Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What's Right with This Story

People are fascinated by the story of a Texas Baptist pastor running for office as a Democrat. Whoever heard of such a thing? Well, the Progressives have. Not the people who call themselves that today, but the original Progressives. You have to pull down your American history book to talk to them today.

The original Progressive movement was alive and thriving in America a century ago, entwined firmly around another public crusade that shared its goals: the Social Gospel movement.

In fact the phrase "What Would Jesus Do," so vividly mocked by the modern left, is from "In His Steps," an 1897 novel by Charles Sheldon that was one of the most popular books of that generation. The old Progressives weren't mocking. They were nodding in agreement. This article tells the story of the book:

In simple style, In His Steps tells the story of self-satisfied congregants of a midwestern church who are challenged by a tramp during a Sunday service to live up to their declaration of faith. The tramp then dies in their midst. So moved are the minister and his parishioners that they pledge to live their lives for one year asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?" Their example [of] how they suffered, faced ridicule and emerged victorious inspires other churches throughout the country to do the same.

The article is fascinating reading for modern folks who associate a mix of firm Christian conviction and politics with smug Republican conservatism.

[As an aside, I had heard the story of "when Jesus edited a newspaper," but I didn't realize it was Sheldon who was at the center of it:

When the owner of the Topeka Daily Capital offered him full rein editing the paper for one week "as Jesus would do it," he labored 13 to 16 hours a day. The Capital's average daily circulation was just over 11,000, but during Sheldon's week it shot up to more than 362,000.

A lot of which, no doubt, had to do with mere curiosity.]

The modern political faction that claims the title of "progressive" has stolen the laurels from the graves of men like Sheldon without earning them. The old -- and to me, true -- Progressives were, like modern progressives, based in urban areas, and they often were wealthier than the average American. They included some of the most popular literary figures of the day, and they were deeply concerned with social justice issues.

Unlike their modern namesakes, though, they were rooted in religion. In fact, the were, in part, a reaction against secular excesses of Social Darwinism. Like many political labels, "Progressive" was more an umbrella than a uniform. But the Progressive movement was tightly entwined with the Social Gospel movement. Their causes were the same ones, and they were consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. They sought to reform American society in the same ways, and they saw the same looming threats to democracy and American virtues in the old "sins" like greed and pride.

Progressives in and out of Congress brought America child labor laws, minimum wages, insurance on bank deposits, and votes for women. They also had notable failures, such as Prohibition.

Yes, it wasn't a pack of prudes that gave us Prohibition. It was the same people who gave us votes for women. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was among the leading Progressive/Social Gospel organizations of its day, with a range of causes that also included women's suffrage and prison reform. Like the child labor laws, Prohibition was meant to be a specific solution to specific problems, including the corrupt machine politics of the cities, which were rooted in the saloons.

They were optimists, these Progressives, and they believed in America. They railed against corporate greed and the suffering it caused, but they knew that corporate industry was here to stay and that its products were advancing the quality of life overall. Their goal was to correct big business, not to smash it to bits. With the cross-pollination from the Social Gospel movement, they sought to hold powerful men to standards of moral behavior rooted, explicitly or not, in the New Testament.

Contrast that to the blunt nihilism of so many of the modern progressives. Contrast it to their virulent mocking of white Protestant Christianity, their furious anti-globalization mentality, their enthusiastic adherence to the idea that everything about America is corrupt, racist, militaristic, evil, and unfixable.

For all their pride in "speaking truth to power," few in today's movement can match the old Progressives in their critique of America's problems -- and in their effectiveness in promoting specific solutions to them. Upton Sinclair's scathing "The Jungle" led directly to the passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act. What good has Michael Moore wrought for all his cleverness?

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