The following post is from January of this year. I’ve been wanting to write more on this topic and hope to do so in the near future. For now, there’s this essay.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine described me as an evangelical turned liberal Protestant. I remember blanching at that definition. Politically, I tend to lean more center-right/libertarian. Theologically, I’m pretty orthodox.
But the fact is, I am a liberal Protestant these days. I’m ordained into a mainline Protestant denomination (Disciples of Christ) and I have standing in another denomination that in some cases is the very embodiment of liberal Protestantism (the United Church of Christ).
I’ve been a part of mainline Protestantism for nearly 20 years. In the years after college, I found the evangelicalism of my youth wanting and left it seeking a better fit. I found that in mainline churches. I should add, that I never looked down on evangelical past; I think it is still a worthy tradition and it made me who I am. But, my home is now in a different tradition.
And yet it has at times been an uneasy fit. Don’t get me wrong; I am thankful for a tradition that honors diversity. My evangelical roots would never accept an open gay pastor, but liberal Protestantism did. It has also been on the forefront of issues such as civil rights and helped give women a more equal footing in America.
But while in many ways, I am liberal in my theology, I feel at times that the liberalism I am talking about is from another era. Some of my uneasiness is reflected in Bruce Reyes-Chow’s excellent essay on the good and bad liberal Christianity. Unlike me, he is way more comfortable wearing the liberal label, but he also able to be critical of it:
Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot. Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I’ve found myself whispering under my breath, “I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping.” It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.
Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church – and we can fight over “liberal,” “progressive,” etc. definitions HERE – is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.
His post reads as a love letter to his fellow liberals, telling them to do good work, but also calling them on where they fall short.
On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead’s essay from last year reads like a letter from a longsuffering wife to her cheating husband. He rails against liberal Christianity’s willingness to get in bed with the political left at the expense of the life of the church:
In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions. The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort. I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform. Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.
Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes. It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King. Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.
But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause. The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea. This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter. Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both. A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.
I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics. I’m urging them to shut up. More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.
It’s important to note that both Reyes-Chow and Mead are liberal Christians from mainline Protestant denominations. Both talk about the decline of the mainline church. But where Reyes-Chow has a more sunny and hopeful view, Mead is far more dire- his post is fire and brimstone.
In many ways, I feel that I have both views living inside of me. There are days that I am more like Reyes-Chow, wanting to gently admonish people who I consider my friends, and there are days I want to rip them a new hole.
I would agree with Mead that liberal Christianity has become too chumy with the political left. I’ve long agreed that American evangelicalism sold itself out to the GOP, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that mainline Christians had done the same with the Democrats. What’s frustrating at times is to see Christians have mirrored the larger world: Team Red on one side and Team Blue on the other.
I’m not asking that liberal Christians who are politically liberal change their ideology, but could we not try to ape the larger society? Can we be willing to critical of the political left as we are of the political right? Can we worry less about getting people to support this viewpoint and give people the tools to think as Christians in the world, influencing culture in different ways? Can we find a way to separate partisan politics from faith? Can the church be follwers of Jesus and not try to make Jesus the mascot of either party?
I guess what I’m asking is that we find ways to talk about justice without it devolving into some kind of pep-rally for this or that political party. When I work on issues like homelessness or poverty, I want to help people think of how they can put their faith to work, not to tell them to support an agenda.
Blogger Nathan Gilmour had this to say about justice, the political left and right in a commentary on last Sunday’s texts:
…far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity. (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.) Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends. The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image. The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated. Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.
Walking humbly. It sounds like a good start for all of us.