I (Alan Duval) have interviewed progressive Christian, former Evangelical pastor, and vocal part of the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren.
McLaren is an interesting figure in progressive Christianity, not least because one seldom hears the words “progressive” and “evangelical” in the same sentence, and when you do, one is seldom in reference to the other. He was “a college-educated fundamentalist son of a college-educated fundamentalist father,” so maybe the move to “former” evangelical was inevitable. He is vocally opposed to the union of evangelicalism and the Republican party, but even more so in light of the Trump candidacy.
Hi, Brian, thanks for agreeing to this interview.
I’d like to start, if I may, by just getting a quick overview of who you are and what you do. So, who is Brian McLaren, and what does Brian McLaren do?
I started my career as a college English teacher. Then I became the pastor of a nondenominational church for twenty-four years. For the last ten years I have been a writer and speaker on topics relating to Christianity, contemporary issues, and what a viable and constructive twenty-first spirituality might look like.
Could you give a quick run-down on the political and religious climate you were raised in, and any significant stops along the way, before your present position?
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian setting – a small sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Then I got involved with the Jesus Movement, which was eventually folded into American Evangelicalism. Over the years I served as a pastor, Evangelicalism became increasingly the hostage or mistress of right-wing Republican politics in the US, a dysfunctional relationship that has culminated in the candidacy of Donald Trump. In the late 90’s, I became thoroughly disillusioned with this right-wing captivity of Evangelicalism and have been involved with what many call “the emerging church” or “the emergent conversation” – a conversation among thoughtful Christians (and there are parallel conversations among Jews) about shifts and changes entailed by moving from a modern, extractive, colonial cultural context to a post-modern, post-extractive, post-colonial cultural context.
I most recently came across your work in your Religious News Service article, ‘Like Katy Perry, I broke up with the conservative evangelical project.’ Given that article, do you see your current position as a departure from Evangelicalism, a departure from American Conservatism, or both? (Or is it, more, that they have moved away from you… or is the situation somewhere in between all of these?)
Evangelicalism is my heritage, but it’s hard to tell what Evangelical means anymore. I would be more likely to call myself a progressive Christian, and would see American conservatism as being incompatible with Christian ethics as I understand them.
That article details 10 reasons why you parted ways with the “political project to which evangelicalism was giving its soul”, and it struck me that those 10 reasons wouldn’t be out of place in a secularist or moderate liberal atheist manifesto, particularly if they were former believers. That must be a sobering thought, given the years of your life that you have given to evangelicalism, and to a lesser extent, conservative politics. Do you see yourself more as trying to bring Evangelicalism on your journey, or merely stopping it from taking the journey it seems to be on, which is to say, supporting Trump (given your signature on that anti-Trump open letter)?
American Evangelicalism seems to me to be so fragmented and so morally compromised at this point that it’s hard to imagine any kind of coherent response from Evangelicalism as an entity. I’m more simply trying to raise my voice and articulate an alternative for younger generations of conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. (It’s important to remember that in the US, the Religious Right is composed of large numbers of conservative Catholics along with Protestants.) I think Trump would be so dangerous and disastrous nationally and globally that I can’t be silent – and I don’t want to mirror his ugly rhetoric either. So the challenge is finding ways to speak positively yet directly in this political context.
Back in 2010 you said, “It’s not hard to fall out of the good graces of the most conservative elements of any religious community.” You have been vilified by the likes of CARM’s Matt Slick (who many online atheists will know), Christianity Today’s Scot McKnight and Evangelical blogger Tim Challies, in his ‘The False Teachers’ series. Do you see them as stalwarts of Evangelicalism, or as unwittingly being dragged along with the religio-political juggernaut that is the marriage of Evangelicalism to the GOP?
I think the conservative wings of nearly all religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, whatever – are in an anxious state, realizing that the foundations of the world in which they were founded are being shaken. They don’t know how or if they can survive in a fast-changing environment, and so end up becoming reactionary forces, desperate for their own survival, even at the cost of the common good. Some assume that religion itself is going to go extinct, but my suspicion is that religion (the human endeavor focused on meaning-making, moral formation, and community formation) will be as needed as ever as we move forward, but needed in very different ways. So I see the people you mentioned as fulfilling the expected roles of conservative gatekeepers, a path I couldn’t in good conscience follow.
You recently said, “The version of Christianity which we have supported is perfectly designed to produce a civilization that is unsustainable, conflicted, out of balance, and vulnerable to catastrophic collapse.” Elsewhere you say, ‘The Christian faith needs to be radically converted to a new fuel. We need to be energized by something other than beliefs; because beliefs are not the point.” Not the point? That’s not to say beliefs are insignificant. They are powerfully significant, for better or worse.’ Would care to expand on these ideas further?
The first third of my new book (The Great Spiritual Migration) is devoted to this subject. My suspicion is that Jesus would not feel at home in the religion that bears his name because his project by all accounts was far more radical. Rather than substituting a system of behavior and belonging called Judaism for a system of beliefs and belonging called Christianity, Jesus was proposing a way of life that would challenge and transform people across religious categories. That way of life would be centered on love. First, it would focus on love for neighbor while redefining neighbor as inclusive of stranger, outsider, outcast, and even enemy. It would also entail love for self, love for the earth and all its creatures, and in and through these other loves, love for God as the source of them all. That was, I think, the original intent and movement of what we now call Christian faith, and I think it is still vitally needed today.
A regular complaint about conservatism is that individuals who claim to be conservative only begin to understand a contrary position when aspects of their lives bring them into proximity with that which they were previously opposed. In your case, that is clearly your involvement in your son’s marriage to his same-sex partner, though your position on homosexuality had been evolving for some time by that point. How much of the conservative position is down to lack of experience, do you think? And is it just a matter of moving in social circles outside of the immediate church group, circumscribed social circle, and so forth? If so, how can that be fostered?
Yes, conservatism as I experienced it creates an echo chamber. Anyone on the inside who differs is excommunicated or marginalized and vilified, so their “anomalous data” no longer counts or is even registered. And insiders are given prejudicial categories so that in their encounter with outsiders, there is a bias against learning anything. There seems to be a conveyer belt that takes people from the right to the center to the “left” margin of the right wing, at which point people are either intimidated to move back to the center or right, or are ushered off the premises. Creative reformers in this context must learn to tread very carefully, because eventually, they will either be coopted or excluded.
Because of the circularity of these communities, it’s hard to develop an “exit ramp.” The best we can do – and this is what I was trying to do in the article you mentioned – is to speak gently to the insiders and let them know there is a safe place that will welcome them if they need to ask questions that aren’t allowed inside.
You seem to fly in the face of the numerous studies that find an association between poor educational attainment and modern evangelicalism. Evangelical historian Mark Noll famously said ‘The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.’ Is this a misunderstanding of evangelicals or the basis of your apparent departure from Evangelicalism?
Sadly, I think it’s true. A researcher once told me he had never met a college-educated fundamentalist son of a college-educated fundamentalist father. In other words, two generations of higher education “graduate” people out of fundamentalism. But now, what’s happened here in the US is that fundamentalists have created their own colleges and universities, so they can create a kind of hermetically sealed educational environment where certain assumptions are never questioned and certain lines are never crossed. To me, there’s a window – from about the age of 12 or 14 to 30 – during which young adults have the option of considered alternative identities. If they aren’t exposed to a different way of being Christian or human during that window, they will only do find a different path with great struggle later on.
I see the Bible as having an implicit (and thus unstated) politics, as such, any marriage of it to a particular politics is a re-interpretation of the Bible in order to fit the requirements of the modern polity. Is this broadly what is happening to Evangelicalism? Do you see other denominations being similarly affected?
I might start with a different assumption along these lines: the Bible is a library of documents that reflects a wide array of political arrangements, often in tension, from hunter-gatherer societies to nomadic herder societies to agricultural-chieftain societies to primitive monarchies to more evolved monarchies to empires with subjugated nation states. Having said that, I’d agree that one can’t marry any of these to modern political categories.
But all of the Biblical political arrangements took place within a larger category of patriarchy, which I define as a method of controlling male aggression by elevating one alpha male to a dominant status. In that way, most traditional religions are inherently patriarchal, and one of the challenges of today’s world is that we’re moving into a post-patriarchal arrangement. (Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton perfectly epitomizes this transition.) It’s no wonder that in monotheistic religions, God fills the role of the Supreme Patriarch, willing to use violence and torture to maintain order and control. So in Evangelicalism (especially in the US) along with Catholicism, male leadership is still the norm and female leadership is suppressed, and LGBTQ equality is seen as a betrayal of the patriarchal order of the cosmos.
To extend this idea, the Old Testament is pretty right wing, being nationalistic, and intent on establishing a homeland, and comfortable with committing genocides along the way. The New Testament, on the other hand, is broadly left wing, with occasional interjections from the old/right. Is all of this somewhat of a metaphor for your journey, the journey that more than one denomination is going through (whether forwards or backwards), and a basis for comment on modern Christianity in general?
Here’s how I would say it. The Old Testament is full of dynamic tension. The primary Hebrew narrative is left-wing: God chooses the side of oppressed slaves at the bottom of the metaphorical social and economic pyramid, and God works for their liberation. The priestly tradition is more or less conservative, but the prophetic tradition is consistently progressive. Jesus and the New Testament writers by and large side with the prophetic tradition. But, as you say, there are occasional regressive interjections. In this way, the Scriptures reflect human society at large, which always includes dynamic tensions between conservative and progressive movements. This is really the subject of the last third of my new book.
This idea is particularly interesting given your comments about practicing Christianity or understanding faith in a more Jewish way. Would you care to expand on that idea?
Because Christians have been guilty of anti-Semitism for so long, I am careful to avoid anything resembling the “Old Testament is wrong/New Testament is right” formulation that has been so common among Christians. I think it’s fairer and more accurate to say that both Old and New Testaments reflect the range of human experience, sometimes for worse and sometimes for better. The challenge of wise interpretation involves the ethical process of discerning worse from better.
It has been said that conservatives are people with something to conserve – usually power, privilege, and wealth. Since I believe the narrative trajectory of both Old and New Testaments runs towards liberation and the common good, I am suspicious of those who are willing to conserve their own advantages at the expense of others. That, to me, reveals one of the deepest ethical currents of progressivism: not to hoard privilege, but to be generous with it and to see it spread far and wide.
To me religion seems to magnify who people are, often times if they are good, religion seems to make them better, and if they are bad, religion seems to make them worse. The biggest problem springing from this is that religion seldom prepares people for discerning between actually good, and manifestly bad but good at pretending. Unfortunately Evangelicalism, especially recently, seems to be sitting much more strongly at the negative end of that equation.
So, a three-part question:
1) Do you think that religion makes the good better, and the bad worse, if so, why? If not, why not?
I think this is often the case. But sometimes, it makes the good worse and the bad better too!
2) Does religion have the unfortunate effect of enabling the bad to camouflage and hide amongst the good, e.g. Mother Teresa and Donald Trump?
Yes. This is a problem with anything good: the bad will want to disguise themselves in it.
3) Why is Evangelicalism (or maybe, more correctly, fundamentalism) so polarising in this aspect?
I think it’s a bit different in England and elsewhere. But here in the US, Protestants made a deal in the early 20th century. Conservatives focused on private personal morality and progressives focused on public social morality. It was an unfortunate arrangement, destined to self-destruct, in my opinion, because morality can’t be divided that way. We need to attend to both personal and social integrity because each undergirds the other. By emphasizing personal morality, Evangelicals were tempted to feel morally superior, saying, “I don’t commit adultery! I don’t get drunk!” and so on. They ended up sounding like the Pharisee in Jesus’ famous parable. To make matters worse, under the surface they often weren’t as moral as they pretended to be.
Their claims to personal morality rang hollow (to outsiders) in the 1960’s when they were largely silent on civil rights, segregation, and white privilege, but outspoken against “the sexual revolution.” Their silence, of course, meant complicity with the injustice of the status quo. But then, in the 1970’s, they again claimed (in their own minds) the moral high ground by championing anti-abortion. Sadly, they often became single issue voters, which meant they were silent and complicit on environmental destruction, the ongoing struggle for equality in terms of race and gender, and so on. That explains in part why they can support Donald Trump: he is a deal-maker, and so he has made a new deal with them: “I’ll oppose abortion and you’ll excuse my misogyny, racism, and all the rest.”
I am in touch with an ex-Evangelical who, like me, recently completed a degree in psychology as an adult student. She has asked (I hope she forgives me for my interpretation of her question): How does one retain a belief in God (or Jesus) whilst also removing the associations with Evangelicalism that are inextricably linked to it? In short, how does one remain ‘of God/Jesus’ but not ‘Evangelical’ if that is how one was raised?
Well, that’s pretty much the story of my life! I remember when I started seeing a gap between what Jesus stood for and what Evangelicals stood for. When I started focusing more on Jesus and less on the Evangelical consensus, I became more passionately committed to the former and less with the latter. I later came to see that in Evangelicalism, like Catholicism, there has been a minority report, so to speak, an “alternative orthodoxy” that was refreshing and life-giving and deeply progressive in the sense of being committed to an integration of social justice and personal integrity.
In a similar vein, and to finish off, is it those who are progressive, but remain Evangelical, or those that have moved out of Evangelicalism and can see it from the outside, having been within it (e.g. Valerie Tarico) that are the best placed to move Evangelicalism in a positive direction? Or is Evangelicalism (and the GOP by association) rapidly becoming a lost cause?
Here in the US, after Trump, I don’t know what happens to Evangelicalism and the Republican Party, individually or as a “married couple.” They will reap what they have sown, I would expect. My focus is on building a new creative alliance between progressive or post-Evangelicals, missional mainline Protestants, the black and Hispanic churches with roots in the Civil Rights and Liberation Theology movements, and progressive and contemplative Catholics. I believe this kind of convergence has enormous creative potential, and could be a dynamic spiritual movement that could provide an alternative for younger generations who feel a deep spiritual restlessness and dissatisfaction with conventional Christianity in its various forms. This progressive Christian movement could articulate a just and generous form of Christianity that could contribute greatly to the challenges we face in the decades ahead. If people want to learn more about this in the US, they might want to check out my website (brianmclaren.net) and Convergence (convergenceus.org).
Fantastic stuff, Brian! Thanks so much.
Great questions, Alan. I hope this is helpful.
Brian has agreed to answer follow-up question, so I will give it about a week (until November 7th/8th), and then grab any questions from the comments, and possibly a few of my own, for part two of this interview.