Progressivism and Its Consequences

By Don Rollins

My denomination has been (most often despairingly) referred to as the Green Party at prayer. And with good reason. For all our ongoing efforts to be more welcoming of political conservatives, we can’t seem to get around a simple fact: Deep progressivism is not just a label of political convenience; it’s a way of life.

Exhibit A, our big annual June clam bake held this time in Charlotte. Tie-dye doggy do-rags, Peruvian wrist bracelets, hemp backpacks, bead curtains and the seemingly ever-present whiff of patchouli. Eight to eighty, flower power ruled. (Two days in, I swear I passed Eldridge Cleaver standing in line for a goat cheese soy burger on wheat.)

It might have been 2011 out on College Street, but the cyber world notwithstanding, inside that cavernous convention center it was all 1968 peace, love and damn the Man.

Right up until the big throw down known as the Statement of Conscience (SOC), our once-a-year public witness fer’ or agin’ something important. In previous years, we’ve taken on immigration, climate change, equal marriage and drug policy. This time around we set our sights on no less formidable a target: Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice. And that’s where we almost forgot who we are.

It all started out more or less the way we typically roll. Come the SOC plenary discussion, the verbiage flew. (No surprise there. Sweet Jesus in the manger, how we love pretty words.) But with the aid of our able moderator, we finally caught on that the friction was over semantic, not substantive stuff. Done deal. Moral high ground taken.

Almost. Because somewhere toward the end of all the rules of procedure and concomitant rhetoric, a woman came to the “con” mic to tell us that her reality was nowhere in the Statement. Did the people who crafted it consider what it’s like to live on minimum wages and food assistance? Probably not. Because if they did, they would know that when things get tight, that’ll buy more canned beans than organic Swiss chard. A lot more. As in make-it-to-the-end-of-the-month more.

There was a collective pause before the “pro” mic folks got back to business. Which they did. The vote was a landslide in favor to adopt. We moved on, but the mood was not all that joyous.

Now, the moral of the story is not that the body politic should’ve reversed course: conventional food production is toxic and not sustainable; and we no longer lack for proven, incremental alternatives to move almost anyone toward more just consumption.

The point is that even the best, most progressive solutions end up zero-sum for somebody, somewhere. It’s an action/consequence world whether we own up or not.

We were making the most morally mature choice possible that hot June day, but until a brave and prophetic sister called us out, we were all set to bask in the unadulterated sanctimony of the ethically unassailable.

All I’m saying is that progressivism, most especially in its religious, populist and socialist forms, has always had to come to terms with its bang-for-the-buck, greatest good ethos. That organizing principle is part of our hardwiring and we can be glad for that.

But at its essence, what has made the progressive way of life morally superior to its conservative counterpart – namely, the willingness to acknowledge and look after those left behind – requires vigilance in the form of regular gut checks, strong leadership and appreciation of its own traditions. It requires intentionality and the willingness to be disturbed.

My fellow religionists and I almost forgot that progressivism has its own fair share of unintended consequences. Thankfully, we got schooled. Consider a cautionary tale and thank us later.

Rev. Don Rollins is Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

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