Cathy Tumber in the new Boston Review:
Religion is risky territory for liberals, who generally wish to maintain a healthy respect for the legal separation of church and state and are also loath to criticize religious beliefs, though some have grown increasingly comfortable doing so.
Others have been tempted to revisit one of the most dubious aspects of the late-19th-century progressive movement: its tendency to conflate religion and politics in a mood of expansive moral high-mindedness. When progressives enlarged political liberalism to include a view of government as both regulatory and attentive to basic social welfare, many grounded their arguments in a belief in historical progress, often with a theological gloss. Then as now, of course, there was nothing like full consensus within the movement. After all, it comprised evangelical moralists, populists, anarchists, socialists, mainline churchgoers, seekers, Republicans, and Democrats. But of all the new ideas hatched by progressives, the notion of moral and technological progress was the most definitive. It came under bitter attack from the post–World War I generation, who lived with the tragic consequences of the naive arrogance it bred. The 1960s New Left similarly criticized the notion of historical progress, in response to the “elitism” of the liberal state that had plunged the country into a disastrous war in Vietnam.
Yet in recent years liberals have reflexively revived the term “progressive,” and two well-meaning books even argue for grounding liberal politics in a distinctively “progressive religion.” That move must be questioned carefully and with some urgency, given the mistakes of the past.