Yes, Virginia, There is a Progressive Church…

Please read my good friend Eric Folkerth’s blog post, regarding ‘progressive’ Christianity.

It’s an interesting piece in which he relates his interview with a reporter after she watched the Democratic Convention last week. She was surprised at how often God and faith were mentioned during the quadrennial political confab.


But then again, not really. Eric’s right in his piece…the public’s view of Christianity is labeled ‘evangelical’ (code word for conservative, Biblical literalist and Republican). The idea that there are believers who may question certain Biblical passages, or doctrinal orthodoxies, but who name Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is, for many in and outside of the Church…particularly in America…inconceivable.

The reason for the reporter’s interview of Eric, was Rev. William Barber’s speech at the DNC. It was, by almost any measure, a powerful, eloquent, sermon-like, call to America’s ‘heart’. But more than that, he, more than any other preacher I’ve heard in a long, long time, gave the type of speech reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King. Barber, who is a pastor, and leads North Carolina’s NAACP, and who came to prominence as leader and spokesperson for the Moral Monday protests, which for years brought thousands of North Carolinians to the state capitol to protest the right wing political agenda of the state legislature,  interwove the themes of his speech with the claims of Christianity, the aspirations of our Constitution with the spiritual fervor of the black church. He did so, as did King, so masterfully that there could be no ‘church-state’ argument.

Apparently, the reporter has never listened to King, or has a rather ahistorical view of American politics. Even I was taken aback when Eric quotes her as saying, “So, how come we don’t hear about you guys more often?” Eric’s response was spot on, “Because you never call us. Because, when there is a some social/political issue in the world, the media calls the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist, or First Baptist, get a quote, and then posits that as the response from “all Christians.””

The idea, that the ‘real’ Christians are considered to be ‘evangelical’ clergy and members of ‘mega-churches’ is offensive to me, as it is with many other believers who are ‘progressive’. We need to remember (or learn), that legitimate Christianity comes in all hues and colors, and to anoint as legitimate only those Christians who gather in large numbers, or who vote a certain way, or who are courted by particular politicians is short-sighted, but wrong.

My only argument with Eric’s blogpost is that he leaves out the substantial influence of the Black church when he mentions historic examples of ‘progressive’ Christianity. I’m not only talking about Martin Luther King, but those who influenced him. Clergy of great stature, the theologian and mystic Howard Thurman, James Cone, Theodore Parker and Benjamin E. Mayes, all helped shape King’s theological world view. In fact, the notion of ‘liberation theology’ (championed and advanced by James Cone, in America), is actually a Latin American theological construct advanced by Archbishop Oscar Romero and Father Miguel d’Escoto. And in effect takes Biblical stories like that written in the Book of Exodus, and says, that Christians can read God’s dealings with humanity from the bottom up; that the poor, have a special place in the heart of God, so special, in fact that the more you identify with the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized, the closer you are to the heart of God.

‘Evangelicalism’ in America, identifies more with a Calvinist approach to scripture, which says that the ‘elect’ are the most materially successful, and draws all kinds of straight (and frankly crooked) lines from hard work to material prosperity, which frankly many of us don’t see in the Bible or, at least balance with equally strong calls to compassion and mercy to the poor in scripture.

It is that liberation (or progressive, if you will) theology that kept African-Americans alive, throughout slavery,  Jim Crow and segregation and which fueled the modern era Civil Rights Movement. The Black Church has always had an admixture of conservative political, cultural and spiritual thought, as a part of its social world view, while reading a ‘progressive’ ethos in scripture, which fostered a ‘conservative’ focus relative to our citizenship in this country inspired and encouraged the development of black businesses, supported education and other voluntary associations, and that helped black communities survive and thrive in the midst of oppression.

But, I think there is a sense in which the Black Church has been marginalized in the mind of mainstream America, when President Obama’s pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, was vilified for his ‘god-damn America’ sermon. In context, it is actually a patriotic sermon, which points out black America’s hopes and dreams for America and America’s disappointment of those hopes and dreams. It forced many black America’s pastor’s into silence or forced them into a hyper-conservative posture, in which more and more churches preached more and more, only ‘salvation’. As opposed to speaking out more obviously on issues of ‘social justice’, in reaction to that criticism, a more corrupting type of ‘Hollywood’ version of church, pushed aside the more ‘progressive/prophetic’ Christian message of the black church.

Eric extols the United Methodist Church’s ‘open/welcoming fellowships’ for the LGBT community, is an outgrowth of that influence, because long before, the were open to the LGBT community they were open to and supportive of the Civil Rights movement’s aims and objectives.

Still, I would be remiss if I were to leave anyone with the impression that the progressive church, is a modern-day construct around issues of race and sexual orientation. It was the progressive church, which around the turn of the century before last, championed what would be termed, in this modern era, ‘social justice issues’. Issues such as child labor laws, poverty and unionization. Arguably, it wasn’t until later on in the century – around mid to late 40’s, I believe, that a more conservative strain of Christianity, began to impact America’s religious community. First around issues of faith, and around the late 70’s early 8o’s around faith and politics.

Let me end by saying, I’m actually offended by the usage of the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘progressive’ when it comes to Christianity. They are essentially political designations. However, I also understand that they are cultural designations as well. I have read some conservative Christians write, that they cannot see how any ‘real’ Christian can ever vote Democratic. Which means that even within the church, we have divided ourselves along political and cultural lines. Its important, I guess, to label, in the same way we label cans of vegetables. We have to know who we’re dealing with. Those of us who are ‘progressive’ are Christian with a different perspective. And the world needs to know that perspective. So Eric was right, if the press keeps going to conservative mega-church pastors as the only legitimate ‘spokesmen’ for the Christian Church, the world will think, this is what the Church ‘thinks’. No, it’s not. We are diverse in thought – even within progressive circles. We simply agree on one thing…Jesus is Lord.

Now, if we can all agree on what that means!

What do you think?