Reformed Protestantism and The Origins of the Progressive Left

Over on his Youtube page, Nathan Hood has posted an extremely erudite discussion about reformed Protestantism and the origins of the modern left.

Nathan confronts the argument that it is Calvin and the Puritans that lie behind contemporary left wing politics, and particularly the form of progressive left-wing identity politics that exists in the West today. Nathan is careful to define his terms, making clear from the outset that he is dealing primarily, though not exclusively, with the “progressive left” (think Jeremy Corbyn), which focusses on certain dogmas around gender, sexuality and race and promotes an identity that is “multicultural, inclusive, politically correct, social justice-oriented, eco-friendly, and so on”. Nathan dialogues carefully with one proponent of “the Left as heir to Calvinism” view—the blogger Mencius Moldbug—though one need not look far to find the Crypto-Calvinist argument (“the left is puritanical”) in a wide variety of sources.

Against the claim that it is Calvinism that lies behind the progressive Left, Nathan argues that we can find its origins more precisely in those who, in fact, reacted against Calvin and his reformed successors: the seventeenth century Anglican sect known as the Latitudinarians. Known beyond their own lifetime as “broad church” Christians, the Latitudinarians argued that doctrine was inherently divisive and that the Christian should instead focus on right living. Crucially, Latitudinarians determined the principles of a moral life through reason, aided by the Spirit. Nathan does a good job of contrasting the vastly different theological presuppositions of the Latitudinarians and Puritans. For the latter, scripture was the ground of their doctrinal convictions and moral life and indeed their religious experiences of the Spirit. By contrast, the Latitudinarians believed that ethical principles could be derived from abstract reasoning and so merited universal application. Nathan suggests that there are a plurality of “lefts” in contemporary politics that might trace their lineage back to various kinds of modern Reformed Protestantism. But he suggests that it is not so much Calvin as the liberal Protestantism of the Latitudinarians that influenced Rousseau and therefore more naturally act as the grandfather of the kind of progressive politics that has erupted in recent years in the Anglophone West, and elsewhere.

If I have understood Nathan correctly here, then I would want to follow him in looking more closely at the origin points of different forms of left-wing politics. Here, I would want to query whether or not this specific form of progressive left-wing politics can claim the Latitudinarians as their forebears. I greatly appreciate Nathan’s insistence that there are different strands of modern Protestant Christianity that fed into the various forms of left-wing politics we see today. But on this point, I wonder if the progressive left-wing politics he describes at the beginning entirely fits the bill here. The Latitudinarian emphasis on human reason and the application of universal ethical injunctions sounds to me a lot more like the “liberal left” or “centre left” of, for instance, Tony Blair. Blairite policy was often grounded in universal principles which could ostensibly be applied anywhere. The invasion of Iraq was undergirded by the conviction that the Iraqi people would embrace democracy, the most ethical form of government in existence. This attitude seems to run completely counter to progressives who would completely resist Blair’s universalist idea on the basis that a country like Iraq should be free from Western (read “white imperial”) influence.

So where might we find the origins of the progressive left? I agree with Nathan that Calvin and the Puritans don’t entirely match up here, though one does witness in the progressive left the influence of distributivism found in Calvin’s Geneva or the doctrines of original sin (I frequently come across the suggestion that progressive politics majors on original sin without divine grace or forgiveness…and I find this extremely compelling as a hypothesis). But for my money, the progressive left, rightly or wrongly, seems to me to be guided by certain dogmas that are neither purely based on pure reason (as per the Latitudinarians) or a kind of external body of tradition like scripture (as per Puritans and Calvinists) but to a greater extent based on strongly-held internal feelings which come to form unassailable dogma. Of course, this isn’t the whole picture and it would be unfair to suggest it was. The emphasis on personal experience seems to me to be married with other quasi-religious elements such as a realised eschatology (“the long awaited kingdom has come now”) as well a strong emphasis on activism. On each of these points, I wonder if Nathan might be on to something when he makes mention of Quakerism or, we might add, Methodism and even forms of Pentecostalism. Each of these groups, in its own way, places huge stock in personal experience, an active faith and, at points, might implicitly espouse a realised eschatology. Particularly with personal experiences, it is important to note that these might exist independently from scripture or other anchoring forces and hold authority in their own right. This sounds a lot closer to the underlying presuppositions of progressive politics on the controversial issues of the day.

None of this is meant to misrepresent let alone smear particular groups. Rather, what I offer here is simply offered as a way of understanding what makes us tick. More positively, the exercise of tracing the lineage of ideas and their intellectual history has important social effects. Robust intellectual history, believe it or not, can help us build bridges across difference, or at least breed more understanding of how we approach particular matters. In other words, it can help us develop greater social empathy. If I can understand that my neighbour prioritises personal experience when approaching a hot-button issue, I can take efforts to not speak past them, while also explaining that my own reading of the situation prioritises a different way of knowing. At the very least the source of our disagreements will become clearer and, if there is sufficient maturity, we might be able to learn from one another.

Understanding the origins of various contemporary political ideas or movements is more than just a passing fancy, then. To live in the present is to breathe in the air of previous ages. Yet precisely because that air is invisible to our eyes, most of us live unawares of the heritage of the past. To be aware that the air that we breathe is inherited is to be in a position to critically adopt what is good and question and reject what is bad.

As someone who is passionate about discussing contemporary culture and politics in conversation with the history of Christianity, Nathan’s post provided much food for thought. We are in great need of more historically nuanced discussions like this one, that help to show us where we are and how we got there. I look forward to more of these kinds of discussions in the near future!