“Progressive” Religion or Just Religion?

Last week HuffPo Religion‘s executive editor Paul Raushenbush wrote about a “stunning resurgence” of progressive Christianity. The right, he notes, had been the “default religious voice” of the final three decades of the twentieth century—but its loud, extended run may be over.

Why did progressive religion languish for so long? Ed Kilgore has explained this way: 1) the religious left is a smaller and less homogeneous movement than religious conservatism; 2) secular progressives have little use for religion; and 3) when political progressives do decide to reach out to faith groups, they generally reach out to conservatives.

This last challenge, Kilgore reminds us, tends to reinforce the belief of both religious conservatives and many secular observers that the only authentic faith traditions are those that identify godliness with patriarchal cultural conservatism and/or literalist approaches to sacred texts.

This discussion about progressive religion reminds me of the discourse around moderate Islam. These modifiers for religious identity represent an attempt to map spiritually motivated social engagement onto broader political trends in a way that distorts both religion and politics. “Progressive” is usually shorthand for the blue side of our nuance-flattening red/blue political division. When the term “moderate Muslim” is used, the person speaking or writing is usually a non-Muslim who is trying to gauge where Muslims fall in a stark “us vs. them” perspective on the world.

This conceptual polarization presents a number of problems for religious groups and their potential for political impact.

Using modifiers to characterize spiritual commitments—whether “progressive” Christianity (for example) or “moderate” Islam— promotes the idea that groups with progressive or moderate values are outliers within their own traditions. And, conversely, this rhetoric privileges the points of view of coreligionists who adopt a more insular or exclusivist interpretation of a shared tradition.

So modifying “Christianity” with the word “progressive” tacitly accepts (or subtly asserts) that the values of progressives aren’t at the heart of what Christianity is all about.

This is similar to what’s afoot when conservative evangelicals say they are “just Christian”—they are placing themselves, shrewdly if inaccurately, at the center of the tradition and shifting everyone who sees things differently to the fringe.

The same pattern plays out with the modifiers to Islam. To say that someone is a “moderate Muslim” is to assert that Islam writ large is something other than what’s implied by the word “moderate.”

Muslims, especially in the United States, have generally rejected the label “moderate Muslim” precisely because they do not want to cede this rhetorical territory to those who would vilify them or further politicize their religious identity.

And progressive religious groups, mindful of funders who want to nurture the values and energy that these groups can bring to their core priorities, might similarly consider this rhetorical repositioning.

This modifying of religion to add a progressive or left-leaning flare is a response to the rise of the Religious Right decades ago, a potential counterweight to conservatives’ overwhelming success at reshaping the religious and political landscape of late 20th century America.  But rather than build a counterweight, now is the time to resurrect the idea that “religion” is an inherently progressive, dynamic, unfolding beast.  The very definition of what religion is needs to be amended to reflect a simple truth- any religious movement that does not adapt and change is fated to dwindle and disappear not long after its founder leaves the stage.

And while it is useful for sociologists and other academics to create categories and typologies that highlight distinctions within religious groups, it may be unwise for those groups to adopt social-scientific categories as definitive expressions of their living spiritual lineage.

So what to do? Stop calling broad-minded, non-exclusivist movements “progressive” or “moderate” religion. Stop asking individuals who are deeply devoted to their religious traditions to qualify their religious identity in political terms that over-simplify who they are, what they believe and what they do as a result.

Moreover, stop ceding the rhetorical high ground to groups that have no claim to it, whether they are the most conservative of evangelicals or the most radical of violent extremists. The idea that to be American is to be religious, and that to be religious is to be conservative, has been embedded in our culture for too long. Progressives must realize that this warped playing field will be leveled only when the idea that religion is inherently “conservative” ceased to go uncontested in our public discourse.  Fight for the middle, not the edges of the religious landscape.

Perhaps we don’t need more “progressive religious movements” or “moderate Muslims.” Instead we need for people who see the moral imperative to serve the common good as the heart of their religious identity to boldly occupy the center of their religious traditions and refuse to be relegated to the fringe.

Those who want to use religion as a tool to divide and diminish would then be forced to justify their own legitimacy and authority. Invite to the table those who have been turned off by the “Culture Wars” but who do no want children to starve, the elderly to be prayed upon or the earth to be destroyed.

If religious folks start staking a claim to the centrality of moral traditions that transcend the red vs. blue, us vs. them divide, we may start to see a cultural shift in which being a Christian means that you speak out for the oppressed, or that being a Muslim signifies that you are someone who cares for the orphan and the widow.

The truth is that for many faithful Christians and Muslims, those things are already so. It’s time for our rhetoric to catch up with that reality.