“God Needs You To Get Out of the Bubble”: Riverside Controversy Exposes Theological, Racial Fault Lines of the Christian Progressive Movement

Back in April, just a few months into the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton’s tenure as senior pastor of Manhattan’s vaunted Riverside Church, a small group of congregants filed a motion to prevent his official installation. Among other issues, the group cited both Rev. Braxton’s compensation package (over $600,000 per year including salary and benefits) and concern that the self professed “progressive evangelical” has steered the church “toward a more fundamentalist brand of religion.”

Last week, after the Reverend resigned, Jonathan Walton wrote in The Devil’s Advocate: “[W]ith the waning influence of liberal Protestantism in America, this is a tragedy of epic proportion. When a gifted and well-respected individual like Rev. Braxton can’t survive nine months at a venerable institution such as Riverside, it exposes the theological, ecclesial and even racial fault lines of the Christian progressive movement.”

[For more background and analysis read Preston Davis’ How Much is a (Progressive) Pastor Worth?, and Randall Balmer’s reflection on the Perils of the Pulpit.]

The following conversation between the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting and Dr. Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, took place via a series of lively emails over the course of two days. It has been edited for grammar and clarity, but it more or less appears as written.

Peter Laarman: Prof. Walton, I was really happy to see your initial brief take on Dr. Braxton’s resignation while it was still breaking news. Any additional thoughts now with the lapse of a few days? I am especially interested to know whether you think this is a special case or whether it is emblematic of a deeper problem. Your piece strongly suggested that this points to a deeper challenge than just the agonizing ordeal that this one influential congregation has been facing.

Jonathan Walton: You are correct, Rev. Laarman. I do suspect that the conflict at Riverside is a microcosm of broader issues plaguing progressive Christians in America. Over the years, Riverside has proven to be a courageous yet fragile sociological and theological experiment. (See: History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York) It has sought to embody the love ethic of Jesus by uniting persons across racial, class, and even religious lines toward the cause of social justice and Christian compassion.

It seems to me, however, that there are some normative religious and racial assumptions operating here that can no longer be taken for granted in this contemporary moment. Might it be time to assess these presupposed identity markers that were largely carved out of liberal Protestantism’s mid-20th century heyday? For one, in Riverside’s quest for ecumenicalism and inclusiveness, can we say what is particularly Christian about this Christian congregation? And what role does preaching and worship style play in reinforcing and/or undermining the dominant cultural values of American mainline Protestantism?

PL: I agree that from its inception Riverside has been an experiment. It is in the nature of experimentation to test and re-test prevailing assumptions. I have to wonder whether the leadership—both the church council and search committee—was able to have courageous conversations about precisely those key issues you raise: What has been assumed but not discussed in respect to racial and religious identity here? What is distinctively Christian at this institution that is trying to be responsive to a diverse metropolis and to the broader progressive community (whatever that means)? And how do we want our worship, and specifically our preaching, to reflect all of what we aspire to be in this time and place?

I have found that even small and relatively cohesive congregations find it acutely difficult to have these conversations; I can imagine that at Riverside, even were someone to propose going deeply into these matters, at least one busy and influential lay leader would be heard to say, “But who has the time?” and/or “If we go there, we may not like what we find?”

But say more about those mid-century identity markers you mentioned. I’m intrigued.

JW: There is a phrase among American religious historians that serves as a sort of internal criticism and corrective. It says, “The story of American religious history is one of Protestant Christianity, except when its not!” I wonder if this informs Riverside’s self-conception. Fifty years ago to be ecumenical and inclusive meant reaching out to other faith perspectives even as it was understood that the culture and ethos of our society was decidedly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Correct? If this was true, there was no need, then, to interrogate theological or ecclesial commitments that informed the character of liberal Protestantism. No need to ask what is “Christian” about liberal Protestantism. It just is!

Some have suggested that Dr. Braxton’s commitment to the scriptural text rendered him a biblical fundamentalist and a poor fit for Riverside. Hmmm. I find this laughable myself. Is this just a smokescreen for something else? Maybe style of leadership? Possibly unexamined racial bias? A combination of both?

PL: Fifty years ago (Eisenhower time!) white mainline Protestants took a great deal for granted, including the success of their broader liberal project. They and their forebears had invested very heavily in education and in social technologies of various kinds that they believed would ensure the success of the democratic experiment. If you read the sociology of that day (Talcott Parsons et al.) or read the thinking of leading educators (James B. Conant) you can sense a profound confidence that things will work out pretty well, and that even huge social disfigurations like segregation will give way to enlightened idealism in short order. Education was the elixir that would help “us” win the Cold War, defeat disease, turn back all forms of bigotry, and ensure prosperity and technological advance as far as the eye could see.

Now we look back at this kind of thinking and are staggered by its naivete and insularity. But you are right: at that time and to these people there seemed to be no need to interrogate the reigning theological and ecclesial commitments. Liberal education, supported by liberal religion, was “a machine that would go of itself.” Church leaders during the heyday of the liberal mainline hadn’t yet even taken into account what Karl Barth meant in referring to “the strange new world within the Bible.”

Which brings us back to Dr. Braxton: Are you saying that some Riversiders were incapable of hearing biblical preaching? Or rather that Braxton was suspected of not having sufficient critical distance in relation to these texts?

JW: Oh no, Rev! I learned long ago to never underestimate the theological sophistication of lay members. But I do think liberal Protestants must unpack the very notion of biblical preaching. The religious right and conservative Christians have co-opted the terms “bible-believing” and “evangelical” in such a way that they have become politically-based monikers from which many liberal Protestants quickly flee. Biblical preaching gets reduced to biblical inerrancy and evangelical orientation comes to signify theological narrowness and religious xenophobia.

Could it be that too many liberal Protestants have conceded sophisticated biblical hermeneutics lest they be accused of biblical apologetics? Sometimes I have to remind myself that Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King Jr. were both Bible-believing evangelicals.

But you never answered my previous question. Let’s not ignore the elephants in the room: race and money. I am sure there are many who would suggest that the tensions at Riverside have nothing to do with these larger theological and political debates we are discussing. I have heard reports of members who felt uncomfortable with Riverside becoming a “black church.” And others felt Dr. Braxton was committing highway robbery with his compensation package?

It seems to me that such racial and veiled class concerns reveal the ambiguity of the larger movement. Some want racial inclusion, but don’t want to lose the cultural status quo. And others outright reject any trapping of economic pretentiousness, even as they conceal their own economic privilege and immense wealth. Am I on to something, or just making this up?

PL: I hear those thundering elephants and I have no intention of ignoring them! But first a quick response to your point on liberals conceding or evading hermeneutics: yes, too many liberal Protestants are now Bible-phobic in general. A couple years back I guest-preached at an ultra-liberal Santa Monica church and took a lot of heat merely for grounding my sermon in a little bit of scripture. They ranted at me afterward about how “toxic” biblical materials are, apparently making no distinction between texts of terror and the good news of exodus and liberation. Unbelievable.

Back to the Braxton debacle: my guess is that a great many white liberals and some of the more siditty Black parishioners share the “too black” apprehension. I just don’t know enough about Dr. Braxton in relation to Dr. Forbes to know the extent to which this long-felt apprehension was ratcheted up upon Dr. Braxton’s arrival—or even upon the announcement of his call. What I really want to know is why more white people can’t be proud to be part of a West Harlem church that has a brilliant and scholarly black senior minister and that worships in the Black Church tradition while still honoring all the strands of its rich history.

That should be Riverside’s trajectory at this point, but it appears there is still strong resistance. I can’t help thinking that at least some of the resistance is related to the [William Sloane] Coffin legacy: Bill Coffin possessed a magical aura for the white Riversiders. He was High WASP but ultra-radical, exceedingly literate but also folksy, fully identified with civil rights but not nearly as directly involved as (Episcopal Bishop) Paul Moore in contesting New York City’s very own apartheid. I think the shadow of Coffin still plays a role here.

As for the money thing: yes, absolutely. Wealthy white liberals who know full well what elite professionals are paid in general (and also what elite black professionals in Manhattan are paid) really choked on the compensation package. And their feelings about “highway robbery” no doubt looped back to reinforce their “too black” fears.

I mean, where was it going to end? “Love offerings” and Rolls Royces and bling all over the place? Puh-leeze! This is Riverside! The Rockefellers built this place. Ostentation is not our style at all.

JW: Yes, Rev! You’ve hit the nail on the head. I particularly find troubling the “black church” or “too black” concerns. What does this even mean? Two consecutive African American pastors? Does this suggest that Riverside was previously a “white church”? I confess that it is hard for me to restrain judgment when it comes to this issue.

I recently read a wonderful new book by a sociologist that unpacks this particular problem, Korie Edwards’ The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. After studying interracial churches across the country, her work reveals that interracial churches are successful to the degree that preferences and perceived cultural mores of white members are privileged over those typically associated with persons of color. As long as white members are made to feel comfortable, racial harmony is maintained.

Herein lies one of those identity markers that many congregations fail to interrogate. For many racial inclusion too often means opening one’s doors to the racial other. But does this mean calling into question the racial consciousness and cultural privilege of white Christians? Edwards appeals to the notion of aversive racism—unconscious negative emotions toward people of color—to explain what might be going on within these communities. And, to be sure, black folks aren’t immune to perpetuating this sort of white supremacy. Aversive racism can be seen among people of color who for whatever reason would prefer not to be associated with cultural markers that would further racialize their bodies; a longstanding phenomenon of certain members of the “black bourgeoisie.” Sigh….

What do you think progressive Christians need to do in order to overcome this sort of class and culture contestation? The more we talk, the more I am starting to believe that true multiracial coalition-building might be little more than a theological pipe dream. Please put on your collar and pastoral care hat. I need some encouragement!

PL: “As long as white members are made to feel comfortable…” That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? And no, from the point of view of those who remain generally unaware of their privilege, “opening one’s doors to the racial other” most assuredly does not mean calling into question that privilege or its underlying racial consciousness, regardless of how much lip service is paid. The glorious light-filled cathedral church floats atop some really treacherous racial quicksand, as does the whole liberal enterprise.

But you wanted encouragement! Here is what I think: the main responsibility of progressive Christians is to grow up and get real about a whole range of things. Not just about the scope and the enormous long shadow of America’s original sin—although that knowledge is truly indispensable—but also about the way class works and the way concentrated wealth throttles the democratic process and the way America’s aggregated wealth has been and is, in fundamental ways, stolen from the rest of the world’s people and from the planet itself.

If I were preaching this or even counseling an individual congregant, I would say “God needs you to get out of the bubble! God is fully awake to the suffering and hope of Earth’s people—in a real way, that is what Jesus means—and YOU cannot afford to stay asleep! Even many of the things that blight your personal life—overwork, stress, competition, anxiety, addictions of all kinds—many of these are also connected to living inside the bubble and not recognizing your neighbors or your neighborhood.”

The significance of working, and I mean really working, across racial lines (which for many white people begins with shutting up and just listening to Black folk) is that African Americans have never swallowed the myths that white America keeps telling itself about our triumphal economic history (Blacks know how a lot of that wealth was piled up; and it wasn’t from the pluck and ingenuity of European-Americans), our perpetual innocence on the world stage, or any of that malarkey.

If the hard work of respectful truthtelling and respectful listening cannot happen in God’s house, then I do not know where it can happen. Yet it is much easier, within multiracial church settings, to just clamp the lid on tighter, especially if there is that aversive racism operating.

Riverside and Riversiders must know that something is broken by now. I believe they could pray for and receive a special grace that would let them understand just how broken; and that this brokenness did not originate with them and is way bigger and deeper than they ever imagined. And if they then find the courage to go deep and keep going and not run and hide, then maybe they can model for the rest of us how truthful and painful conversations can end up being powerfully liberating.

That is the only hopeful thing I see here: that God may not be finished with Riverside quite yet.

The editors are going to cut us off, but before they do, may I say how invigorating it is to engage this tough stuff with you? We should do it again, and soon.

JW: Well said, Rev!

Riverside is a phenomenal institution. Our nation is a better place as a result of the sermons that have been preached and Christian witness that has emanated from behind Riverside’s hallowed walls. But like all houses of worship, it is full of beautiful yet flawed people from the pulpit to the pews in need of God’s grace and human accountability. Let’s pray, even in this complicated and troubling moment, that Christian progressives everywhere might join Riverside in a period of self-criticism and repentance. This, my dear friend, is Riverside’s (and our) only hope.

One Luv!


N.B.: Read Rita Nakashima Brock’s response to this roundtable: We Might Need the End of Progressive Christianity