What’s Wrong With Being Liberal?

What’s Wrong With Being Liberal? February 19, 2016

It is the season of not wanting to be a Donald-Trump supporter, Islamophobic, and racially insensitive. So why can’t evangelicals just admit when they are liberal? For almost thirty years (anyone remember Michael Dukakis?), the L-word has spooked most of the people who are liberal. And yet, evangelicals persist in calling themselves everything but liberal. David Gushee is the latest:

Progressive evangelicals tend toward a Radical Reformation type Gospel centered on the justice-advancing ministry and teachings of Jesus, and on his message of the kingdom of God as holistic salvation and social transformation (see Stassen/Gushee, Kingdom Ethics). Conservative evangelicals mainly lean toward a Calvinist/Lutheran Gospel centered on Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls, on biblical inerrancy and pure doctrine, and on conservative social values. Of course, even these different Gospels (and there are other variants) should not make cooperation impossible, but the differences are quite profound.

We used to call that the modernist-fundamentalist split. What happened?

John Fea doesn’t call “progressive evangelicals” liberal. But he gives reasons for using the word:

Evangelicals have embraced social justice in the past and they continue to embrace it in the present. Henry and Ronald Sider come to mind. So do all of the young, socially-conscious evangelicals I encounter at Messiah College. But without the Cross, and the message of salvation preached by people like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and others, it is hard to say that these “Radical Reformation” Christians are evangelicals.

Take William Jennings Bryan for example. He was a fundamentalist who cared about doctrine (especially creationism) and the Cross. His economic policies were close to socialism. He had a lot in common with the Social Gospel Movement (and the kind of “Radical Reformation” Christians that Gushee invokes), but I don’t think The Great Commoner belongs with Washington Gladden or Walter Rauschenbusch, the leaders of the Social Gospel efforts. Bryan believed that social justice and the care for the economic plight of common people were inseparable from the Cross and conversionism.

Fea thinks “centrist evangelicalism” is alive and well. What I don’t think he considers is that Protestant modernists started out as evangelicals too. Many were supportive of revivals and personal piety. But once the demands of social justice kick in and progressive social outcomes become symptoms of the kingdom of God, distinguishing conversion or the cross from working for social justice becomes impossible (which is odd because lots of non-believers, Jews, and Mormons promote social justice). If women’s suffrage is an expression of the gospel and women get the vote, then non-Christian women voting is as much evidence of genuine Christianity as Christian getting the vote.


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