suggested that the “postmodern condition” is characterized by “incredulity towards meta-narratives.”  “Meta-narratives” or “grand narratives” are the big stories people tell themselves to help tidy up and make sense of the messy business of history. “Saving the world for democracy” was one such “grand narrative,” but so was the narrative about the rise and eventual domination of the proletariat in the socialist state.  Lyotard argued that all such grand narratives are simply not credible to most people anymore.

            If only that were true.

            There are many positive things that modern liberalism has brought the world, but one of its most illiberal and totalitarian impulses comes from its presumption that it is not one view among many, but represents a higher, more “universal” and thus “neutral” perspective.

            One example of this presumption of neutrality can be found in modern sociology’s attitude toward religion.  A preeminent sociologist once admitted that, as he examined his discipline, he found that most sociologists operated on the assumption that “no religion” was the normal baseline state of affairs.  Their job, then, was to explain what had happened (what “went wrong”) to explain why a certain religion had arisen (“infected”) a group of people, whether on an island in the South Pacific or in Latin America.

It never seems to have occurred to them that nearly every culture throughout history had embraced religion of one sort or another and that what needed to be explained was how and why a particular society (namely ours) ended up with no religion opposing all religion. They never considered the possibility that their condition was the one that needed explaining, not that of the South Sea Islanders. Theorist, know thyself.

            Given liberal progressivism’s presumption that it occupies a stance of unbiased rational neutrality, it views Christianity as having a “narrow” perspective – narrower than its own.  Christianity is considered a perspective among a host of others, all of them subject ultimately to liberalism’s universalist standards of judgment – standards usually bound up with or derived from liberalism’s devotion to elite progressivism (we know best what’s good for you), individual autonomy (standards of the community and centuries of tradition be damned), and sexual license (my sexual desires are who I am).

If Christianity can be fitted into or adapted to liberalism’s vision, it is “good.” If not, it is considered “close-minded.” Liberalism judges Christians based on how enthusiastically they support liberal progressivism’s policies and ideology. Papal pronouncements are “good,” for example if they support liberalism’s goals; if not, then they are demeaned or ignored.

            Unlike their liberal forebears, modern progressives often don’t deign to formulate arguments against positions they oppose. The reason has much to do with a powerful unexamined “narrative” that animates their lives and actions which causes them to say to themselves, “The more we free people from Christianity, the more liberated they, and society, will become.”

The result is suppression in the service of liberation. “This is for your own good and everyone else’s.  You’ll thank us in the long run, once you’ve freed yourselves from the chains of the Church, tradition, your parents, your community” – take your pick.

            Liberal modernity presumes its unbiased neutrality, despite centuries of anti-Christian violence and anti-Catholic prejudice. Liberal modernity devotedly refuses to admit the possibility that it is itself a “narrative” within a “tradition,” one perspective among many, not a universal view from on high; that it is a “faith” with its own set of presuppositions.

It has brought its share of progress, yes, but it has also been the source of its share of human misery: two World Wars; the Holocaust; the Cold War; Vietnam; environmental degradation; and dehumanization due to ideology, technology, and bureaucracy; crime, decaying cities, social unrest, propaganda.  None of this was caused by “religion.”

            Modern liberal progressives are welcome to their opinion that religion won’t help, but they should at least admit that anti-religious modernity must take its share of the blame for the suffering that currently afflicts society.  Only purposeful blindness to the last 150 years of history would allow someone to assume, as Voltaire and Rousseau did, that “as soon as we get rid of Christianity, all will be well.”  Christianity has been effectively “out of the way” for quite some time now, and things are far from well.

            It would be refreshing to see liberal modernity’s intellectual class confess the truth: about history; about themselves and their own presuppositions and narrow perspectives; and about how their own views have caused them to denigrate others – not just Christians, but any group deemed not quite “liberal” or “progressive” or “civilized” enough, whether in central Africa, on South Sea islands, or the Amazon rainforests.

The forces of liberal modernity did untold damage precisely because they were animated by a narrative that blinded them to their own presuppositions, prejudices, and intolerance.  They were convinced (and continue to be convinced), that because what they do is liberating and brings progress, those who oppose them are simply, unquestionably, obviously oppressive and backward.

            The postmodern condition is only characterized by “incredulity toward meta-narratives” if by that we mean, all meta-narratives except those of liberal progressivism.

            The world isn’t divided between those who have faith and those who don’t. The great divide is between those willing to confess honestly the presuppositions that animate their lives, allowing those presuppositions to be examined, questioned, and tested, and those who insist on living by the pretense that their perspective is simply the one history has led all “mature,” “intelligent,” “sensible” people to have.

And yet history suggests that to the extent liberal progressivism begins with this conviction, it ends in totalitarian oppression of views not in accord with its own.


© 2017 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@frinstitute.orgThe Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.