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Finding the Bedrock: Christian Progressives, Conservatives and the Need for Foundations – Petra Elaine Turner

In their views on doctrine as well as in their stances on sociopolitical issues, American progressive and conservative Christians often seem irreconcilably distant from each other. Liberals and progressives caricature conservative Christians as politically naïve moral dogmatists, and conservatives lampoon progressive Christians as bleeding hearts whose political activism retains only a thin veneer of religion around it. Bitterness inhabits both sides, with each side faulting the other for lacking the fundamentals of Christianity. To wit, progressives chide conservatives for eschewing an active compassion for the less fortunate, and the conservatives criticize their moderate to liberal counterparts for having a wishy-washy adherence to doctrinal positions.   There is truth in each of these accusations, and it is the truth within each which perpetuates the intransigence and inflexibility within both camps, leading to a paucity of productive dialogue across the divide, particularly in the sphere of doctrinal foundations—the relationship of fundamental religious precepts to the action individuals advocate.

For many scholars, the doctrinal rehabilitation of the progressive side of the spectrum is a pressing issue. Doctrinally committed and yet politically progressive scholars and commentators generally find the progressive Christian connection to doctrine quite thin, especially in contrast to the more conservative Christian emphasis upon doctrine. As a corrective to this, they task themselves with showing how the progressive agenda flows forth from an historically grounded understanding of Christian doctrine. Yet, despite this effort, the unwillingness to encounter conservative doctrinal viewpoints in a receptive, dialogical fashion remains. By not engaging this conservative Christian element, however, such scholars perpetuate the very distrust that makes progressives wary of doctrinal foundationalism, and conservatives leery of an orientation dominated by social justice concerns. Such suspicion renders otherwise theologically unitive endeavors sterile within the broader swath of the faithful.

In order to understand why such distrust exists and how we might overcome it, however, it is necessary to look over the present state of affairs.

As many commentators have noted, the leaders of the Religious Right—which consists of white evangelical Protestants and more conservative Catholics, among other groups—have had a near monopoly as the public voice of religion in America. For decades, the public consciousness has—generally correctly—aligned evangelical Christians with political conservatism, and the voices of the Religious Right have fueled and confirmed this opinion.   Conservative Christians became known for relying upon their moral doctrines to support their political stances on many social issues. As the foundation of the Republican Party’s voting machine, the Religious Right’s interpretation of these doctrines, and the social policies that arose from and alongside of them, have become almost inseparable.

This in turn has led to a backlash, as those who find this particular brand of conservative discourse distasteful have lobbied for a more strictly secular public sphere. This move effectively engenders an embattled atmosphere for those who are the subject of such strictures, and creates a dearth of progressive and liberal voices in the religious sphere. In this climate, progressive Christians of various stripes find themselves aligning politically with secularist groups who demonstrate an attentiveness to social justice issues, rather than with their conservative Christian siblings. In general, they choose active social concerns over doctrine, which can lead to the subordination of such dogmatic concerns to social action, or the abandonment of doctrinal underpinnings altogether.

In keeping with this narrative, the Brookings Institute recently published a report entitled Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives (April 24, 2014). This report seeks out the potential for a diverse gathering of religiously-minded individuals centered around the issue of economic inequality. The report finds that religious individuals who are invested in socially progressive causes are not as straightforwardly in a single camp with one another as is the Religious Right, and thus do not have ‘substantial movement solidarity’ (9). The report notes:

 Rank-and-file religious progressives often belong to politically diverse congregations which are less easy to organize than members of relatively homogeneous white evangelical churches. Religious progressives are sometimes viewed with mistrust or suspicion by their secular allies. Because of the high profile mobilization of the religious right and the prominent public engagement of the more conservative Roman Catholic Bishops, many secular liberals continue to see religion as a fundamentally conservative force. (Ibid.)

Given this environment, most progressive Christians tend to be rather silent about religion, and make their social causes—which are nonetheless expressions of their faith—their primary motivation. Because of this, the presentation of their faith in a doctrinal context not only takes on less importance for them, but is also often counterproductive to their sociopolitical goals.

For progressive Christian activists, then, doctrinal foundations as presented in the public sphere can seem outmoded and unrelated to their life. They tend not to have the vital connection to it, or the need to uphold it, in the same way that their more conservative counterparts do. What progressives who are doctrinally committed want, however, is for progressives to have that same sense of fervor and connection to doctrine, without diminishing their commitment to social justice. In order to effect this, however, they must do more than simply put forth the intrinsic connection of works of social justice to doctrinal foundations; they must change the ways in which progressive Christians hear and receive doctrinal foundationalism.

And this is a messy business, because it requires Christians of all stripes to actually encounter one another in love. In his recent exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), Pope Francis suggests that this stance toward those we would naturally distrust is part of the missionary stance of the Church:

 The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us . . . True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation to others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness. (#88)

In this light, if the missional attitude of Christians is to lovingly encounter others in the vicissitudes of their lives, then the encounter with other Christians, however different, must become the first step toward effecting this outward-facing, missional stance. Set into the context of the dilemma at hand, this means that, in the practical sense, endeavors which seek to unify social activism with commitment to doctrine must begin from the ground up. Progressive Christians should encounter conservatives as they are, participate in the beauty of their siblings’ doctrinal convictions, and be transformed by that encounter. Conservative Christians, likewise, should give progressive Christians the space and support to speak on religion in the public sphere, and allow their passion for social justice to spread into their own hearts.

Applied in this way, such a method for theological relationality does not engender a re-description of doctrine nor does it require a diminishment of social justice concerns. Rather, it allows each to illumine the other. Because social justice and doctrine are in actuality parts of a whole, the present separation between these elements distorts the perception of Christianity in its fullness. Like Francis’ theology of encounter, wherein individuals are more fully themselves when they are in community, so are the practical and foundational elements of the Christian faith more fully understood when set together as a whole. As Francis writes:

 The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message . . . the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and go forth from ourselves to seek the good in others. (#39)

Whether we know it or not, practice it or not, we intimately connect our action to our sense of doctrine, and vice versa. This is not a new statement, but politically and publicly, the realization of this fact has remained rather tenuous. Particularly now, however, when more conservative Christians are becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party, and many are retreating into an increasingly embattled ideological corner, the practice of loving, responsive encounter between Christians across the political spectrum would potentially bear quite a bit of fruit on both sides.   By engaging in such critical, constructive dialogue, we not only set the stage for the reintegration of doctrine and social justice in the American Christian mindset, we also begin to shift the paradigm of how the public perceives religious speech and action itself.

Pope Francis has said that he’d rather have a Church “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy . . . from clinging to its own security” (#49). Let’s hope the Christians don’t bruise each other too badly before they even go through the front door.

Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.

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