Curtis Freeman, a Duke Divinity School professor and liberal Baptist, landed himself in hot water after tweeting that “Evangelical Christianity is the greatest threat to human existence today. It must be laid waste.” He later deleted the tweet, saying he was focused, hyperbolically, on expressions of evangelical activism tied to President Trump.
Many individuals have concerns about the political activism of conservative Christians. I have been critical of them as well. But this focus on conservative Christian activism hides the reality that political goals may be more prominent in the religious ideals of progressive Christians. Indeed, my latest research suggests it’s not just conservative Christians who are slavishly devoted to political goals. They may not even be the worse offenders.
Who Is More Political?
In the past few years, I have conducted research comparing conservative Christians to progressive Christians. This work comes out this summer in One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, which I wrote with Ashlee Quosigk. One of the questions we dealt with was the role of political values in creating identity for conservative and progressive Christians.
In defining conservative and progressive Christians, I use theological rather than political criteria. Individuals who perceive the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and see Jesus as the only path to salvation are conservative Christians. Those who do not see the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and do not see Jesus as the only path to salvation are progressive Christians.
While I will not use partisan political categories to separate the two groups, research has made it quite clear that conservative Christian theology is linked to conservative political values and progressive Christian theology is linked to progressive political values. That relationship is not total, but it is strong. That relationship is one reason why it is worth considering the political priorities of theologically conservative and progressive Christians.
One of our findings is that progressive Christians prioritize political values more than conservative Christians do. Political conformity is more important for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians. At first I thought this merely reflected a reality that progressive Christians care more about progressive political ideology than conservative Christians care about conservative political ideology.
But as we dug down into the data, I saw this was incorrect. Progressive Christians have an underlying value system that leads them to a stronger political loyalty than the value system of conservative Christians does. Progressive Christians stress values such as social justice, inclusion, and tolerance. For many progressive Christians, those values are best shown through their understanding of progressive political ideology. Consequently, they develop a much stronger degree of political allegiance than the political proclivities found among conservative Christians.
Political conformity is more important for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians.
Acceptance of sexual minorities and racial justice are seen as political manifestations of tolerance and inclusion. Economic programs to take care of the poor can also be seen as a political way to include marginalized populations.
Progressive Christians tend to support notions of separating church and state, since they don’t want to see Christian political domination. They see such domination as creating an atmosphere of intolerance toward non-Christian groups. Some progressive Christians oppose abortion, but even they fail to challenge political progressives to the extent they challenge political conservatives on other political issues.
Why Are Progressive Christians More Political?
There are important core differences between progressive and conservative Christians that help explain the distinct approaches of each group toward political participation.
1. Different Frameworks
Values such as inclusion, tolerance, and social justice are linked to commonplace humanistic values among highly educated political progressives, regardless of whether they are Christian. For progressive Christians, those values are key to how they understand reality and deal with questions of meaning. Political activism is a natural outcome of adopting such values. Political activism is a way to change a society to one of more social justice and a higher level of tolerance.
Conservative Christians base their attempts to understand reality and deal with questions of meaning through a traditional historical Bible interpretation. That interpretation is the source of their ultimate values, and political activism is not a natural outcome tied to such interpretation. Of course, some conservative Christians act in ways to merge their political and theological beliefs.
But a traditional historical interpretation of the Bible can easily be more focused on spiritual than worldly concerns. Thus, conservative Christians have a greater chance of ignoring political issues than progressive Christians who are focused on creating a more inclusive society.
2. Different Images of Jesus
It’s not surprising that the image of Jesus for progressive Christians differs from the image of Jesus for conservative Christians. For progressive Christians, Jesus is the model of inclusion and tolerance. For example, one progressive Christian drew a cartoon of Jesus saying, “The difference between me and you is you use Scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what Scripture means.” Progressive Christians focus on the actions and teachings of Jesus that reinforce their values of tolerance and inclusion, which they see as examples of love.
A traditional historical interpretation of the Bible can easily be more focused on spiritual than worldly concerns.
For conservative Christians, Jesus is interpreted through a traditional historical framework. They have less of a problem interpreting Jesus as teaching an “intolerant” faith that excludes from salvation those who don’t follow him. Both progressive and conservative Christians affirm the majesty of Christ, but they greatly differ on what values they see emerging from his life and ministry.
3. Different Views on the Bible
Likewise, what the Bible means often differs between progressive and conservative Christians. Contrary to what some conservative Christians assert, progressive Christians don’t entirely reject the Bible. Yet many of them don’t envision the Bible as inerrant or infallible, but rather as a book of wisdom. They see Scripture as influenced by human authors and question the traditional historical interpretations of conservative Christians. They instead apply their interpretation, which is tied to their values of social justice, inclusion, and tolerance. Their theological and political orientations are linked to their larger core values.
Political Activism and Tolerance
Many conservative Christians are deeply involved in politics and let politics influence their theological beliefs. However, our quantitative and qualitative analysis indicated that conservative Christians are more likely to create social out-groups based on theological than political differences. In other words, they’re more accepting of political progressives than of non-Christians. They’re also quite willing see different types of Christians as friends. Our qualitative work indicted that conservative Christians often see progressive Christians as brothers and sisters with slightly different beliefs.
The reverse is true for progressive Christians. They’re more likely to create social out-groups based on political differences. In other words, they’re more accepting of non-Christian groups than they are of conservative Christians. In fact, the acceptance of non-Christian groups is part of the inclusion and tolerance they tend to champion. So, naturally, they’re less likely to reject those of other faiths.
Conservative Christians are more likely to create social out-groups based on theological differences. In other words, they’re more accepting of political progressives than of non-Christians. . . . Progressive Christian are more likely to create social out-groups based on political differences. In other words, they’re more accepting of non-Christian groups than they are of conservative Christians.
Such tolerance, however, does not extend to conservative Christians, whom they see as not practicing the inclusion they so highly value. Progressive Christians are less likely than conservative Christians to have different types of believers as friends. Progressive Christians are more likely to reject conservative Christians than conservative Christians are to reject progressive Christians. Progressive Christians envision conservative Christians as barriers to the type of inclusion and tolerance they want in society.
This greater adherence to the use of political values to advance social justice, tolerance, and inclusion has created a stronger political loyalty among progressive Christians relative to conservative Christians. For example, in our book we looked at pro-life progressive Christians and conservative Christians who favor immigration reform. Those two groups are at odds with their potential political allies.
Pro-life progressive Christians articulated the value of life and the horror of abortion. For many of them, the practice of abortion violates their values to inclusion and justice. But most of them stopped short of calling for laws to end abortion.
Conservative Christians who support immigration reform based this view on their interpretation of the Bible. In their writings, they were much more likely to cite Scripture to support their points than pro-life progressive Christians were. And they weren’t hesitant to challenge political conservatives with calls for laws to change our immigration system. Conservative Christians have a degree of freedom to confront political conservatives that progressive Christians don’t in challenging political progressives.
Conservative Christians have a degree of freedom to confront political conservatives that progressive Christians don’t in challenging political progressives.
In some ways, the division in Christianity reflects the larger culture war. It would take more space to fully explore the nature of that cultural division. But at least part of what’s driving our culture war is a conflict of modernist humanistic values tied to the ideals of social justice and inclusiveness supported by progressive Christians and ideals of traditionalism supported by conservative Christians. So it isn’t surprising that the war we see in our larger culture is also reflected within the Christian community.
Ironically, conservative Christians are less likely to understand the depth of this divide than progressive Christians are. Perhaps they’re less aware of this tension because they’re less likely to be political. Or perhaps having a wider variety of Christian friends provides them with more confidence in Christian harmony. This confidence is a mistake, and conservative Christians need to be more aware of the divisions.
Let’s End This Stereotype
Many have righty criticized the entanglement of conservative Christians in politics. Progressive Christians stress political values more than conservative Christians, yet there is less criticism of their activism. This lack of criticism may be due to lower numbers and less political influence of progressive Christians relative to conservative Christians. Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on the potential detrimental effects of the political activism of progressive Christians, just as we reflect on the detrimental effects of the political activism of conservative Christians.
At the very least, we should dispense with the stereotype that it’s only conservative Christians who impose their faith on politics.