John Grondelski (Crisis Magazine) knows what progressives believe in, and it is not what they would like you to think.1 Sure, they claim to believe in things like “‘the good of society’ and ‘the commonweal’,” and they natter on about “‘social justice’ and ‘concern for the community,’” but don’t let that fool you: the truth is, “They believe in the State.” 2
Except that, by Grondelski’s own admission and analysis (such as it is), progressives have a prior and overriding belief in “the isolated individual and his will as it pertains to moral matters”; their fondness for the State arises from their wanting to make sure that no social forces oppress the individual or take away her autonomy. Grondelski declares that, for progressives, “The state exists simply to facilitate the moral will of the individual.”
That's a drastic oversimplification, but yes, government has a role to play in the progressive vision: at the very least, government is needed to keep social majorities from trampling on the rights of social minorities. This is analogous to, and an extension of, the constitutional role played by the Bill of Rights, which established certain minimal individual rights that could not be abridged or abrogated by the government. Government, as it happens, is not the only force capable of infringing upon our rights; which means that (and this makes some people’s heads hurt) government is both sometimes a threat to our rights and at other times the guarantor of those rights.
Mr. Grondelski invokes philosopher Jacques Maritain in referring to “the State” as a potential "‘Minotaur,’ devouring dissidents.” That may sound extreme, but American conservatives have never much believed, truth be told, that America’s founders gave us a new form of government, derived from the people and responsible to the people; they have usually seen it instead as a disguised or incipient version of every tyranny known to mankind. Conservative talk about “the State” usually implies that our very own federal government is an alien regime foisted upon us against our will, as opposed to being the result of periodic popular referenda (called “elections”) which for some odd reason or reasons don’t always go the way conservatives want them to go.3
Grondelski insists that “progressives favor the State over society”. One could just as easily say that social conservatives like Grondelski favor society over the individual. In either case, it’s a false choice, since all those entities—individuals, society (in the sense of voluntary associations of individuals), and State inevitably exist and therefore must learn to coexist. It’s always a balancing act, and Grondelski simply doesn’t like the balance progressives often strike. Grondelski’s preferred balance is based on
“the fact that free voters in eleven states, in free elections, decided that racial differences justify racial segregation”—sorry; Grondelski wants us to respect “the fact that free voters in more than thirty states, in free elections, decided that sexual differentiation is relevant to marriage…”
No doubt Mr. Grondelski would respond that he cares deeply for individuals. He cares, for example, for “the butcher, baker, or picture taker” upon whom “the full weight of State power” is brought to bear when “the State becomes not only conscience but moral enforcer, ready to crush the grandmother florist who goes to Mass in the morning but does not want to do Adam and Steve’s bouquets in the afternoon.” Alas, the poor grandmother florist, forced to countenance, nay, to aid and abet icky gay nuptials! Perhaps she also dislikes interracial marriages, or interfaith marriages, or marriages where one or both partners have been divorced, or marriages involving atheists—there are so many moral judgments for a florist to make! What will she do when the serial adulterer comes to her shop to purchase flowers to send to his latest mistress? Perhaps she ought not to be in a business open to the public, since “public” includes people of whose lifestyles (or very existence) she disapproves?
The brief answer to Grondelski’s titular dilemma—“Why Progressives Favor the State over Society”—is (I’m paraphrasing) “so that they can use the State to impose their moral beliefs on others.” As he sees it, same-sex marriage “is not a matter of ‘live and let live’. It is a matter of ensconcing one view of ‘marriage’ in law and culture and driving all others—along with their proponents—out, at least off the public square.” But “ensconcing one view of marriage” is precisely what Grondelski himself wants to do, and when he invokes the “free voters in more than thirty states” he is defending their right to use the State as the mechanism of that ensconcing.
Continuing in his “persecuted heterosexual Christian” mode, Grondelski warns that dissenters from the progressive agenda are “to be muted, gagged, disenfranchised…and perhaps reeducated.” His warning accurately describes, not the future of American Christians, but the documented historical past of American gays and lesbians, including the part about being “reeducated”: see “gay reparative therapy,” as practiced by (to name just one) Michelle Bachmann’s husband Marcus. Grondelski then concludes on the following note, suggesting a lack of self-awareness that seems almost pathological: “We need beware of the ‘tolerance’ of the intolerant, in which not all members of society—or their consciences—are created equal.”
If Mr. Grondelski had his way, I can think of at least one segment of society which would neither be tolerated nor treated equally; but at least the nice grandmother florist wouldn’t have to risk getting gay cooties from Adam and Steve.
2 “The State” is just a fancy word for “the government”. Conservative populists rage against “Big Government,” but conservative intellectuals prefer to scorn “the State”.
3 The alternative to the “alien regime” trope is that the American people—at least those who vote in national elections—are stupid, a theory enthusiastically embraced by Rush Limbaugh, among others, when he rants about “low-information voters”.