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Unfortunately for the rest of us who claim to follow Jesus, fundamentalism tends to dominate the popular consciousness as the “true”version of Christianity. Progressive Christianity, an alternative to fundamentalism, often gets dismissed by its critics as anti-patriotic, socialist, morally subversive, and insufficiently Biblical. Such dismissals mischaracterize progressive Christianity in appalling ways, failing to see how progressive Christianity takes Jesus more seriously than its critics do.
Here’s a list of popular charges leveled against progressive Christianity — charges that, in many people’s minds, have ceased to be controversial. Christian fundamentalism has successfully dominated the conversation about the nature and purpose of Christianity to the extent that these charges are viewed, especially among many Christians, as self-evidently true. But they’re wrong.
1. Progressive Christianity actively seeks to make America a less Christian nation.
America is not now, nor has it ever been a Christian nation — a point even most evangelical figureheads concede.
Progressive Christians have long held the conviction that the whole Christian-America-thing is actually anti-Christian. Christianity has an implicit anti-nationalist bent. Jesus actively resisted the nationalist aspirations of his followers, which made him a disappointment to them — and ultimately cost him his life (initially!).
The thought, then, that the very nationalism Jesus walked away from in his own time should characterize the common life of his modern American followers is the height of anti-Christian presumption. Jesus didn’t look to ascend a Roman throne. Were he incarnated today, would he want the White House?
2. Progressive Christianity’s emphasis on social justice isn’t Christian — it’s Marxist.
The fundamentalist belief that “social justice” is warmed-over Marxism is intellectually lazy. If you can read the gospels and come away believing that Jesus cared only about people’s souls, you’re more cognitively nimble than I am.
The concern for just and equitable systems that tend to the physical and social needs of people occupies a great deal of Jesus’time as he wanders around the Judean outback. Like the prophets before him, Jesus saves his ire and his disappointment for those whose primary concern is their own spiritual empowerment (see, for example, the Pharisaic “woes” in Matthew 23 and the rich young man in Mark 10:17–31).
In fundamentalism’s emphasis on the “personal relationship with Jesus,”the “heart”occupies the foreground at the expense of the rest of God’s creative handiwork. In this view, my primary obligations are to myself and my own happiness (which conveniently fits with the core ideals of our consumer society). If I can help some other people along the way, that’s gravy. However, I have a responsibility to get my own celestial bus pass stamped first.
The author of 1 John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).
3. Progressive Christianity supports obviously anti-Christian political agendas like same sex marriage.
I heard a story once about the progressive Christian activist Tony Campolo. (Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say. If it’s not true, though, it should be.) Campolo was speaking at a conference when he was asked about his views on abortion. He demurred, preferring to stick to the topic at hand. The person persisted, asking twice more.
Campolo said: “You’ve asked me three times. What do I think about abortion? I think it’s an issue dreamed up by rich Christians to distract themselves from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes. Because whereas there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about people’s relationship to money, there isn’t a single one that deals with abortion.”
The same thing can be said about same-gender marriage, a modern issue with which the Bible seems equally unconcerned, or at least unaware. That’s a whole different post.
Fundamentalism, despite its claims about taking the Bible seriously, has an uncanny ability to be distracted from the central issues with which the Bible concerns itself, choosing instead to dwell on peripheral issues — many of which are embarrassingly preoccupied with what other people do with their genitalia.
4. Progressive Christianity rejects the Bible.
The summary indictment of Progressive Christianity is that we don’t take the Bible seriously.
What I find so galling in this charge is the implication that holding progressive Christian positions is an accommodation to culture — a favoring of secular or modern culture over the Bible. On the contrary: whatever Progressive positions I hold, I hold not in spite of the Bible, but because of it.
My progressive beliefs are an embrace of the gospel I find pervading the scriptures. Progressive Christianity actually takes the Bible more seriously than its fundamentalist critics do. Christian fundamentalism emphasizes a “commonsense” or “plain” reading of scripture is sufficient — which usually boils the Bible down to a story about me and how I can avoid.going to hell.
So what can progressive Christians do about all this?
For starters, progressive Christians should quit letting Christian fundamentalism be the de facto voice of Christianity.
Progressive Christians should quit being cowed by charges of Marxism. The most damning criticism of a follower of Jesus is not, “You’re a socialist!”but rather, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43).
Progressive Christians should embrace their love of the Bible, not as a repository of theological and ritual laws, but as the narration of God’s continued pursuit of humanity through the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace.
Progressive Christians should articulate that reign for a world threatening to tear itself apart due to injustice and violence.
In this endeavor, progressive Christians must be humble. But we can no longer be timid.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.