Center for Family and Society Newsletter – Jan. 5, 2012

1. Progress? Or Betrayal?

By Bryce Christensen and William C. Duncan 

Again and again those who defend marriage and the family find themselves in public conflict with those who label themselves progressives. Rooted in historically grounded traditions, pro-family conservatives might be tempted simply to dismiss progress as a dangerous and destructive delusion. That would be a big mistake. What conservatives who defend marriage and family should instead realize is that they are the true champions of progress, rightly understood.

After all, it was none other than a prominent conservative intellectual – namely, the distinguished cultural historian Robert Nisbet – who identified hope for progress as essential to the shaping of Western civilization. “No single idea,” writes Nisbet, “has been more important, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization for nearly three thousand years.”1 Let it be remembered that Nisbet traces the Western understanding of progress back to the profoundly religious thought of St. Augustine, and concludes that “if there is one generalization that can be made confidently about the history of the idea of progress, it is that throughout its history the idea has been closely linked with, has depended upon, religion or upon intellectual constructs derived from religion.” As he assesses the “acids which [have] weakened the fabric of religious faith” in the Western world over the last century, Nisbet warns, “It is inconceivable that faith in either progress as a historical reality or in progress as a possibility can exist long … amid such alien and hostile intellectual forces.”2

But if progress requires the sustaining influence of religion, why is it that those who now identify themselves as progressives are generally militant secularists who seek to minimize if not eradicate all public manifestations of religion? This question deserves far more attention than it has received to date, if for no other reason than that it raises troubling doubts about the origins and substance of the progress that self-identified progressives are seeking.

Those doubts can only intensify for those who realize that any meaningful understanding of progress means the increasingly successful realization of goals which are themselves stable and unchanging. If goals themselves keep changing, then movement toward these shifting goals can hardly be called progress. Because (as G.K. Chesterton explains) “progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision,” it logically follows that “our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed [is that] it must be fixed.” For those who fail to recognize this requirement, Chesterton reasoned, “[no] ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.”3

Because they recognize the need for a fixed and religiously grounded ideal to define the movement of progress, true champions of progress will recognize the intergenerational character of such an ideal, particularly when the progress in question refers to family issues. We can plausibly interpret changes in family life as progress if they bring us closer to ideals – marital fidelity, harmony in parent-child relationships, cooperation between siblings – that our parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors would recognize. But when changes in family life involve radically new ideals – such as freedom from marital restraints in sexual relations or acceptance of homosexual relations in wedlock – then the very notion of progress becomes dubious, regardless of the fervor with which self-styled progressives may champion these radically new ideals.

Fundamental questions about democracy as well as progress emerge when self-styled progressives begin campaigning for such radical new ideals. To be sure, these self-styled progressives claim that acceptance of radically new family ideals will foster a more inclusive democracy. But will it? The issue is not just that these progressives evince a remarkable willingness to advance their agenda through fiats from the least democratic branch of government – that is, the judiciary. The broader issue is that in jettisoning the traditional family ideals cherished by our (and their) ancestors, they are subverting what Chesterton aptly called “the democracy of the dead.” As Chesterton explains:

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. … Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.4

And though the connection may not be visible to many of those who now style themselves progressives, this truly inclusive sense of democracy connects deeply with true progress. For real progress, especially in family matters, means fulfillment – not repudiation – of family ideals our ancestors cherished.

The nature of real intergenerational progress has, in fact, been suggested by science historian Harald Fritzsch. He depicts an imaginary but entirely plausible conversation in which Albert Einstein helps his predecessor Isaac Newton to recognize in the bold conceptual innovations of relativity a fulfillment of his own hopes for scientific understanding of the world.5

In the same vein, we can imagine ancestors initially bewildered by modern technology finally embracing some of its applications – computer-facilitated home-based employment, for instance – as a way to help parents fulfill family responsibilities while still earning an income. Used properly, such technology can mean family progress of a sort our ancestors would recognize. It is, however, quite impossible to imagine many of our ancestors seeing progress in the sexual libertinism inherent in many of the radically new family ideals now advocated by self-styled progressives. Most of our ancestors would see in such libertinism not progress toward their ideals but rather a betrayal of those ideals.

Perhaps the next time Utah’s pro-family conservatives find themselves fighting with those who call themselves progressives, they should demand that those deceptive charlatans give way so that conservatives can show the way to true progress.

Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues in Society, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.

William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.


1. Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 4.
2. Ibid., 352-355.
3. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), Collected Works, ed. David Dooley (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 1:310-131.
4. Ibid., 250-251.
5. See Harald Fritzsch, An Equation that Changed the World: Newton, Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 27-90.


2. Oops! Oh Yeah, That Does Create a Protected Class …

By Derek Monson 

One important question surrounding local nondiscrimination ordinances for housing and employment, which was highlighted in the recent debate on American Fork’s two proposed ordinances (housing, employment), is whether such ordinances create a new “protected class.”

Various supporters of the proposed ordinances in American Fork, including both citizen activists and policymakers, have argued that the ordinances would not create a protected class. However, a recently published article on CNN’s blog, from a “gay-rights” advocate in Georgia, would seem to contradict their argument. …

To read more of this post on the Sutherland Daily blog, click here.

3. Strengthen Marriage, Strengthen the Economy

By Derek Monson 

Ruth Marcus, an opinion writer at the Washington Post, recently wrote: “[Marital] decline isn’t just a social problem. It’s also an economic problem.”

Recent trends in marriage have shown higher marriage rates for college-educated, high-income individuals and lower marriage rates among those with lower levels of education and income. In practice, Marcus notes, this trend “contributes to income inequality.” It also makes it harder for the poor to achieve higher income levels. …

To read more of this post on the Sutherland Daily blog, click here.