Leo Strauss’s “Progress or Return” was on my mind this morning as I listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition.  (I had re-read Strauss’s great essay this week with a class of students.) Unsurprisingly, there were stories and issues on the latter that might be illuminated by the former.

I was newly impressed by the phenomenological power of Strauss’s essay, a power that was illustrated by a great classroom discussion among students divided (even as individuals) between the two sensibilities.  On the one hand, there is the sense of the goodness of some origin, some ancestral ways to which we must return by repenting; on the other, the sense of progress beyond the unenlightened past, the openness to new possibilities empowered by new ways and new technologies.   Strauss’s view, I would say (to be ridiculously synoptic) is disapproval of the modern progressive sensibility as an incoherent hybrid of human science and divine infinity; he is at pains in particular to discredit progressive interpretations of Judaism.  He does leave the door open for “Plato’s notion that indefinite progress is possible in principle” for philosophy (but not for politics, and thus not for society, morality, religion).  Of course the wrench that Christianity threw into these works, from Strauss’s point of view, was to link speculative understanding with religious faith and thus compromise the barrier between progress and return, knowledge and obedience. 

These considerations were on my mind as I heard an interview on NPR with the co-authors of the new American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us , the famous Robert Putnam ( Bowling Alone ) of Harvard, and his former student David Campbell, a BYU graduate, now Associate Professor at Notre Dame . Here is the blurb I found at Amazon:

“Unique among nations, America is deeply religious, religiously diverse, and remarkably tolerant. But in recent decades the nation’s religious landscape has been reshaped.

America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In the 1960s, religious observance plummeted. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion. The result has been a growing polarization—the ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased while religious identities have become more fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance, notwithstanding the so-called culture wars.”

As you can see, the argument clearly leans towards “Progress” (in tolerance, interfaith ties, the freeing of politics from religion) and away from any “Return” to a religious grounding of moral and political order.  The abandonment by many, especially the young, of organized religion is, it seems the fault of conservatives or reactionaries who presumed to link faith and politics.  Likewise it is the fault of religious conservatives, apparently, that the fault line between believers and unbelievers is increasingly the same line that divides conservatives from liberals and Republicans from Democrats.  (Note that this “Progressive” argument, like any good old-time American progressive argument, cannot avoid sounding a note of Return:  Putnam and Campbell in effect call us back to a time when religion was not a political issue, and when believers and atheists were more or less equally distributed in both major parties.  What they don’t seem to see as that this would require a Return to an earlier, fundamental consensus on an underlying settlement concerning the question Progress or Return.)

Another story heard on Weekend Edition concerned an upcoming rally at the Lincoln Memorial by a group of Democrat activists who call themselves “One Nation, Working Together.”  It was mentioned in passing, about 11 times, that this rally was in no way a response to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” (by Returning to God) rally, so it is clear it in fact is such a response.  And is it any less obvious that the name is a direct counter to “One Nation Under God”?  (Yes, I am aware that the “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s.)

Putnam and Campbell observe that today our most fundamental political cleavage is in an important sense stronger than our religious differences.  If a person’s religious affiliation seems to be in tension with his or her political orientation, then the political orientation generally wins out.  Conservative Catholics and Conservative Protestants seem to have more in common than conservatives and liberals of the same “denomination.”  The authors of American Grace clearly whish that our political differences didn’t go so deep, and one has to sympathize with this sentiment.  But is the cleavage between Progress and Return the fault of the political forces of Return that have become visible in the last generation?  Or is it the work of many more decades, or even centuries, of Progress? 

The notion of Freedom under God long seemed to amalgamate or even synthesize Progress and Return, and thus allowed Americans to avoid confronting the question: Progress or Return?  But perhaps no longer, despite the progressive faith of some of our best political scientists.

Articles by Ralph Hancock

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