Monday, April 02, 2012


In recent months, I've sometimes referred to myself as "progressive" toward politics. I'm a registered Democrat, but I find the title rather pigeon-holing. People might assume all kinds of things about me and my belief-system from it. The connotations for "liberal" are too negative. And, truthfully, I'm not all that liberal either in my attitude toward social policy or in my desire for government expansion. The progressive label seems, to me, more descriptive. I also find myself aligning my thoughts with other politicians who have sometimes termed themselves as progressive.

But there is also progressive with a capital "P." An actual movement from the 1880's through the 1920's (some say earlier, others later). Its accomplishments are many, and it might be argued that modern America owes its start to the Progressives. The Progressives were either directly or indirectly responsible for ending slavery (including the Constitutional Amendments associated with it), banking reform, universal suffrage, clean milk and water, labor unions, government transparency, birth control and Planned Parenthood, city parks and the National Park system, free and fair public education, the ending of child labor, income tax, expose journalism . . . you get the picture. Those of you with attention to the dates will also note that the Progressives were responsible for Prohibition too. Hey, I didn't say it was all good; though even in that there are lessons for modern history.

I have been fascinated by this lately because I recently listened to a Podcast in which a man who recently published a book titled "A History of Mormonism" was interviewed. He is a member, but also a scholar, and in Richard-Bushman-fashion, he has endeavored to tell a history that is factual and fair and unbiased. In the latter he probably only partially succeeded, he is a member of the Church, after all. He spoke warmly about the research that his study has now opened up. He is interested in how the Progressive movement influenced LDS history in the post-Nauvoo era.

The Progressives were an interesting mix. They believed firmly in a very strong Protestant work ethic, and yet they had great faith in the scientific, modern world also. From Wikipedia, "The progressives were avid modernizers. They believed in science, technology, expertise—and especially education—as the grand solution to society's weaknesses. Characteristics of progressivism included a favorable attitude toward urban-industrial society, belief in mankind's ability to improve the environment and conditions of life, belief in obligation to intervene in economic and social affairs, and a belief in the ability of experts and in efficiency of government intervention."

In addition, they felt that all of this innovation and efficiency and government intervention should be to advance one key goal: to strengthen families.

The Progressives really caught fire in the post-Civil War era when regular folks were so fed up with government corruption and cronyism. As individuals improve, so do institutions. . . which then reciprocate the benefits. Even prohibition (which only outlawed the sale, not consumption of alcohol) was an attempt to break the backs of political cronyism conducted in seedy backrooms instead of in open legislative halls. Progressives wanted government to be truly FOR THE PEOPLE. They believed that people should work hard and be independent, but that there should be an expectation that the government's role was to create opportunities through which people could improve their lives--outdoor space, integrity in water and food supplies, equal roles for men and women, the ability for women to have a say-so in the bearing of the children for whom they were responsible, education for all children, opportunities or higher learning, the scientific application of knowledge . . . .

So let's look sideways to the LDS Church in the same era. This is a time of explosive Church growth in Utah. A substantial number of LDS people were living in open polygamy, including many leaders. Family was emphasized repeatedly. Brigham Young made a concerted effort to re-establish Relief Societies throughout the Church for the improvement of the Sisters and to offer relief to the poor. Education was encouraged; at one point Young even introduced a unique written English alphabet among the early Saints. Young Men and Young Women formed "retrenchment" societies designed to root out all that was evil. In fact, "retrench" was a major catch word at the time. Early Mormon women were powerful advocates of universal suffrage and Utah was one of the first states to allow women to vote. In 1896 a Mormon woman became the first woman elected to public office in the entire country. She was a doctor, and she had beaten her husband in order to do it. The Church also were early adopters of the Boy Scout Program (progressive with a capital "P") for the improvement of boys and young men.

I've been told, or had it implied, far too often that my own political leanings are not in alignment with Church teachings. I respectfully beg to differ. I believe that the government's end goal should be similar to that of the Church: to engender an atmosphere in which people (working in their families) might reach their full potential.

From an LDS perspective, the obvious difference is quickly apparent: we believe that programs within the Church are inspired from God, and that government programs are generally designed by groups of men and women forced to compromise and just doing the best they can. However, even in the Church, inspired programs are run by regular people working from varying degrees of their own inspiration. Even if a program could be perfect, it would still fail people for a hundred (and more) reasons. These failures become even more pronounced in government programs.

Still, I think the Progressives were on to something. Transparency. Equal Rights. Children celebrated and educated. Green space in our cities. Logical decision-making. What do you think?

Also, in light of Elder Christofferson's timely talk about prophets being fallible men and what constitutes doctrine, do we think the fervor of Progressivism influenced early Church programs (many of which we still have)? Or were Church leaders influenced first and the light of the Holy Ghost inspired good men and women everywhere with an idea whose time had come? Some combination of the two?


heidikins said...

I really think that gospel doctrine and church tradition are two very separate things. My political alignment is with doctrine, not tradition. And, as is announced every. single. year. in every sacrament meeting in the U.S., the church's official policy towards politics is to make a well-educated and informed vote.

I think it is important to understand how the traditions of church members are not necessarily in line with actual doctrine, meaning they usually go farther into "righteousness" than the doctrine requires. i.e. drinking Diet Coke is not prohibited. Birth control is not prohibited.


Janssen said...

What a great post - now I'm wanting to go spend WAY too much time reading about Progressives.

Cathy said...

I think it is significant that the welfare program of the church (unless something has changed) directs individuals and families to seek help not only from extended family resources but from government resources. This indicates at least a tacit approval of government and social services designed to help those who are struggling.

Melanie said...

This post is really enlightening. Thank you!

I think it's interesting that many of the people (especially women-people) that we think of as great historical figures were very progressive, liberal, even radical for their time. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Clara Barton are two that come to mind. I often wonder what I would have thought of such women if I'd lived in their time.