Progressive Christianity Isn’t Progressive Politics!

You’re a progressive Christian? So you’re a liberal Democrat right?

Not so fast.

Sometimes words that seem similar have little to do with each other. The chances for confusion increase especially in the case of heteronyms (words that sound the same and spelled the same, but have multiple meanings). The bear had to bear the burden of having to hail a cab to escape the hail in order to bail out her friend who was charged with bailing a swamped canoe in the swamp that wasn’t hers.

The same is also true for the words liberal and progressive.

Liberal can refer to quantity — “a generous portion.” It can refer to a state of mind or disposition — “open-minded,” “open to new ideas,” “tolerant of diversity.”

Politically, almost all Americans in the U.S. are Liberals.


Both conservatives and liberals are subsets of the classical Liberal political system that birthed our nation, created our Constitution, and established our political parties.

The Democratic Party has come to be viewed as “the more liberal” of the two major political “Liberal” parties; i.e., it’s more focused upon reform and social justice, yet doing so in a gradual manner (as opposed to radicals). Here’s what John F. Kennedy said about that word:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Yet, as Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, with words, “meaning is use,” and liberal has often come to mean “someone who cares about the environment, reducing poverty, avoiding war, and who seeks to “promote the general Welfare of the nation” via progressive taxation.”

Which brings up the other word, progressive.


Progressive can refer to locomotion (either literally or metaphorically) “moving forward,” “evolving,” “improving,” “advancing,” with the tacit notion that what one is progressing toward is preferable and better. Suitingly, the term progressive came about after the term liberal.

Progressivism politically was birthed in the early 20th century and really emerged on the scene in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt defected from the Republican party to form the Progressive Party (which became known as the “Bull Moose Party”).

The Progressive party was highly egalitarian for its time and intentionally included women and many blacks. Key planks in their platform included such “progressive” things as: a National Health Service; “Social insurance” for the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled; an 8 hour work day; a minimum wage; an inheritance tax; a constitutional amendment to allow for a Federal income tax; women’s suffrage; direct election of senators; strict limits and disclosure requirements of campaign contributions; registration of lobbiests; and publishing Congressional proceedings.

[Roosevelt would be outraged by the recent USSC "Citizens United" ruling which deems corporations "persons" able to buy our politicians.]

Political progressives are more assertive than political liberals in reforming social conditions and the government to be less corrupt and unjust, and more accountable and democratic, yet they still fall within the larger classical Liberal political system as progressives aren’t radicals.

Progressive Christianity is the evolution of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity was a modern-era movement that was a fruit of the Enlightenment, which embraced academic biblical scholarship, and deferred to the authority of contemporary science. While open-minded in many ways, it was patriarchal, elitist, and ceded too much clout to the tentative insights of science.

Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened. Progressive Christians are open to the reality that God is vitally at work in other world religions; that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth; and that it’s best to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. Progressive Christians also tend to be pro-gay and view salvation more as a here and now phenomenon and not merely “where we go after we die.” Here’s how I defined it in my book, Kissing Fish:

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Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal approach to the Christian faith that is influenced by postmodernism and: proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ; emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person; emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism; emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later; emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell; emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal; stresses social justice, environmental protection, and non-violence as integral to Christian discipleship; takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding; emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs); embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery — instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas; does not consider homosexuality to be sinful; and does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is non-exclusive).

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Back to the original question.

Yes, I’m a progressive Christian, but I’m not a Democrat. I happen to be registered as an Independent/Unaffiliated, and I’ve met quite a few people who are fellow progressive Christians but who are registered Republicans and/or are conservative politically. Just because someone’s equally okay with referring to God as “She,” “Father,” “Mother,” “Om,” “the Ground of All Being,” or “Allah” — or just because they believe that there’s no need to convert their Buddhist neighbors — doesn’t mean that they’ll be voting for Obama in November.

Granted, it’s likely for conservative Christians to be conservative politically and it’s likely for progressive Christians to also be progressive politically. The two feed and reinforce each other (e.g., Biblical literalism and a strict constructionist take on the Constitution) and I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved in those who are one way politically and the other theologically. Consistency isn’t a human characteristic.

What’s motivating this piece are the many bloggers and media folk who are using the political terms liberal and progressive interchangeably, and/or are mistakenly equivocating the political versions of those terms with the theological versions — they ain’t the same.

There are many politically liberal Christians (e.g., many of the members of “The Christian Left” Facebook page) who most certainly do not identify with progressive Christianity. I’ve also met progressive Christians who vote Republican.


Life is messy — progressive Christianity is okay with that.


The Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor. He is the author of  Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity. In addition to contributing to Patheos, Roger also blogs for Sojourners, Huffington Post, and Elephant Journal.


About Roger Wolsey

Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves as the director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's the author of "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity."

  • Roger Wolsey

    For a bit more about progressive Christianity — the theology — see: This blog: “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity”

  • Roger Wolsey

    Bottom line: progressive Christianity is theology, not politics.

    Do you agree? Disagree? Here’s your chance to contribute to the conversation! : )

    • Henry Pascual

      I disagree if by politics what is meant is government policies involving equality, justice, civil rights, environment, affordable health care. Progressive cannot be divorced from these political issues mentioned above. If what is meant is political party, then I agree. There are some policies in both Republican and Democratic parties that seem not to align with progressive Christianity. Both Republican and Democratic parties play along with corporate greed, for example.

      • Roger Wolsey

        Henry, I certainly agree that a logical political implication of progressive Christian theology is the pursuit of egalitarianism, civil rights, care for the environment, and providing health care to the masses — and even using the means of secular politics and systems to help bring that about. However, theology is a different animal than politics.

        Here’s a sermon that I wrote that shares how and why I think that Church and State need to both be involved in helping transform and better our world:

        “Band-Aids Aren’t Enough!”

    • Jeannette Solimine

      I agree because Christianity calls for us to do the work, not the government. No matter what government is or is not, it is still a hierarchial institution that cannot ever be fully just no matter how many laws it passes, taxes it imposes, or assistance it gives. Progressive Christianity calls for us all to accept each other as we are, help each other when in need, and to leave each other’s belief system alone. Progressive politics calls for the government to interfere in every aspect of life and take and give according to the whim of the ruling party. The two can co-exist together and in many cases they do, but it is not a given.

  • Jarell Wilson

    I absolutely agree. I find it frustrating that so many people think that theology = politics or vice-versa. Or that being a political/theological conservative means that one has to be homophobic when that is not the case. In our attempts to use stereotypes to simplify things, we make situations infinitely more complicated than they need to be when all we really need to do is be willing to have conversation with people.

    • Roger Wolsey

      Well put Jarell!

  • laina

    THANK YOU for writing this! I am much more progressive in my theology than my politics, whereas, my husband is progressive in both theology and politics… It’s a difficult topic for us both to flesh through–especially in the middle of a heated election season! Perhaps this is because politics has been elevated in such a way to equate it with religion… IT’S NOT THE SAME!

    As for cognitive dissonance, I can see your point; however, as a Libertarian, there is no cognitive dissonance between social issues and fiscal issues. At least not for me. For example, I can be just fine with homosexuality and believe that gays should have the right to marry, but at the same time be against social welfare programs that just throw money at a problem and fail to empower/encourage independence from the government. A core difference between liberals and conservatives is that (at the extremes) liberals believe the answer to every problem is government; whereas, conservatives believe everything is up to the individual. Neither extreme is perfect because we don’t live in a vacuum, and we NEED each other; however, people tend to abuse privileges/handouts, and more often than not, government bureacracy = more red tape and money than is really necessary.

    • Roger Wolsey

      Wonderful response! For what it’s worth, here’s why I think the libertarian ideology has it wrong; i.e., my case for why both church and state are needed to better our nation and world:

      • Roger Wolsey

        see also Chapter 13 in my book Kissing Fish: “Creating Beloved Community: Peace & Justice” (a brief excerpt is provided)

    • Cynthia Beard

      I disagree that “people tend to abuse privileges/handouts.” Having served as a family caregiver for a disabled mother and also volunteered for social service agencies, I simply don’t see evidence of widespread abuse. What’s become more apparent in recent years, however, is that corporations take advantage of deregulation in ways that cause the average American to suffer (see: financial bailout of 2008, outsourcing and declining wages). But perhaps the main flaw in the logic that we should be “independent” of the government is that, according to our Constitution, we *are* the government.

      • Roger Wolsey

        A very helpful contribution Cynthia. Thank you! Yes, indeed, one of the beauties of our political system in the U.S. is the fact that “we are our government.” Alas, that reality has been diminished upon the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizen’s United” ruling which deemed corporations as being “persons” who are able to buy our politicians. : (

        • Cynthia Beard

          Good point. That’s why I shall be known from now on as Cynthia, Inc.

  • Postmodern semantic


    Too bad nobody cares about your semantics. I find this all to be quite silly give your affiliation with post modernism. Words don’t have objective meaning remember? looks like someone didn’t take enough (useful?) liberal arts classes D:

    It’s funny that you blame the media types for merging the words, when it was the progressives that hijacked the word liberal which should refer to the opposite of statist, not the epitome of it. It’s just like “fundamentalist,” which really has no meaning in the public forum other than acting as a supposed insult. No one cares that fundy Christians with their fundamentalists creed disparage its use as a condemnation.

    You are already following them, and by you mean progressives of all shades. It is becoming a bad word just like liberal, but have hope; I am sure that your ideological club that is probably the greatest force of entropy to human communication will find some other word to mutilate.

    How about socialism?

    Too honest? You probably do not want to associate the reality of government force that seems to always come around the corner when people disagree with your wispy metaphysical views or insane political policy.

    I am a liberal, you are most certainly not. But really, no one is listening aside from us blowhards reading this idiotic commentary that has no relevance in real life. Go nurture your shrinking flock, and please, PLEASE keep rambling ad nauseaum… It reminds those of us why we found your pathetic, hypocritical, and self destructive philosophy (despite all the one sided propaganda) wanting, and left it alone to die.

    Your statist utopia seems to be coming no matter what common sense and basic computational math says. See you in the food line comrade.

  • Ted Seeber

    Funny, when I think liberal, I think libertine- pro-choice, be that sexual or fiscal.

    And so, I’m out of step with America, and as a Catholic, I’m anything BUT progressive. I want to preserve the poor, not progress them by killing them off or not letting them have children. I want to preserve the nation’s wealth, not waste it by liberal free market experiments. I want to preserve the environment, not pollute it.

    I’m universal in a way the unitarian universalists will never be. And I’ll never be progressive. So thank you for this article. Because it clarified why I’m an exile in my own country.

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  • OakTree

    There is one Gospel and no other. We serve the Jesus of the Bible. He never changes or deviates from what the Bible says about Him. Anyone that teaches otherwise is cursed. The Bible is clear on homosexuality, in the Scriptures it is referred to as sodomy. There is no such thing as a progressive christian. When we move away form the authority of Scripture and do not take what is says literally, we suffer consequences. We give the devil grounds to deceive us and lead us astray. Only when we stand in the light of the Truth of God’s Word can we through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit overcome.