Will the Real Progressive Christians Please Stand Up?

Much is being made of the current “food fight” among religious progressives. Well, “much” is probably too strong. Christian, Jewish, and other religious progressives haven’t received very much media attention for the past three decades. Now is no different.

To this day, the religious controversies that gain mainstream media notice are those that come from the right—specifically the Christian right. There’s a reason for that, though a troubling one. The Christian right is still the largest network of elitist money combined with grassroots organizing power in the United States (the latter, progressive philanthropists have yet to notice, does require a bit of the former). It is still a momentous powerhouse, however discredited by scandal, disheartened by the election, and disrupted by fractures in its ranks. So disputes on the right get the mainstream media’s attention. Has Cizik become a tree-hugger? Has Dobson foreseen the state of the world in 2012? Has Warren gone soft on gays? Has a family feud broken the Crystal Cathedral?

But be encouraged, lovers of equal-time arguments and sidestream media! There is now a controversy on the “religious left”—or is it the “center left,” or the “religious liberals,” or the “progressives,” or the “progressive evangelicals”? That, in fact, is part of the argument, especially among the Christians. Who is what? And it is not some trivial argument over words—at least it’s not simply that. It is also a debate about where (okay, I’ll use this term since most everyone else tends to gravitate toward it) “progressive Christianity” comes from and what it stands for. Will the real progressive Christians please stand up?

This debate leads quite naturally to another one, about strategy. How far to the right should progressive Christians reach out in order to get their message heard and their vision implemented? Indeed, how far can they reach in a conservative direction and still be true to their vision? This discussion is not unrelated to the other, because where you root progressive Christianity, where you locate its sources, pretty much (though not totally) determines how you come down on the strategy question. Let me explain.

Progressive Christians, like every other kind, claim to base their convictions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For them, that focus is particularly on the biblical call for justice. They don’t try to “prove” its Christian validity by quoting individual Bible verses (that’s an “unbiblical” practice that even the founding fundamentalist theologians of the 19th century rejected). They proclaim its Christian mandate by noting that the call for justice is a pervasive and fundamental element of the biblical witness, and they illustrate it by citing the messages of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the words of Jesus as reported in passages like Matthew 25 and Luke 4, and the real meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the “kingdom of God.” (Regardless of what preachers often tell you, the kingdom of God in the New Testament is not a purely “spiritual” thing “within you”; it is a social/political/individual reality that is always already appearing “in the midst of you.”) This message grounds almost all forms of progressive Christianity; it unites them.

Four Phases of Christian History in America

Recent Christian history is what leads to the differences in progressive Christianity today, especially in its Protestant forms. There are at least four phases of that history. The first is the evangelical movement of the middle third of the 19th century. Christians in this movement rejected the mainline church’s indifference to injustice: they considered freeing slaves, opposing the extremes of great wealth and poverty, and advocating the equality of men and women to be part of what it means for an individual to follow Christ.

The second phase, after the Civil War (when evangelicalism became inward and apolitical), is the rise of liberal Christianity. The liberals affirmed the social commitment and hope for radical social change that evangelicalism had abandoned, but they also insisted that Christian faith must be rational and consistent with the data of social and physical sciences, however much these may challenge traditional beliefs.

The third phase, after World War I (when liberalism lost its hope and much of its creativity), is neo-orthodoxy. The neo-orthodox called for a return to the central message of the Bible—interpreted in light of modern knowledge, not dogmatic superstition. And one crucial element of that message, they said, is that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. In other words, we cannot equate our views, including especially our theologies, with God’s point of view.

The fourth phase influencing progressive Christianity today is a series of creative theological movements that began after World War II (when neo-orthodoxy lost its grip on American Christianity—isn’t it interesting how wars change theological thinking!). This series culminated in the variety of perspectives today called “liberation theology.” Whether in its Latin American, feminist, African American, or other manifestations, liberation Christianity holds that sin is social (structural) as well as individual, and that salvation promises wholeness for all dimensions of life—political and economic as well as personal and spiritual—in history as well as beyond it.

Differences Among Progressive Christians Today

Are there divisions among progressive Christians today? I don’t think so, but certainly there are important, substantive differences. To generalize boldly, there are two points of view. I will label them—facetiously, and in hopes of offending them equally—the “purists” and the “accommodators.”

The purists appreciate all four antecedents of the current progressive Christian vision. But they are especially indebted to the liberals and the liberationists. So the purists today understand progressive Christianity to be a radical, comprehensive call for justice; it is not any old stance that happens to be is “progressive” on this point or that in comparison to the status quo. A right-winger who starts recycling has made progress, but he is not a progressive Christian. An evangelical who thinks the poor need to be fed is not, for that fortunate reason alone, a progressive Christian—even if she is a progressive among evangelicals.

Progressive Christianity, instead, is pointed and pushy—“prophetic,” some would say. It insists on unmasking and undoing the social, political, and economic structures (St. Paul called them “the principalities and powers”) that perpetuate the gross inequality of economic opportunity, the government’s control over a woman’s body and a couple’s love, ecological degradation, militarism, a health care system that privileges the already privileged, and so on. Purists believe that radical call, so conveniently ignored in any case, will be lost entirely if it is linked to the piecemeal and usually tepid “progressive” advances among conservative Christians.

The accommodators may understand progressive Christianity in much the same way as the purists. But even if they do, they take what they see as a more “realistic” approach to addressing the ills of the world. They may even claim that it is theologically better, too. The accommodators, like the purists, are informed by their evangelical, liberal, neo-orthodox, and liberationist teachers, but they are especially mindful of the neo-orthodox insight that we all fall short of “the glory of God.” For that reason it is much more difficult than the purists imagine, they say, to separate the pure from the impure progressives. And I think the progressive Christian accommodators tend more to emphasize personal transformation and local action in a manner reminiscent of 19th-century evangelicalism. This focus on personal discipline and communal bonding already makes them more open to the more progressive of the evangelicals around them.

What is Most Likely to Work?

When all else fails, though, the debate between the purists and the accommodators moves quickly to the question of strategy—what is most likely to work?—because both progressive Christian camps want desperately to make a difference in the world today. The purists say progressive Christianity will lose its identity, to say nothing of its prophetic power, if it is conjoined with the single-issue movements for change among conservatives. As evidence, they cite the stark absence of a structural critique of the sources of poverty from Sojourners magazine, to say nothing of its silence on gay rights, including marriage equality.

Progressive Christianity, say the purists, stands for fundamental and comprehensive change, not piecemeal charity and selective justice.

The accommodators contend that a progressive vision will be communicated most effectively if it is shared with the more compassionate, open-minded conservatives who are now gaining voice on the center-right of American politics. And the best way to share that message is to work with these conservatives whenever their commitments overlap with those of progressive Christians. It is not enough to be clear about what we believe, they insist, or even to be forceful; progressive Christians must also get someone to listen to them. And the best way to get a hearing is to work alongside others whenever the opportunity arises. As evidence, they cite the electoral victories in places like Ohio, where progressive groups from the moderate left to the moderate right joined forces to challenge and undo the longstanding hegemony of the extreme Christian right. Fundamental and comprehensive change, say the accommodators, will most likely come in small “compromising” steps, over frustrating spans of time.

Both the purists and the accommodators make valid points. And, quite likely, each viewpoint will be strengthened if it remains within the critical purview of the other. That is, in fact, what is happening. Progressive Christians are not dividing, but they are differing in ways that are for the most part constructive. Peter Laarman, a purist who heads Progressive Christians Uniting, never denies the motives behind (and the value of) the work being done by progressive/evangelical coalitions. Jennifer Butler, an accommodator who leads Faith in Public Life, never denies the need for fundamental economic change in this country—in fact she insists on it, even as she also facilitates collaborative efforts toward much more limited ends.

In his April 12 piece in the New York Times, Frank Rich quotes Howard Gardner, the Harvard education professor who says that if change is to come to America and to last, there must first arise a “counternarrative to replace ‘money is king.’” That counternarrative, I believe, must also challenge the narratives according to which white is king, heterosexism is king, humanity is king, Christian is king, nation is king, management is king, militarism is king, and, indeed, America is king, to name just a few of the diabolical illusions still reigning today.

Progressive Christians must continue to differ and challenge each other if both (all) of their viewpoints and strategies are to be strong. But they must also continue, ever more resolutely, to work as one to contribute—from the resources of Christian faith—to the development of a new national and international narrative that promises what the Bible symbolizes as a “new heaven and a new Earth.”