Today’s liberalism may stand on decades of failed ideas, but it is failure in the name of American redemption. [Liberalism’s power is that]… it addresses America’s moral accountability to its past with moral activism. … Liberalism’s glamour follows from its promise of a new American innocence. But the appeal of conservatism is relief from this supercilious idea. Innocence is not possible for America. This nation did what it did. And conservatism’s appeal is that it does not bank on the recovery of lost innocence. It seeks the discipline of ordinary people rather than the virtuousness of extraordinary people. — “Why the GOP Can’t Win with Minorities,” Shelby Steele
This is the politico-spiritual project the left has embarked on since regaining control of the US White House and Congress. In his book, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, Shelby Steele coined the phrase redemptive liberalism to describe an activist political movement, now embraced by President Obama and friends, intent on restoring America’s innocence through social transformation powered by political muscle.
If anything drove the recent elections, it was a national mood in favor of cleaning house, righting wrongs, repenting from our collective political sins and bringing some ill-defined but redemptive change to American politics. Redemptive liberalism’s adherents believe it will cleanse us of racism, sexism, economic inequality and unfairness, science tainted by ideology, ecological destruction, war and intolerance.
That cleansing mood became clear in this week’s lynch mob reaction to the AIG bonuses. Americans are incensed that a few wealthy managers should receive bonus checks worth several times the US median household income at a time when millions are out of work. That Congress permitted these bonuses in their recent stimulus package seemed to many beside the point, which is interesting. The consensus seems to be that, legal or not, such payments are inherently immoral and, like CO2 emissions, must be regulated and controlled.
Has wealth become a sin? Perhaps so. In a world where billions of people go hungry every night, it’s easy to understand why Obama and his supporters are committed to taxing the wealthy to fund transfer payments to the poor.
The good news/bad news is that redemptive liberalism is never passive in the face of injustice. Among liberals, to hold power and fail to use it for transformative good is itself a sin.
A movement such as this, backed by legislative majorities, has the power to clear-cut our national political landscape through restrictive laws and social re-engineering. But the question remains: Can we actually redeem ourselves? Can we make ourselves better through progressive activism?
Redemption has historically meant rescue, a ransom paid to secure the release of someone held in bondage. The slave could be redeemed — bought back — but the very fact of her bondage meant that she could never redeem herself. She was dependent on another coming to her aid.
Practically speaking, redemption might set you free, but it could never undo the wearing effects of a lifetime of servitude. It granted new opportunities, but could never restore lost innocence.
Whereas the aim of redemptive liberalism has always been to restore the world’s lost innocence, a quixotic mission at best. For all the good intentions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, it never healed the psychic and social wounds that centuries of racism had inflicted on black America.
True redemption requires more than mere human ingenuity and sweat can accomplish. There is sin in America’s past and present; that America has much to atone for is a point on which Christians can agree with these idealistic reformers. But even the greatest political movements, no matter how well-intentioned, will fail to change our nation if they ignore the moral condition of our hearts.
Racism, sexism, injustice and the rest are diseases of personal morality before they ever become social epidemics. And the damage done by these sins is primarily internal, not cultural, because they profane our birthright as men and women made in the image of God. Well-intentioned social redemption programs fail because they can’t get to the literal heart of the problem.
It has been 90 years since the “war to end all wars,” and 40 years since Joni Mitchell gave voice to the hopes of her fellow idealists that we could somehow rebuild Eden, if only we worked hard enough:
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust, we are golden,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
— Joni Mitchell, Woodstock
The message of the New Testament is that there is hope. Our national sins can be redeemed, person by person, heart by heart.
For [God] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of His dear Son [Jesus Christ], who purchased our freedom [with His blood] and forgave our sins. — Colossians 1:13-14, NLT
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when He freed us from the penalty for our sins. — Romans 3:23-24, NLT
Shelby Steele has it wrong when he implores us to seek the “discipline of ordinary people” over the “virtuousness of extraordinary people.”
Neither redemptive liberalism nor conservatism has the power to free us from captivity to self-destructive behaviors. But America can be transformed if it can find someone extraordinary, someone virtuous, someone willing to pay the steep price necessary to heal us from our sins. Fortunately for us, history knows just such a person.
Photo credit: John Dominis, Time Magazine, 1964, “A poverty stricken family near Hemphill, KY”