What Is Impatient Idealism?
I'm labeling as "Impatient Idealism" something that I think is part of the Zeitgeist. It arises out of some understandable and at least partially good motives. It may yet work some good among us. It is already working some bad.
By "idealism" I don't mean philosophical idealism. Rather, I mean the common use of the word to describe a vision of a "right way" for things to be or happen, perhaps even a right way that has never before been realized, combined with a determination not to settle for less than the achievement of that vision. Idealism, I think, is on the rise.
Both the Internet and the progressive age that has delivered the Internet are causes, I think. Not "progressive" as a political label, but rather "progressive" to describe a time in which human beings are inventing a lot of things, solving a lot of problems, and making a lot of changes that are, for the moment, broadly perceived as positive changes. The Internet is both one of the things that we have invented and a vehicle for the delivery of a lot of other invented things. Because of it, you have a lot less obligation now than existed 50 years ago to have to wrap your life around someone else's "right way" of doing things. You bank when you want to by way of your phone, so that almost no one complains of "bankers' hours" any longer. Burger King's "Have It Your Way" advertising campaign from the 70s was just about customizing your condiments—now you can order your fast food on an app and have it brought out to your car when you arrive.
Social media is perhaps the quintessence of ordering your life around your "right way" preferences. It watches you carefully, and then it gives you the facts that line up with your thinking, the friends who line up with your thinking, and the products that line up with your thinking. You can order so much of your online life around your own ideals.
And in general, I think that can be a good thing. Idealism is better than base pragmatism. We should have ideas that solidify into convictions. We should live with those convictions as guardrails to keep us on the right path when pragmatic concerns would make us something other than what we ought to be. I'm for more idealism.
By "impatient" I mean…OK, I just mean exactly what I wrote. The principal target of our impatience is the government. No political campaign can be successful if it is not based upon ideals; yet, the quickest pathway to success in governing after winning the campaign is pragmatism. There is an inherent tension. Dancing that dance can be a formula for short-term success, just like MasterCard can be a formula for short-term prosperity. But voters and banks alike eventually grow impatient with unfulfilled promises.
And in general, I think that can be a good thing. Unending patience with regard to important ideals is dereliction of duty. In many ways, it is the impatient who get important things done.
Two Examples of Impatient Idealism
Two movements that exemplify Impatient Idealism, each of them external to the actual work of the Southern Baptist Convention, made an appearance at the 2020 Annual Meeting. I'm talking about, Critical Race Theory & Intersectionality on the left and Abortion Abolitionism on the right.
The ideal that the innocent life of babies should be protected by law even before they are born is a compelling one. The zeal to deliver actual results in the pro-life movement at the national level has been decidedly secondary to other concerns. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump all delivered on tax cuts. They all delivered on increased military spending. None of them delivered on abolishing abortion, although they all courted the pro-life vote by appealing to our ideals during their campaigns.
It's high time to be impatient about this.
Folks in the Abolition Movement have risen to that moment. They have an ideal (abolishing abortion) and they are impatient about achieving that ideal. EVERYONE in the pro-life movement shares that ideal (or else they aren't pro-life), but pro-life complacency and willingness to settle are certainly a real thing. To the degree that the abolition movement turns up the heat on our impatience about this ideal it will be a good thing.
Speaking of abolition, the zeal to deliver equal protection under the law to black Americans began in earnest with the work of the nineteenth-century abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. It has progressed throughout the long saga of the War Between the States; the Emancipation Proclamation; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, after all of that, there are still unachieved "firsts" for Black Americans, and the widespread testimony of Black Americans is that they still experience the institutions of American society differently than do White Americans.
Black Americans have consistently voted for Democrats as a part of a trend that started in the 1930s and reached a crescendo under Lyndon Baines Johnson. The "War on Poverty" among Black Americans has not delivered the results that the politicians promised. Many of the cities that experienced Black Lives Matter protests were led by Democratic mayors and Democratic police chiefs. Minneapolis, MN, hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1973, and that one only served in office for one day. Black Americans have been underserved by Democratic politics.
Of course, some Republicans have been saying that for a long time, hoping that Black people would come on back home to the GOP, but in academia, the more prevalent movement has been to reject the classically liberal foundations of American justice and the American Republic altogether. Having worked through "the system" for more than a century—constitutional amendments, civil lawsuits, legislative victories, etc.—Critical Race Theory has emerged to call into question the very underpinnings of the system and to demand radical changes if Black Americans want finally to achieve equal protection under the law.
That ideal—equal protection under the law regardless of race—is a good thing. It is an unachieved ideal, if considered in its pure and undiluted form. And after all of these generations, Black Americans are well justified in their impatience.
Where Impatient Idealism Goes Awry
I subscribe neither to Abortion Abolitionism (as a movement) nor to Critical Race Theory. And yet I affirm for both of these both their ideals and their impatience? What does that look like for me, and why is it reasonable?
Impatient Idealism is great, so long as the idealism is broadly held and the impatience is tempered by at least a modicum of pragmatic feasibility.
By "broadly held," I mean that idealism should extend to more than just one ideal and to ideals in more than just one category. Prioritization is fine, but totalizing is suspect.
Looking at the Abortion Abolition Movement, although I share the ideal of protecting unborn life, the goal of abolishing abortion, and the impatience with those who have promised far more than they have delivered, some of the specific strategic positions that have come to be part of the Abolition Movement confict with other ideals of mine.
I do not believe that there is any constitutional right to an abortion. It's not in the text of the constitution. It's not in the text of any of the amendments. It wasn't demonstrably on the minds of any of the people involved in drafting any of those documents. It wasn't in the minds of we the people when we ratified them. There is no constitutional right to an abortion. There is just a Supreme Court case inventing the fiction that there is a constitutional right to an abortion.
For at least a significant portion of the leaders in the Abolition Movement, the movement advocates nullification. You might remember a "Nullfication Crisis" from your history classes once upon a time. Nullification is the idea that individual states can simply invalidate Federal actions of which they disapprove. The Abolition Movement wants individual states to nullify Roe v Wade—to declare it not to be law in Texas and to govern contrary to its findings. Andrew Jackson nearly went to war over this idea.
I do not believe that there is a constitutional right to an abortion, but I do not believe that the answer to the abortion crisis is to make constitutional rights something (contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment) that individual states can nullify. Should states be able to nullify our First Amendment rights? Our Second Amendment rights? Alongside our shared ideal that the law should protect unborn infants stands (for me) my ideal that we should respect the rule of law and that we should acknowledge unalienable rights as…well…just as unalienable by the several states as they are by the Federal government.
The answer to the question of abortion is the overturn of Roe, not nullification. Our idealism should extend to not wanting Civil War and not wanting disposable rights under potentially despotic regimes as well as to the rights unborn babies have to life. Broadly held idealism.
The Abolition Movement, in my opinion, totalizes our ideals against abortion and jettisons other important ideals where they provoke tension with our impatience over this one.
Critical Race Theorists rightly observe that we have failed to live up to the ideals of freedom and justice that we have articulated. Martin Luther King, Jr. was especially gifted at pointing out the divergence between what Americans said about our ideals on the one hand and how we were treating our Black fellow citizens on the other hand.
But instead of saying that racism in America has amounted to a failure to live up to American ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution, Critical Race Theory suggests (or even outright asserts) that those documents and those ideals are flawed and incapable of achieving racial justice.
CRT, if I understand it correctly, is a call to seek to achieve equal justice under the law for Black Americans by abandoning the very ideals that made me desire that equal protection in the first place. CRT alleges that the Constitution is racist (not just the 3/5 Compromise, but the gist of the document itself and the system it established and perpetuates). Key ideas that lie behind and appear within the Constitution, such as the idea that people should get the same treatment at the hands of the law regardless of race, are singled out as part of the problem. Instead, Critical Race Theorists explicitly call for the law to treat people differently according to groups (akin to Affirmative Action, but applied beyond hiring to address law enforcement, for example).
The American ideals of justice arise significantly out of a biblical Judeo-Christian idea of justice. I cannot walk away from them. And there's no need to do so. Apart from CRT/I, Americans can share the very approach that MLK took by affirming the American tradition of law and justice and calling us to live up to our ideals.
For both of these movements, there's also a dire need to take notice of a little pragmatism. One wants to ask Critical Race Theorists whether their theories have been implemented successfully in ways that have achieved a civilization better for its minority populations than has the American experiment, our flaws and failures acknowledged and notwithstanding. One wants to ask the Abolition Movement whether the retrenchment of racial codes in the South after the Civil War and the realities of the segregated states a full century later really commend to us the path of impatient nullification and potential armed conflict as ways to achieve what we desire?
I'd call us to more (broadly held) idealism, not less of it. And I'd call us to the level of impatience that keeps the process moving, but since patience is a fruit of the Spirit, I'd call us to retain enough patience not to jump out of the process and burn it down.
Note: The Southern Baptist Convention has rejected Critical Race Theory and has adopted a resolution affirming a form of the Abolitionist Movement. I respect the voice of the messengers in both cases, and I'm more comfortable with the latter resolution after it was substantially amended from the floor.