I spent the first two of my first three blog entries (seen here and here) introducing myself. Now I am ready to dive into issues. As I stated in the first blog, I will tend to alternate between long essays and short pieces. This will be my first longer essay, and I will start with some of my latest research.
As a Christian I have wondered about the possibility of Christians becoming united. In racial issues this would mean multiracial churches and ministries. I have written quite a bit about that. But I have even thought about the denominational and theological divide. I mean if all of us Christians follow Jesus, then is it not possible that we can come together and support each other? I know we cannot agree on everything, but surely there are ways we can work together for a common goal. My latest bit of research has convinced me how Pollyanna my thinking has been.
Over the past few months I have published two peer review articles that pertain to this issue. In the first, published in Journal of Religion and Society, I sought to discover who progressive Christians liked or hated more – atheists or fundamentalist Christians. I figured that progressive Christians would disagree with atheists in their non-belief in God but disagree with fundamentalist Christians on political issues. I was curious about which disagreement mattered more to them. I identified theologically progressive Christians as those who do not see the Bible as the Word of God. I identified politically progressive Christians as those Christians who are politically progressive regardless of their theological stances. I identified denominationally progressive Christians as those who belonged to mainline or liberal Christian denominations.
I found that theologically progressive Christians rejected fundamentalist Christians but not atheists. Politically progressive Christians not only rejected fundamentalist Christians but also were quite accepting of atheists. Denominationally progressive Christians did not exhibit much of an effect. (Not surprising since denominations mean a lot less than they used to.) So in two of the three ways to identify progressive Christianity, progressive Christians rejected fundamentalist Christians more than they rejected atheists. It seems that their political disagreement with fundamentalist Christians matters more to progressive Christians than their theological disagreement with atheists.
My second study was just published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Credit goes to my co-authors, Marie Eisenstein and Ryan Burge, for agreeing to work with me on this endeavor. We were looking at the effect of Christian theological attitudes on how people feel about political conservatives, political progressives, atheists and Muslims. Once again theological attitudes were assessed as conservative if the Christian believed the Bible is the Word of God and as progressive if they did not believe it was the Word of God. Given that there is a correlation between having progressive theological and progressive political attitudes, we predicted that having a progressive theological perspective would correlate with animosity towards political conservatives and emotional warmth towards political progressives. We expected the reverse to be true as it concerns when we look at those having conservative theological perspectives.
We also wanted to assess the attitudes of Christians towards atheists and Muslims. Obviously both groups have theological disagreements with Christians. So we anticipated that conservative Christians would have animosity towards both groups. But progressive Christian theology emphasizes certainty and more acceptance of alternate religious beliefs. So they would probably have higher levels of theological acceptance than conservative Christians and more emotional warmth towards these two non-Christian groups.
What we found was that progressive Christians did not have more emotional warmth towards those two non-Christian groups. However, they did have emotional warmth toward political progressives while they had animosity towards political conservatives. On the other hand, conservative Christians did not necessarily like political conservatives nor did they have animosity towards political progressives. However, they did have animosity towards the two non-Christian groups.
Now what do the results of this study mean? Basically when you look at what we found, it becomes clear that theological conservatism tends to manifest itself most strongly as it concerns theological distinctions between Christians and non-Christians. However theological progressiveness tends to manifest itself most strongly as it concerns political distinctions between progressives and conservatives. When I lump the results of this research with my previous study I come to a conclusion. Theological issues matter more to theological conservatives while political issues matter more to theological progressives.
Now I move from the results of my research to speculate as to the different ways conservative and progressive Christians approach issues. This speculation is not directly linked to my results, but I think it is reasonable given what is now known. I speculate that when it comes to how a Christian is supposed to think of an issue, a conservative Christian first considers the theological application of the issue and then makes his or her decision. The progressive Christian first considers the political implications of the issue and then makes his or her decision. In other words, for conservative Christians religious beliefs drive political beliefs, while for progressive Christians political beliefs drive religious beliefs.
My speculation is not just based on my research. It is also based on my observations of conservative and progressive Christians. If one accepts, as I do, that no human group is going to develop a political ideology that matches perfectly to what God would want, then it is reasonable to believe that both conservative and progressive Christians should, at times, openly challenge the political ideology of their chosen group. It is a sad state of affairs in Christendom that more often than not, conservative Christians accept every tenet of the Republican Party as if political conservatism were ordained by God and progressive Christians do the same with the Democratic Party.
These Christians are challenging the Republican Party on an important plank of their platform. They are not merely tolerating the restrictive immigration policy conservatives have adopted. They are not merely asking to have freedom of conscience in the party. They are overtly resisting that policy. In doing so, these individuals have generally argued that their Christian values were more important than the political values of their political party. It is fair to say that many conservative Christian leaders, and conservative Christians in general, walk lockstep with their conservative ideology. They never truly challenge that ideology. But something within conservative Christianity has led some of them to challenge certain elements of that political orthodoxy.
However, I do not think the same can be said for progressive Christians. It is hard to think of an issue where they critique political progressives from the middle of the political spectrum, but if there is one, then it may be abortion. There are pro-life progressive Christians such as Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey. I invite you to read their postings on this topic. They oppose abortion, but you will note how much they downplay the need to change abortion laws. Instead they focus on creating social conditions that will result in fewer abortions. That is nice, but if you really think that abortion takes an innocent life, then would you not only want to create conditions that reduce abortion but to actually pass legislation that outlaws it? If we had slavery in society would we want slavery outlawed or merely change society so that there is less incentive for slavery? This is in contrast to the conservative Christians wanting immigration reform, or new laws, and not merely to have better social condition for immigrants.
If you read the work of pro-life progressive Christians, you will also see a criticism of the pro-life movement. You do not see conservative Christians who support immigration reform criticizing the movement supporting that reform. Indeed, you will be hard pressed to find progressive Christians criticizing other movements based in social justice. It is the type of virtue signaling that makes one wonder how seriously to take their concern about abortion.
This is not about whether immigration reform and/or a pro-life position is the appropriate Christian response. But if you believe that God wants to treat the immigrant well and thus want immigration reform, and you belong to a political party working against that, then it makes sense that you should make waves inside your party. You are even going to anger members of your party precisely because you are not accepting the party’s stance (Mention Russell Moore’s name among Christian immigration hawks and be prepared to duck. He has paid a price in his standing among conservatives for his position on immigration.). And if you believe that God does not want children killed in the womb, and you belong to a political party working to allow that, then it seems to me that you should advocate laws that limit or eliminate abortion except for the most unusual circumstances. You would so this even if it meant that members in your chosen political party did not like you doing that. Pro-immigration reform conservative Christians have prioritized their commitment to immigration so high that it supersedes their traditional political loyalties. The pro-life progressive Christians, for the most part, have not made that level of a commitment. For me the most logical reason for this lack of commitment is the priority of maintaining political alliances over Christian principles. This is a harsh statement, but given the findings of my research, this conclusion fits and explains a major difference between conservative and progressive Christians.
Now my arguments may be right or may be wrong. Perhaps in the future I will gain the qualitative data to investigate this further. Perhaps I, or some other scholar, will rework a quantitative data set and come to a different finding. But please do not clog up the comment section with claims that you or someone else is a progressive Christian who puts religious beliefs before political positions. Or do not tell me that you know conservative Christians who put politics before theology. Academic findings are not absolutes. Men make more money than women, but Oprah Winfrey can buy and sell about 100 men like me. Her wealth does not negate the reality that men make more money than women. Likewise stating that a given progressive Christian and his/her friends are all motivated by religion does not negate the findings of systematic research.
I have a frustrated desire to see unity between Christians. But if progressive Christians prioritize political legitimation and conservative Christians prioritize theological concerns, then how they can work together for common purposes beyond very general goals? Indeed, I have begun to wonder if conservative and progressive Christians are two distinctive religious groups. They may be so distinctive that the sort of reconciliation I have dreamed about is not possible. I think we should conceptualize conservative and progressive Christian as separate religious groups. They are both technically “Christian” but what that means is drastically different for each group.
I normally am a pretty optimistic fellow. But I have had to let go the dream of a united Christian presence in the United States. Rather than trying to figure out how to work together, it seems that conservative and progressive Christians have to find ways to tolerate and live with each other. Learning how to get along with each other is valuable. Looking to be allies is likely a waste of time.