Monday, March 11, 2013

Language of the Left: Liberal, Progressive, and Radical

By Garrett FitzGerald

Since got off the ground about two years ago, we've had a number of questions about our decision to use the term 'progressive' as a descriptor for most of the site's political and religious leanings. 

According to scholar Dan McKanan, perhaps one of the foremost authorities on the Religious Left in the United States, the history of the Left and Left-leaning movements in the US may be considered in large part the story of the uneasy truces and tensions between elements that McKanan terms "radicals" and those which he characterizes as "institutional liberals." Per McKanan:
American radicals, or the Left, if you like, I see as people who embrace the core revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and solidarity, and are willing to fight for those values even at the risk of existing institutions...Institutional liberals are people who also cherish the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity, but who think that those values are already embodied fairly well in our political structures, and are thus willing to extend those values only if they don't endanger existing structures.
These terms are obviously porous and contain plenty of room for overlap, as a radical position on one issue (the adequacy of the US Constitution, for example) does not necessarily preclude  broader institutional commitments (such as to participatory democracy as a whole).

The sort of progressivism with which much of our work here at is concerned inhabits a space between these two extremes; it is not as urgently revolutionary as some historical articulations of our country's rich radical traditions - be they political or religious - yet it recognizes the patently unsustainable nature of many of our social, political, and religious institutions and the status quo they uphold. In this way, progressive religion remains committed to the just reform of existing religious and political systems, even as it seeks alternative forms and formulations of both. 

Whether being employed within the context of a given social movement or whether claimed as a broader personal position on matters of church or state, McKanan's taxonomy of the Left  - and the situation of progressivism within it - points to deep-rooted value judgments whose implications go beyond the rhetorical markers with which we position ourselves on religious and political spectra. In this sense, both as religious and as political beings, the question of our self-description as liberal, progressive, or radical hinges upon the extent of our investment in current religious and political systems and institutions,  and our corresponding (un)willingness to see them overturned in the pursuit of a more just world. 

The importance of the political and religious labels with which we self-identify goes beyond mere semantics. These terms represent a statement of posture toward institutions whose very existence impacts the ways in which we define the world around us, and whose normative impact on our ways of thinking and being in the world necessarily shapes our actions if and when we decide that the world must be changed for the better.

So when considering the ways in which we label ourselves as religious and political beings, we must return as often as we can to these fundamental questions which underlie our commitments.
  • What religious and political institutions do we consider invaluable in bringing about a more just world? 
  • What religious and political institutions do we view as actively preventing the creation of a more just world?
  • What religious and political institutions would we be willing to part with, at least intheir current incarnations, if it meant furthering the work of justice through the realization of new forms?
I hope to explore this conversation further in the coming months.  I will admit that at first blush there are certain institutions and norms in place which I do feel represent very real hope for the furtherance of justice in this world, and I credit that fact in large part for my historical hesitancy to throw in completely with the radical tradition as described above. This conversation within and across the spectrum of the Left is not new; as mentioned above, in many ways the history of the Left's successes can be written as the management of this very tension. But the time has come to bring this conversation with us into the 21st century and take a good long look at the religious and political systems and institutions to which we are party, and to ask ourselves which ones truly hold hope for a more just future, and which ones must be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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