Democracy, The Individual, and Moral Revolutions (Part 3)

Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Conservative Progressives and Progressive Conservatives

Cultural change, as James Hunter has appropriately reminded us in his provocative work, To Change the World, is often far too complex for us ever to suppose that it was “engineered” by a special interest group. Institutions and ideas intersect at so many diverse levels as to be virtually impossible to change in any large scale way by a single network of individuals. However, Hunter does remind us that dense networks of elite culture shapers do have far more impact than more broad based populist movements. Cultural change more often takes place from the top down rather than the bottom up.

I’m inclined to think Hunter is right on this, though recognizing which of the elite dense networks of individuals will actually effect significant change is very unpredictable. Recognizing the instruments of change in hindsight is not a predictor of the instruments of change going forward. So it is with the moral issue of gay marriage. No single individual or group is responsible for the revolutionary change in our moral intuitions about homosexuality. But if we look backwards and look back in particular to the 1960s, there are a set of ideas and institutions that got tied together in such a fashion that they served as a veritable moral snow ball rolling down the hill. These four were the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, the student anti-war movement and the gay rights movement. There was a significant overlap of ideology in each of these four movements and they tended to validate each other by virtue of these ideological associations. Principally, they were protesting a status-quo of exclusion and discrimination. The cry of “freedom” rang near the center of each of these movement. Freedom from the abuse of authoritarian structures. In the post-WWII era when democracy mattered, exclusion and discrimination were powerful ideas of protest. Looking back, it was only a matter of time before gay rights would become “mainstream” after effectively hitching its train to the “discrimination argument”.

Historians of the era have been quick to narrate the morality of the 1960s as a movement from right (conservative) to left (progressive). This story supposed that conservatives tended to exclude and discriminate in principle. Progressives by contrast were compassionate to outsiders and those on the margins. This was the rhetoric of the era, and which has persisted for the half century since. Evangelicals must understand the power of this moral narrative in a democracy if they are ever going to effectively speak into it. The irony in all of this is that arguments of freedom and equality are very “conservative” in the historic sense of that word, while change for the sake of change (the seeking after relevance) would not make principled progressives happy. This means that progressives are sometimes quite conservative in the nature of their principles, while conservatives can sometimes be more progressive than the realize in the quest for relevance. Evangelicals beware.