I wrote this post in the summer of 2011. The trend has continued in the succeeding years. I will write something more current on the issue, but this old posts still stands.
I’ve been noticing lately within Mainline Protestant circles, the rising use of the word “progressive” as a way to describe Christians who might have once used the term “mainline Protestant.” The biggest change to note is over at the religion megasite Patheos, which changed the name of one of their religion portals. What was once called “Mainline Protestant” is now called “Progressive Christian.” That change has brought about a discussion of the term and there have been some fairly good posts about name change.
That said, I’m also a tad bit wary of the term.
In many ways, I would fit some of the descriptions of being a Progressive Christian. I have a concern about the poor in our society. I’m interested in caring for God’s creation. I believe that gay and lesbian folks (like me) should be included fully in the life of the church. Scott Paeth has a good description of progressive Christianity that I would probably agree with 70 percent:
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 us Sojourners 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.
So there’s a lot in the above paragraph that I could agree with (and some that I don’t totally agree with). What bothers me with the use of the word “progressive” is how it has been used in the past and how it could affect the church in the future.
In the wider culture, “progressive” has been used in mostly political circles and mostly to describe the political left. It’s been alternative descriptor of all things left-leaning since the word “liberal” was turned into a weapon by conservatives. Within Christian circles, there has been an attempt to try to make the word have a wider description than just a political one. As Bruce Reyes-Chow notes:
As I thought about what I wanted to offer, I resisted reading what others had already offered up. I’m not really sure why I didn’t want to first read what others had said, but I felt like this symposium was more about broadening our understanding of what might be considered “progressive Christianity” than trying to come to an agreed upon definition.
Before I offer up my list of “progressivisms” let me first claim an assumption that I have with the word itself. While being “progressive” in politics and theology is often seen as ascribing to a “liberal” platform and belief system, I do not believe this to be true. For me the “progressive” adjective can exist across the theological spectrum, but holds together people who are looking at moving the church into new ways of being church.
Paeth argues that Progressive Christianity is a big tent creed, offering many ways towards peace and justice:
..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.
I really want to believe that there can be a diverse grounding from which a progressive Christianity can spring from. The problem is, I’ve heard such talk before, that this isn’t about a poltical platform, that it’s larger than ideology and then I see that in reality, it really is just about politics and ideology.
This is not about trashing progressive Christians to show how good the religious right is. I’ve lived and seen enough of that movement to know the damage done to tying evangelicalism to a political agenda. My issue is that progressive Christians are basically doing the same thing: just swap evangelicals for progressives and Republcians for Democrats. Same thing, different day.
My problem is that despite wanting bigger tent, and a bigger expression of what “progressive” means more often than not, the religious expression of progressive ends up becoming just the political definition- except they say God a lot more often.
My reasons for looking at this usage of the word “progressive” is not just an exercise in criticism; it’s also a personal issue. You see, I’m not a political progressive. My views skew more center-right than left or center left. I’m not opposed to raising taxes, but worry raising them too much can inhibit growth in an economy. I’m not in totally agreement with the budget plan offered by Wisconsin GOP Representative Paul Ryan, but I do think it should start a good discussion on the federal budget and entitlement programs. The question that keeps coming back to me is how welcomed I would be and will be in mainline circles with such political views as we use the word progressive more and more.
Where I see the church in America heading these days is down a road that it’s probably been going down for the 30 years: a “red” conservative church and a “blue” progressive church. In the same way that we have media like Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left, I can see the churches falling in line the same way.
Is that what we want? And is it what we need?
What I wish is that the so-called progressive church lived in a different way: I want to see a church where we can take God’s call to care for the poor seriously, but also know there are many ways to get to that desire. I wish we could be honest about our political leaning and also be willing to affirm other political leanings as well. I want to see a church that can discern when it needs to take an unequivocal stand on an issue and when it needs to allow for diversity of thought and belief as we struggle together.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that congregations be involved in politics without becoming ideological. But I do wish there was a way we a Christians- left, right and in between- could find ways to get beyond the red-blue divide.