Politics and the Progressive Christian

Politics and the Progressive Christian August 10, 2017

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.

But when I look at the way some conservative Christian leaders approach political issues, I notice something interesting. There is a willingness among some Christian leaders to challenge Republicans from the middle of the political spectrum. Take the issue of immigration. Several conservative Christians such as Richard Land, Alan Noble, Napp Nazworth and a conservative Christian organization such as National Association of Evangelicals have all broken with conservative orthodoxy in calling for immigration reform. Arguably the best known conservative Christian supporter of immigration reform is Russell Moore. He has stated that he supports “a realistic means of providing a way to legal status for the millions of immigrants already here.”

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.


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  • graham

    Interesting post. I looked at the Australian labour for life page to see if they advocate for a change of policy rather than attitude. Indeed they do and another international example is the global catholic church at the leadership level is pro-life, sexually conservative but otherwise left wing. At the pew level there seems to be a lot of support for gay marriage bucking papal leadership. Also the (admittedly few) african American churches seemed to be theologically conservative but politically (at least mostly) progressive. Latino Christians might be similar from anecdotes I have recieved.

    So I wonder how unique the USA is in this, how it came to be, whether this could become a global trend due to usa’s soft power and how much race makes a difference in the usa.

  • Daniel H.

    On a macro scale I agree with the conclusion that “looking to be allies is likely a waste of time” but I don’t think this precludes alliances on individual topics. The aforementioned example of immigration is a good one, but I can think of a couple other areas where conservative Christians have successfully teamed up with secular liberals. Human trafficking/sex slavery has been a hot issue among conservative Christians and bipartisan legislation has been passed attempting to combat it. Also, the recent genocide in Sudan attracted interest in both sides. Sam Brownback (about as hated a name as you can find in liberal circles) in particular focused on the issue when he was governor in Kansas.

    • Criminal justice reform is also an area where collaboration has been fruitful. As a progressive Christian, I think these areas are important, primarily as an answer to our common calling, but also to keep us in practice speaking one another’s language.

      • Daniel H.

        That’s another good example. I remember reading awhile back about a very broad alliance that got legislation passed on combating prison rape.

  • Robert L Kendall

    I really enjoyed the well thought out reasoning here. I recently left what is becoming a progressive, affirming church, that I loved dearly. Coming from a far right, conservative background the first two years were filled with struggle, soul searching, and transformation for me. In the eight years I was there I bit my tongue more than I care to admit. Today I cross political boundaries on a regular basis while maintaining my belief in the inerrancy of the bible as originally given. This isn’t the place to go into my political ideas but I learned that the truth in politics is usually in the middle somewhere, balanced between a healthy sense of patriotic nationalism and Compassion inspired and required by the Gospel. After all, if you kill the goose, there will not be any golden eggs left.
    As far as the two groups coming together, I have personally seen it only once, and it required a disaster to happen. It was in the aftermath of Katrina, the two sides come together out of need and compassion. Groups that once fought over turf, came together in repentance and humility, begin to cooperate and pool resources. I’m not sure as to the extent it continues today but it did happen.
    So perhaps we have it far too easy, are far too comfortable, to see the need for any of that. Perhaps we are too fat and lazy in the US, too materialistic and worried about today, and not eternity, to really answer His call. Perhaps we, myself included, need to question our own hearts, and see if the Spirit Of God truly lives in these hearts of stone or not.
    Thanks again,
    Bob

  • Michael Straight

    It seems that because you found progressive Christians to have more antipathy toward conservative Christians than toward atheists you conclude that the source of their attitudes are political first and theological second.

    But is it possible that their attitudes are in fact theological at root? Perhaps progressive Christians regard what they consider a false version of Christianity to be a greater problem than atheism? The idea that heretics are worse than outsiders seems to be a dynamic that exists in some religious contexts.

    • George Yancey

      That is one possible alternative interpretation of the data. But then you have to ask the question about why conservative Christians do not also see progressive Christians as heretics worse than atheists? In answering that question I get back to my original thesis.

      • Michael Straight

        It could just be the differences in the content of their theological beliefs. Maybe Conservatives believe atheism is a greater threat to Christianity than progressivism, but Progressives see conservativism as a greater threat to Christianity than atheism.

        St. Paul spends a lot more time arguing with and warning about legalistic heresies than about atheism, and progressive Christians often point to those texts to argue with conservative Christians. Conservative Christians are a lot more interested in apologetics, arguing for the existence of God, and they often seem to see that the real danger of progressivism is that it seems to be a slippery slope towards atheism. So, at least from my anecdotal impressions of the two groups, it seems at least plausible that those differences in priorities could be rooted more in theology than politics.

        • George Yancey

          Interesting speculation. But I have read enough literature by progressive Christians to think that their objections of conservative Christians are void of political considerations. Most of the stuff I have read that is written by progressive Christians focus more on political issues than theological ones.
          And of course Paul did not argue about atheism. Atheism as a philosophical system did not really exists at that time of human history. Paul had plenty to say about not worshiping idols which was the non-Christian expression of the day. Combined with my observations on how progressive Christian bloggers avoid alienating Democrats relative to conservative Christian bloggers I am very comfortable with my conclusions.

  • The separation between the two comes down to two core questions: How is evil defined, and what do we do about it? It is ironic in a way that the progressive Christians are often motivated by a reaction to what they see (rightly) as fundamentalist Christians defining evil more broadly than the Bible does. The plethora of “moral sins”, i.e. dancing and drinking and such, are often held up as examples that drive progressives away from fundamentalist entities. “Only God can define sin, not some stuck in the mud preacher!!” Progressives then turn around and define sin themselves, mostly by undefining it. Whether downgrading the Bible from The Word of God to a piece of wisdom literature is the cause of this, or driven by it, is an open question. Curiously, given that no religion can long survive without a batch of “Thou Shalt Nots”, progressive Christians are as zealous to stamp out their list of Thou Shalt Nots as any 19th century Bible thumpin’ tent revival preacher. With differing views on what is evil it should come as no surprise that the views between the respective camps on what to do about evil are so divergent.

    So is there any common ground? Not much, but these are some:
    1) There is a God.
    2) Prison ministries. The reason this works as common ground is because the range of “what to do about it” is so limited that doing anything means doing pretty much the same thing.
    3) Disaster relief. There’s no relevant underlying argument over the responsibility of those hurting for their plight, nor over whether helping them will be enabling. Immediacy and urgency drive the divisions away.

  • Doug Johnson

    I refuse to accept the proposal that the Gospel of Christ cannot bring true believers to a sense of unity. If this cannot happen, it is because there is a critical theological corruption by one or both parties. (I wonder who we would entrust with being the arbiter of that question.) Ideology, sad to say, trumps everything of value in life and we choose it far too recklessly. I cannot change what other people do but I can be the kind of man that values the soul of others whether I agree with their politics or not. I will worship with those who hold views that I think are in error and not divest myself from fellowship over this. This is rarely reciprocated.

  • Tim

    Very good essay dealing with progressive Christianity. There have been three moral visions that have dominated the moral landscape over the entirety of the history of America. At the beginning of our country’s history, White mainline Protestant Christianity ruled the day. They offered the moral vision of generic Protestantism. Reluctantly, they allowed Catholics and Mormons a little more say as their numbers swelled and Mormons became a little more American. Then beginning in the 1970’s White Evangelicalism ruled the Day with the emergence of the Moral majority and the Christian Coalition. Catholics and Mormons were allowed a say as long as they were politically conservative. Now, a new moral vision has emerged. Today, White progressives rule the day. They will quickly point out the hypocrisy of White evangelicals, but never do the same to their White mainline friends. Why? Because they share much the same worldview. Both groups are committed to the fact/value distinction. Possibly this is some empirical evidence that may give credence to my assumption

  • Jim

    There’s a very strong undercurrent in this piece of assuming a priori that conservative Christians are theologically “correct”, and that progressive Christians are driven by their political opinions into theological error.

    You may believe this is true, but I suspect that progressive Christians would contend that it isn’t.