Progressive Piety and Conservative Politics: On Kaepernick, Tebow, and American Christianity

Blogger and author Michael Frost recently drew a comparison between Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback widely panned for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial violence in policing, and Tim Tebow, an NFL quarterback who made headlines in 2011 for kneeling on the end zone to pray.

Frost points out that Kaepernick and Tebow are both Christians motivated by their faith, but that the two received a very different response.

After briefly describing each man, Frost writes that:

It seems to me that Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick represent the two very different forms that American Christianity has come to.

And not just in the United States. In many parts of the world it feels as though the church is separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.

One version is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest.

One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination.

One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of political and social transformation.

One is reading the Epistles of Paul. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.

One is listening to Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham. The other is listening to William Barber and John Perkins.

One is rallying at the March for Life. The other is getting arrested at Moral Monday protests.

You can see where this is going. The bifurcation of contemporary Christianity into two distinct branches is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

I feel like Frost comes really close to hitting on something important, but stops short and misses something equally important. Take this paragraph, for instance:

In many parts of the world it feels as though the church is separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.

Or this bit here:

One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of political and social transformation.

Frost seems to be contrasting conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, on the one hand, with progressive evangelicals and mainline Christians, on the other. That’s all well and good, but what’s baffling is that Frost paints progressive believers as political and conservative believers as not political. Equally baffling is Frost’s suggestion that conservatives value personal piety while progressives do not.

Look at this comparison between Tebow and Kaepernick:

One version is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest.

Anyone who thinks what Tebow did was “private prayer” rather than a public statement is fooling themselves.

Tebow’s act was not private. It was public. I grew up in an evangelical home. I prayed a lot, and I do mean a lot. I rarely got on my knees, and when I did it was in private, generally in my bedroom, not in the middle of a mall or a library or a sports field. That is private. This was not.

In addition, Tebow’s act was not simply a prayer. It was also a protest. There is a claim on the evangelical Right which Tebow is a part of that Christians are persecuted and that Christianity has been forced out of the public square. Tebow utilized his public platform—the athletic field—to put inject some religion into the public square. There is no way that was unintentional.

Before I go on, let’s have a quick refresher of Frost’s claim:

In many parts of the world it feels as though the church is separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.

This is a distinction without meaning. Conservative believers’ “emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality” is political. They (and Tebow among them) would like to see abortion and same-sex marriage banned. Republican political candidates have campaigned on these issues for over a generation. This is the whole premise of the “moral majority.”

Lest anyone say conservative evangelical opposition to abortion and homosexuality should be considered moral rather than political because the motivations for these political actions are moral, let me head that right off by noting that the motivations for political activism engaged in by progressive evangelical and mainline Christians are also moral. For progressives, social justice is a moral issue.

I’m also flummoxed by the claim that conservatives, and not progressives, value personal piety and gentleness. This is sheer nonsense. Progressive believers, too, have personal faith and a moral code. As for gentleness, a term that is left undefined, in my experience progressive evangelicals and mainline Christians tend to exhibit more gentleness on average than evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, not the other way around.

My own evangelical parents adhered to “spare the rode, spoil the child” in a way that was anything but gentle, and I’d say the same of their opposition to abortion and gay rights.

Frost references conservatives’ respect for cultural mores. What does he mean, exactly? Is he talking about conservative evangelicals’ longstanding opposition to women’s equality? In many churches women still aren’t allowed to teach mixed groups; they’re only allowed to serve in the women’s ministry or the children’s ministry. Does he mean their traditional opposition to interracial marriage? What are these cultural mores?

Let’s not lose sight of Frost’s overall claim, though, as that is what I want to critique. Frost argues that one group of Christians—conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists—emphasize personal piety while the other group—progressive evangelicals and mainline Christians—emphasize political activism. This is reductive and inaccurate.

No, the actions taken by Tebow and Kaepernick were not identical. But both were acts of public protest, and both were motivated be strong, deeply personal religious beliefs. Both men are political (Tebow campaigns against abortion, Kaepernick against police brutality). Both men knew that by taking a knee they would be making a public statement.

Frost concludes by making the following argument:

The bifurcation of contemporary Christianity into two distinct branches is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

Yes, there’s a serious divide between conservative and progressive believers, a divide that should not be ignored or downplayed. I’m just not sure this divide looks like Frost thinks it does—or that it could resolved by simply combining the two traditions. On a host of issues, the two are mutually incompatible. Furthermore, neither is missing some chunk of religious practice or belief—both groups already have piety and both groups have political activism.

Progressive believers, like conservative believers, have personal piety, moral values, and some iteration of gentleness (however we are defining that). Conservative believers, like progressive believers, are politically active. The two are in many ways very similar; they simply have different interpretations of theological texts, different sets of moral values, and a different list of items on their political agendas. You can’t put the two together the way Frost seems to think you can.

To give an example, conservative believers tend to believe that sex should be saved for marriage, that women are obligated to meet their husbands’ sexual needs, and that rape frequently happens because of women’s actions. Progressive believers tend to place less emphasis on saving sex for marriage and more emphasis on consent, arguing that a healthy sexual ethic is one that focuses less on taboos than on ensuring that every person is treated with respect and dignity. How do you combine that?

Conservative and progressive believers tend to have very different ideas about what Jesus taught. They have different ideas about what the Bible says, and about the underlying meaning of Christianity. It’s not that one side has piety and the other has politics. Frost seems to imagine that the two traditions are separate parts of Christianity could be put together like two puzzle pieces to create an even better cohesive whole.

I’m tired of this sort of “both sides are missing something” approach to conservative and progressive religious believers. The idea tends to fall apart upon further explanation. Furthermore, this claim tends to minimize both the harm done by conservative political activism and the extent of progressive theological depth and devotion.

 

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