James Davison Hunter, in his new book, (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World), examines the Christian Left, and he opens with a quotable line:
After observing the the Christian Right is shaped by the Mythic Order and Decline Story, the progressives have a different one:
“progressives have always been animated by the myth of equality and community and therefore see history as an ongoing struggle to realize these ideals” (132).
How true/accurate is this sketch of the two sides? Are Dobson and Wallis mirror images of one another? Is the Christian Right trusting in power too much? Trusting too much in politics and the political process?
The progressive myth of equality/community emerges out of Augustine, the Waldensians, St Francis, St Thomas More and yet its distinguishing features today are clearly a legacy of the Enlightenment. In particular, the French Enlightenment of liberty, equality and fraternity with an emphasis on justice. Secular progressives focus on individual autonomy and freedom; the religiously shaped progressives focus on community and liberation from oppression. Hunter sees the progressive vision of the future as a secularized version of biblical eschatology.
The movement reached its peak in the middle of the 20th Century, according to Hunter.
But I would argue its influence, while maybe seeing its most visible in the 1950s and 1960s, remains pervasive: its liberationist ideals have become encoded more in DC than the Christian Right, for whom it is still largely a struggle to be heard.
Hunter then sketches the rise of the Evangelical progressives — think Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Sharon Gallagher, Tom Sine, Randall Balmer etc. They gained traction with the Democratic loss to Bush in 2004, and now are in a young but significant place.
Deep in the heart of Evangelicals Progressives is the belief that the Christian Right has bastardized the gospel and the church. The language and rhetoric make this clear, and Hunter cites it judiciously — Wallis and Sine and Balmer…. their ressentiment is that they are reacting to the Christian Right.
Hunter traces this rhetoric and energy to the eclipse in power of the progressive Christian voice; they have been marginalized. They are fighting back in order to get power (here’s Nietzschean theory again). So the goal — good citations here — is to take back power or share the stage of power.
Again, the theory is the same as the Christian Right: politics is the solution. Hunter says Wallis is as much connected to the Democrats as Dobson is to the Republicans. Hunter sees this as a faith-based extension of the Left’s discourse. Hunter thinks Wallis’ style is as much civil religion as is Dobson’s, but uses different texts than does Dobson.
The Christian Left, Hunter argues, imitates the Christian Right.