16 May 2016

Liberal Christianity

Discussions of modern American politics often assume that references to "Christians" refer to "conservative Christians."  That assumption overlooks the fact that for decades various Christians and Christian groups served as prominent forces in liberal/progressive agendas.
That Christian belief can coexist with, let alone support, left-leaning social and political views has so disappeared from living rooms and community halls that any public embrace of the idea elicits surprise... this translates to a religious expression less focused on theological purity and more focused on social reform, or to put it another way, more interested in Earth now than in heaven later.

The early 20th-century Social Gospel movement put Protestant Christians at the forefront of activism on public health, labor, and wealth inequality—and offered a religious justification for action. That movement was led by people such as Washington Gladden, a Congregationalist minister who agitated for workers’ right to organize, and Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor who saw Jesus as proclaiming “withering woes against the dominant class.” Starting with 1928, Norman Thomas was the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America for six consecutive elections, and he was also a Presbyterian minister...

Activist priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan made national headlines by burning draft cards and damaging missile warheads, often while wearing their clerical collars. As the New York Times put it after Daniel Berrigan’s recent death, the brothers embodied a progressively religious claim that “that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.”
The Slate article goes on to indicate that liberal Christianity is dormant rather than dead.
If liberal Christianity is ultimately going to thrive, however, it’s hard to imagine it doing so without reviving the local churches that have been shrinking over the decades. Conservative congregations ask for serious commitment; they expect their people to show up, and they ask them to adhere to a narrower set of beliefs and behaviors. There’s a cost associated with membership...

Many progressive churches, by contrast, barely demand a pinky toe. Most of those I’ve attended regularly have been happy when I merely show up, in part because their populations tend to be small and elderly. They don’t pressure me when I skip; the sermons rarely suggest it matters whether I believe the creeds we recite on Sunday mornings. (The demands that small or struggling churches do make on members tend to be organizational and financial labor, so you get the draining obligations without the spiritual investment.) By contrast, when I visit conservative churches with family or friends, they feel alive: People are there because they think it matters, for their everyday lives and for their eternal souls.
More at the link.

Photo: John Sommers II/Getty Images


  1. So... liberal christianity provides more freedom than conservative christianity? LOL!

  2. As a conservative Christian who absolutely believes and accepts that there are politically liberal Christians, I can tell you that one reason the right claimed the high ground was because of the following issues:

    1) Liberal Christianity has deemphasized Jesus and scripture. I don't know why they can't have BOTH. But when this deemphasis happens, it is easy for conservatives (and everyone else) to paint them as something besides CHRISTIANS who are for liberal causes. It becomes just left-wingers, as opposed to left wing CHRISTIANS. But if liberal Christianity would maintain their social focus, while refocusing on the divine aspects of Jesus (as opposed to his purely social attributes), they could not be easily dismissed as not being Christians.

    2) Some of the causes that liberal Christians espouse are so much in seeming violation of scripture that conservatives cannot believe that any Christian would hold such a position. For instance, abortion rights or gay marriage. It is held that liberal Christians have such little respect for the scriptures (since the scriptures would seem to be fairly clear on such issues) that they are not held to be Christians (or certainly not good ones). We can handle being socialist, wanting lots of welfare programs, etc. But some things are deal-breakers. HOWEVER, if liberal Christians ever figure this out, it forces conservative Christians to at least acknowledge the Christianity of their political foes...and if that is the case, it comes to be much more meaningful in terms of others supporting that view.

    1. "conservatives cannot believe that any Christian would hold such a position"

      Do you not see how this intolerance is at least..oh heck...is MOST of the problem????? Believing that "the scriptures" (do you mean the Bible? Then say so...there are LOTS of scriptures, not all of which are Bibles.) can only be interpreted one way is probably the single biggest problem I have with conservatism (and it's a fairly blanket problem, the lack of flexible thinking or tolerance, across the conservatives, politically, and in many other parts of their lives. The intolerance. It will forever shock me and shake my faith in humanity to keep witnessing the intolerance.

      The idea that there is a "deal breaker" that if only the other people could "ever figure out"...it's nauseating to hear faith described in such hate-filled terms.

      "the high ground"????

    2. "Why can't you interpret it however you want?!"

      Try that with a political document instead. Claim to be a Marxist, but reject the idea of class struggle. Claim to be a classical liberal, but reject the notion that humans have inherent rights. Claim to be an anarchist, but support strong central government.

      Sure, you are free to interpret any of those concepts however you wish, but do not be surprised if you are rejected by those communities for rejecting their beliefs.

    3. Except in the interpretation of a many-times translated book, there is a great deal of possible error, translation difficulty, room for varied interpretation and personal bias inevitable. The idea that the conservative xtians are the only ones that got it right is laughable. It wouldn't so awful if the outcome of the "community" that "got the high ground" hasn't been so much hate and discord from that community to any others. I suppose if one insisted that everything in the OT be taken utterly literally, it should come as no surprise. Sadly, the conservative xtians are so very much the most likely to have twisted insistence on details that don't hold up to scrutiny, and a shocking level of selfishness. Now, there may well be conservatives somewhere that don't meet these descriptions, and that's all well and good, but for the most part, I've seen little but hatred and intolerance from that community, other than for a specific slice of the population. Jesus, as an olive-skinned tradesman Jew conceived out of wedlock, probably wouldn't have approved. According to the OT, there was a stoning opportunity missed there, too, which would have changed a lot of things.

    4. How exactly the American Conservative Christian community got to thinking they were globally the gold standard in Christianity is mind-boggling, and truly, of all the diverse Christian sects in the world, they are the least able to fill that role.

    5. Liberal Christianity has not "deemphasized Jesus and scripture". Liberal Christians take the scriptures seriously, which to them means trying to understand how and why they were written. Liberal Christians typically use biblical hermeneutics to look at primary sources, language use, changes to texts over time and other types of comprehensive scholarship in order to better understand scripture.

      Conservative Christians often treat scripture as if it's a perfected utterance from the mouth of God rather than a collection of historical documents that describe changing and varied understandings human connection to the divine. To many liberal Christians, this lack of interest in the human origins of scripture seems to be the product of an uncurious and insubstantial faith.

      The commentator above suggests that liberals don’t take scripture seriously because of their positions on abortion and gay marriage. Liberals might counter that scripture doesn’t deal with abortion at all, and only mentions homosexuality in the holiness code of Leviticus, along with other rules that even conservative Christians regard as iron-age rituals. Liberals might also point out that Jesus’ message seems counter to many of the elements of modern conservatism.

      And this gets to the heart of the differences that are the subject of this article. I would argue that the liberal Christian church isn’t failing because it demands so little of its subjects, but that it demands too much. Too much thought, too much work, too much discipleship.

      In our culture of narcissism, it’s not surprising that churches that focus on personal salvation and promote a connection with one’s “personal lord and savior” are more popular than churches that embrace a social gospel that understands faith to be an active engagement with the poor and the less fortunate in society.

    6. Well thought out and nicely written. Thanks, Paul.

  3. from the article: "It’s important to follow God’s Old Testament orders"

    REALLY??? Every time someone points out how truly horrific many of those order actually are, someone else pipes up that the New Testament hasn't got those things in it because that debt was paid with Jesus's death. But if those orders ARE what should be followed, there's a whole lot of stoning and burning and revision of fashion choices and hairstyles, dietary choices, fabric content and a whole host of other things coming up. (At least you'll be able to call mum's new husband "uncle" and be really accurate)

    1. There's a whole lot of stuff in the Old Testament and New Testament people just ignore.
      People that get all hot under the collar about the importance of the 10 commandments will often be completely ignorant of what penalties the faithful are directed to deliver onto transgressors or they will claim those were "rules for another time and place"...which always has me wondering if the punishments are from another time and place (and should now be ignored) why not the initial 10 rules the punishments are meant to enforce?

    2. yes, it's quite bizarre to witness. And yet apparently the disconnect is impossible to see from the other side of the argument. Stacking rocks in the forecourt is just so inefficient when there are right-to-shoot laws in place - so I guess not all of the punishments are forgotten. Funny who relishes those laws the most...or not funny at all, depending.

  4. I have never understood how people who claim (loudly) to be Christians completely ignore the words of Jesus about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc. This applies to Conservative Christians who feel that any help for the poor is wrong.

    1. Most (such as myself) believe in doing it voluntarily, like serving @ the local food pantry, giving time and money, visiting inmates, or starting a community garden. I know a lot of Christians like that.

      I don't personally know any of the kind you have described, though I am sure some exist.

      Most of the former in this region also abhor forcing others to do the same through government. It isn't a faith of compulsion.


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