By Jim Burklo. 10 July 2021. Musings.
“Enter Joe Biden, one of the most religious presidents of the last century, along with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Biden attends Mass regularly and inhabits faith as Donald Trump merely brandished it (as if speaking to two Corinthians). Likewise, Vice President Kamala Harris is a
Baptist who says she has regularly attended church. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Catholic who says her faith inspires her to address health care and climate change. Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school. Raphael Warnock, a new senator, is an ordained Baptist pastor. Other Democrats,
including Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, speak the language of faith fluently as well, so a critical mass has formed of progressive Christians inspired by religion not to cut taxes for the rich but rather to slash poverty for children.” So wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times recently.
Twenty-five years ago, hardly anyone used the term “progressive Christianity”. It used to be expressed as “liberal” or “mainline” Protestantism, terminology so fuzzy as to be nearly meaningless. Along came The Center for Progressive Christianity, now ProgressiveChristianity.org, and an organized movement was born. Churches around the globe
began to publicly identify themselves as progressive. A turning point came in 2004 when Jim
Wallis, a politically liberal evangelical, was described by Terry Gross as a “progressive Christian”
on her NPR show. Then Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, was elected in 2008,
raising the profile of the term further. But evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders paid the movement scant attention. In 2003, Albert Mohler, the virtual Pope of the Southern Baptist Convention, poo-poohed it: “Christians should see The Center for Progressive Christianity, not as posing a threat to Christianity itself, but as exposing the basic hatred of biblical truth that drives those on the theological left. Evangelical Christians should be aware of this organization, not because we should fear it’s influence–it isn’t likely to have much.”
But times have changed, and so has the pitch of Mohler’s tune. Here’s what Mohler said in 2019, sounding the alarm about Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for the presidency: “This is the great danger inherent in the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg… Buttigieg may quickly drop in the polls as fast as he ascended. That is the nature of American Presidential politics. What will not depart from the political scene, however, is the idea enshrined in Buttigieg’s campaign. The left in America desperately wants a leftist faith as its handmaiden. They want (and even demand) a new and “progressive” Christianity.”
Since then, the evangelical “apologetics” machine has gone into overdrive. And the rhetoric is
disturbing. Cissie Graham Lynch is Billy Graham’s granddaughter and Franklin Graham’s
daughter. Here’s what she had to say in May of 2021 about the dire threat of progressive
Christianity: “When the voice of Satan comes, that you are able to have that discernment—whether it’s the voice of God or the enemy talking.”
“But what is progressive Christianity? Where did it come from? Why is it growing in popularity?”
asks Alisa Childers, a prolific anti-progressive evangelical apologist. “There is a growing
movement in the church that seeks to re-interpret the Bible, re-assess historic doctrines, and re-define core tenets of the faith… Jesus not only predicted that Christians would be tempted by these false doctrines but pointed out that these teachings would be peddled by people who claim to be Christians. They would look like sheep, walk like sheep, and talk like sheep. But they would not be sheep—they would be predators looking to feast on the sheep.” Let’s pray that Alisa Childers is not issuing licenses to hunt what she considers to be “predators”.
Some evangelical detractors of progressive Christianity are doing a fine job of inadvertently
promoting our movement. In her diatribe against Kristof’s op-ed, the fundamentalist blogger
Natasha Crain writes: “Progressive Christianity is hard to define (and people would define it in a
lot of different ways), but in general, it’s the belief that our understanding of God is evolving as
society progresses, and the Bible simply reflects man’s understanding of God in the time it was
written. In other words, the Bible is a helpful tool—maybe even a beautiful one—but it’s not God’s final say for all time.” Nicely put! As is the description given by the president of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Michael Kruger: “In the modern day, there’s something very similar still happening, and we may not call it liberal Christianity today, although there’s a sense in which that’s true, but really the term now is progressive Christianity. It’s a version of Christianity that sells itself as a valid option for Christians that on the surface looks a lot like the Christian worldview and may seem in the eyes of many people to be more acceptable, more likable, a really more palatable version of the faith.”
Fundamentalist leaders used to describe progressive Christians as a shrinking heretical sect, if they noticed us at all. Now they condemn us as an existential threat to the survival of evangelicalism. Their rhetoric should inspire in us a healthy vigilance, as America drifts into deeper polarization and ominous threats of violence. Meanwhile, the louder they rail against us, the more folks – especially their own – are made aware of the existence of our progressive alternative to the still-dominant Christian paradigm. Are our progressive churches ready to welcome the flood of exiles pouring out of evangelical churches? We need to attract them by making changes in our styles of worship and congregational life that are necessary to seize this remarkable moment.