Ethics & Public Policy Center

Progressivism’s War on Winners

Published in National Review on March 10, 2014



Had enough of the never-ending “war on women” — which, in reality, never began? Same here. So let’s talk instead about a different kind of siege that does happen to exist, and that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves: the ongoing, systematic assault on society’s winners by today’s progressivism.

These “winners” aren’t the fabled economic “1 percent.” I mean instead the unknown number of men and women among us who ought to be recognized as the alpha humans, and usually aren’t: the moral winners who spend their days helping the poor, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry.

They’re the foot soldiers of Catholic Charities; of Prison Fellowship Ministries; of religious orders and other private associations grounded in the mission of service; and of many more groups, Protestant and Catholic and Jewish alike, than can be named here.

They’re the people who don’t just talk the talk of social justice but actually walk the walk — into hospitals, soup kitchens, nursing homes, and other places stacked with plastic trays rather than china, where disinfectant rather than potpourri wafts through the halls. They’re the people usually found far removed from, say, the ballroom in the Washington Hilton Hotel, where President Obama recently addressed the 62nd annual National Prayer Breakfast.

As if their missions weren’t daunting enough already, these heroes and heroines must now also face constant ideological and legal attack. And as political irony would have it, their opponents are the same people who ostentatiously swaddle themselves in the mantle of concern for the destitute, who castigate their fellow Americans for failing the poor.

These critics are the generals in the war on winners, starting with the progressive-in-chief. “Our faith teaches us that in the face of suffering, we can’t stand idly by, and that we must be that Good Samaritan.” So said President Obama during the Prayer Breakfast the other week. So say his progressive allies and friends, and his administration, too . . . all the way to the courthouse.

Begin with the most obvious example: the court case brought against the administration by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters argue that their refusal to comply with the HHS contraception-and-abortifacients mandate on grounds of conscience will incur some $2.5 million in annual fines. That’s $2.5 million that could otherwise feed, house, and warm those for whom they care.

If the appeal doesn’t go their way, the administration will have successfully kneecapped their unique mission among the old, the sick, and the dying, whom they take in and treat as “family” when everyone else has thrown them out.

All of which raises an interesting point. From the perspective of sheer public relations, taking on the Little Sisters should have been the political equivalent of slapping babies. Why wasn’t it? This is a puzzle to which we will return.

Team Obama strapped the HHS mandate into law and detonated it in pews and food pantries across the land. The result has been a volcano of litigation: In addition to the Little Sisters, 90-plus lawsuits and some 300 plaintiffs now stand in line waiting to be heard. Nor is this just a Catholic thing. The most prominent of the Supreme Court cases involving the mandate, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., features a corporation owned by Protestants.

And those are just the lawsuits over the HHS mandate. On front after front, this same overweening progressivism has ignited a wider conflict. For example, as Greg Scott of Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization defending pro-life groups, recently pointed out, “There is an all-out war by Planned Parenthood and leftist politicians to shut pregnancy centers down through onerous regulation and other policies.”

Churches, family-owned companies, nursing homes, women and babies seeking shelter and care: What isn’t fair game after the mandate?

In fact, so unmistakably ambitious has today’s progressivism become that it has lately attracted attention beyond the usual political precincts. Writing in The New Republic, Damon Linker — whose first book attacked what he called the “theocons” of the Right — now warns of the “latter-day Jacobins” of the Left and denounces the “broader, troubling trans-Atlantic trend of secular liberalism steamrolling competing, non-liberal visions of the good.”

Similarly, a recent cover story in the left-leaning British magazine New Statesman deplores what its author, Cristina Odone, called “the new intolerance” in the U.K. — a regimen she experienced up close and personal when a conference on marriage organized by Christian Concern, at which Odone was speaking, had to be hastily reshuffled to another venue — twice — when hosts disinvited the speakers for defending traditional marriage.

You might say that the U.S. isn’t the U.K. But a few months ago, I met a young woman who spearheads Catholic Charities in one of the U.S. archdioceses now under legal and public-relations siege by progressive activists. Call her Jen. She was every inch a Pope Francis–style Catholic: earnest, self-sacrificing, and pulled closely into the Church’s orbit by the sheer gravity of her desire to help society’s castaways.

Much of her own time and that of like-minded colleagues, Jen lamented, is now spent not where they want to be, in soup kitchens or hospitals, but in parrying constant maneuvers by activists intent on closing their foster-care and adoption services — for the sole reason that traditional Christian teachings about the family infuriate sexual progressives.

Jen fretted about the work they couldn’t accomplish — and most of all about the children waiting to be adopted or otherwise brought into a family. “I know the time is coming when we’ll either close our doors or decide to keep up our work regardless — in which case we’ll end up in jail,” she said matter-of-factly. “But who will take care of the children? Not the people who have sued us out of existence — they’ll move on. Who will take care of all those kids?”

It’s a fair question. And so is this: If today’s progressives really care so much about the poor, why not cease and desist in their enthusiastic efforts to obstruct such manifestly good works?

The answer is simple: Today’s progressivism is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ideological desire to put sexual expression first, and to further that expression via every means available, including state power.

Progressives believe that today’s sexual suffragettes are the civil-rights pioneers of our time; and in a conflict between expressionism and anything else, expressionism will trump. If that means that girls in public schools will feel uncomfortable because they have to share their lockers and bathrooms with biological boys, so be it. If it means that the Little Sisters of the Poor and a hundred other charitable organizations might be fined out of existence, so be that, too. It’s the sexual revolution, not the poor, to whom progressivism will give the thumbs-up.

Nothing else explains the dissonance between all those professions of dedication to the destitute and marginalized on one hand — and, on the other, the reality of what this ideology is actually doing to the servants of the poor.

In this respect, today’s progressivism is markedly unlike yesterday’s. Gone are the days when progressive-minded women could stand unequivocally against abortion (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, and the rest of the pantheon). Gone also is another idea held dear by earlier progressives: that the family is a morally preeminent institution. The late, great intellectual Christopher Lasch proudly wore the P-label himself. He also deplored the idea of abortion rights and defended the traditional family as a “haven in a heartless world.” He must be spinning at the speed of light today.

It’s one more irony among several that some of those moral winners now under attack privately regard themselves as liberals or progressives — or would, if they could only understand why other people marching beneath those banners seem intent on shutting them down.

But the fundamental fact remains: Progressivism’s post-revolutionary ideology works to the detriment of the very people in whose name progressivism professes to speak. That is more than just a passing political irony. It’s an ongoing transgression against the small and weak, as well as against those who serve them, for which spokesmen from Pennsylvania Avenue on down ought to account.

– Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author, most recently, of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

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