Note: I'm going to start bringing over some of my posts from my short-lived blog at Patheos in the coming weeks. I'll begin with this piece on the nature of Progressive Christianity.
The recent kerfuffle over Jim Wallis’s progressive credentials in the aftermath ofSojourners decision not to publish an ad by a group advocating for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church has raised the question of what it means to actually be religiously progressive in the United States today. Is religious progressivism a kind of “big tent” that invites people with a great variety of religious beliefs to work together on those issues about which they are most deeply concerned, or must one subscribe to particular positions in order to be adjudged “properlyprogressive.”
For a very long time, the big tent philosophy has prevailed, and this has allowed Jim Wallis to work with a very wide variety of Christian organizations on those causes about which he cares most deeply, particularly issues of poverty and economic justice. These have been the lifeblood of Sojourners for a very long time, and it is understandable that Jim would want to work with any and all comers for whom that issue is of central importance, including many evangelical Christians for whom the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church remains intensely controversial. One way of reading Sojourners‘ rejection of the ad was that it was trying to remained focused on its anti-poverty campaign, and was concerned that a potentially controversial ad could damage its ability to work across theological boundaries with many conservative evangelicals.
There are a number of problems with this stance, however. First, of course, from the perspective of the gay and lesbian community, their own rights to be accepted by society, and their desire to be included in the church, are hardly a “distraction.” Quite the contrary! And as mainline protestant churches move closer and closer to the full acceptance of the gay community in the life of the church, the harder it is going to be to treat this issue as a sideline to some set of “larger” or “more important” social issues. Second, if Jim Wallis insists on standing up as a representative of the progressive wing of Christianity, he is eventually going to have to reckon with the importance of gay and lesbian civil rights to theprogressive cause of social justice today. Just as in another era, a progressiveChristian couldn’t put off concern for the rights of African Americans, or with the full inclusion of women in the church, so today no one who wants to stand up as a leader of progressive Christianity can act as though gay and lesbian equality is an item to be placed on the back burner. To the degree that Wallis, and the organization he runs, have failed to take up this issue, they really don’t have a great deal of standing to present themselves as progressive Christian leaders.
However, this raises the “big tent” question again. Does what I’ve just written mean that everyone who calls themselves a progressive Christian must agree on gay and lesbian equality? On the one hand, I’d like to say “ideally, yes!” But on the other, I do recognize that, important as the struggle for gay and lesbian equality is, it is not everybody’s struggle, and it is not every progressive Christian’s struggle. I can even recognize that many otherwise progressive Christians may believe (wrongly, in my estimation!) that they are religiously required to be against gay and lesbian equality. I do believe that the progressive Christian tent is big enough to include these folks, just as it is big enough to include those who differ with one another on specific economic or environmental policies, the question of abortion, or any number of social or policy issues with which progressive Christians concern themselves.
In this sense, there’s a bit of a “Venn Diagram” aspect to progressive Christianity. It is less a movement than an enormous and multifarious coalition, which mobilizes in response to any number of different, and sometimes contradictory, issues. Where the circles of the Venn Diagram intersect, groups can and do work together to bring about changes in policies, fight for the causes that are important to them, organize for social change, and pray for God’s guidance in the midst of their difficult struggles. This is the strength of progressive religion, but it’s a very hard model to build ideological coherence from, and therefore it’s very difficult to pick leaders from within the progressive religious movement to stand up as spokespeople, as Jim Wallis has discovered to his detriment.
However, this raises another difficult issue as well. In a coalition organized around a vast concatenation of different issues, are we simply drawn together as a matter of political convenience? Are we all about politics, rather than about the faithful following of God in the midst of the world? Or is there a theological foundation on which progressive Christians can claim to be building the edifice of a movement?
I can only answer that question by pointing on the one hand, in the direction of a tradition, and on the other in the direction of a creed.
The tradition from which progressive Christianity draws is one that has embraced the ideals of equality, justice, and full participation in society since the beginning of the modern era. It is a tradition that can trace its roots to the Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries, militating in their quiet way against slavery, and the abolitionist congregationalists in New England who supported the slaves fleeing north on the Underground Railroad. It is a tradition that gave birth to the social gospel at the beginning of the 20th century, and gave rise to leaders like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden. It is a tradition that gave birth to the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day, that got itself dirty up to its elbows in the 1920s and 30s in the poorest parts of New York City, and extended its reach from one end of the United States to the other in an effort to bring the good news of God’s solidarity with the poor to those with nothing in the midst of the Great Depression. It is a tradition that gave us Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and the wellspring of inspirational Christian ethics in their writings from which we still draw today. It gave us the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King. It gave us the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Plowshares movement, the Berrigan brothers, the movement to end Apartheid, and the Christian environmental movement. It also gave usSojourners and Jim Wallis. This is the tradition that gives form to what it means to be a progressive Christian today. It means that one identifies with this history, this tradition, and seeks to extend its principles to a new era, in response to a new context, and embracing new issues.
But it is also, I think, a creed. And the essence of that creed is not a set of political principles, but rather a belief that we are called by a loving and gracious God to stand prophetically athwart the path of the powerful and privileged, and prevent them from running roughshod over the poorest, the least, and the most vulnerable members of society. There are any number of ways that this can be achieved, and participants in progressive religious movements have worked on all of them at one point or another. Progressive Christianity does not believe that there is one solution, one policy that is suitable to all times, places, and situations, but rather that God calls us into the midst of the world, to respond to the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves, seeking to find God in the midst of world, and to follow God along the path that has been set for us, toward a world of greater justice, deeper love, profounder faith, and more expansive hope for the whole of God’s world.