Are conservative Christians prone to politicizing their faith, conflating Republican Party politics with biblical fidelity?
Some are, and we could point to plenty of examples. But the bigger, underreported story is that conservative Christians are not uniquely prone to such errors, and in fact, “progressive” Christians outpace their conservative counterparts in succumbing to politicization.
One Faith No Longer
George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk’s new book, One Faith No Longer: the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, published by NYU Press earlier this year, has a provocative thesis. Based on new research and extensive interviews, the authors claim current progressive-conservative divisions among Christians in the U.S. (descending from the modernist-fundamentalist battles a century ago) are manifestations of fundamentally different belief systems.
Yancey and Quosigk believe we are not dealing with minor alterations in doctrine and values, but belief systems that have grown so drastically different that each side’s “goals” become oppositional, thereby “interfering with one another’s ability to accomplish their desired purposes” (209).
In defining conservative and progressive Christians, the authors use theological rather than political criteria. Individuals who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and say Jesus is the only path to salvation are conservative Christians. Those who do not believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and do not see Jesus as the only path to salvation are progressive Christians.
The decision to define these groups by theological rather than political criteria is itself one of the areas where the differences between progressives and conservatives are most starkly represented. Everywhere we turn, we hear that conservative evangelicalism has become overly politicized and partisan, unable to speak to power prophetically. And we can certainly point to people and places where this has been the case. But we’re wrong to assume that the answer to this politicization will be found by turning to the Christian left. On the contrary, progressive Christians who fit this description are more, not less, politically minded than the conservative Christians.
Here are three surprises from Yancey and Quosigk’s research.
1. Progressive Christians are more likely to establish their identity through politics, while conservative Christians find their identity in theology.
Put simply, progressive Christians see the world through a political lens; conservative Christians, through a religious lens (155). This doesn’t mean that progressives are atheological and conservatives apolitical, but only that the emphasis is wildly disparate between the groups.
For example, progressive Christians
emphasize political values relating to social justice issues as they determine who is part of their in-group; they tend to be less concerned about theological agreement. Conservative Christians, however, do not put strong emphasis on political agreement in order to determine if you are one of them—their major concern is whether you agree with them on core theological points . . . . (4)
For this reason, progressive Christians
tend to be more accepting of groups that are traditionally politically progressive (such as Muslims and atheists) than they are of conservative Christians. . . . By contrast, conservative Christians tend to reject Muslims and atheists as part of an out-group, but they do not necessarily reject political liberals. . . . (14).
The authors aren’t saying progressives are naturally more political in a general sense. Their point is that progressives’ commitment to humanistic values of social justice leads them to political action as the area of causing social change. And prioritizing political alignment over theological agreement leads to the next surprise.
2. Conservative Christians are more likely than progressive Christians to defy political orthodoxy.
Just look at the last five years to see this point proven. There was a virtual Civil War among conservative evangelicals when Republican Party orthodoxy became synonymous with Donald Trump and a host of positions on immigration, poverty, racial justice, and environmentalism.
Many conservative evangelical leaders pushed back, hard, at great personal cost, against “conservative political ideology” when they saw it in conflict with biblical teaching and values. Even now, you will find theologically conservative evangelicals with major disagreements on political policy.
Such is not the case for progressive Christian leaders. “The only political issue where multiple bloggers differed from the general political progressive orthodoxy was abortion,” the authors found, and even then, the pushback was light, as if designed to highlight the harmlessness of their dissent. Their conclusion:
There are more paths by which conservative Christians defy conservative political ideology than paths by which progressive Christians defy progressive political ideology (74).
Progressive Christians are often more partisan than conservative Christians even as they chastise conservatives for being chained to a particular political ideology. Why is this the case? A third surprise.
3. Progressive Christians are more likely to seek converts among conservative Christians than among non-Christians.
The common perception is that theologically conservative Christians remain in a bubble of like-mindedness, but Yancey and Quosigk’s research showed the opposite. It’s theologically progressive Christians who surround themselves with homogeneously thinking peers, and part of that homogeneity is an “overwhelmingly negative” view of conservative Christians (94).
A substantial part of how progressive Christians identify themselves is by exposing clearly what they are not—namely, conservative Christians. (17)
In fact, the progressive view of the conservative is so bleak that progressives see themselves as more closely aligned with Muslims than with conservative Christians. How can this be true? It goes back to a commitment among progressive Christians to treat non-Christian beliefs with equality (142). For progressive Christians, Jesus gets recast as the way to true peace in this life and an exemplary model of humanity (instead of the traditional understanding of his role as Savior and Son of God; 148), and this pushes aside the need for evangelism of unbelievers.
Most progressive Christians do not base their religion on strict obedience to the Bible, nor do they feel a strong need to encourage others to accept their interpretation of the Bible or even to accept a Christian faith. The core of their religion is built upon a value set of inclusiveness, tolerance, and social justice. Christianity is just one of many paths to achieving a society of inclusion and justice for the marginalized. It is not necessarily a superior path. . . . (191)
The people most needing “conversion,” then, are not unbelievers but conservative Christians, which may explain why so many progressive Christians try to persuade their conservative counterparts to adopt their political ideology. Conservatives, not unbelievers, are their potential converts.
One Faith No Longer upends the conventional wisdom that conservative Christians are uniquely prone to falling captive to unbiblical political ideologies, or that conservative Christians are filled with rage toward their theological opponents. Through research and interviews, Yancey and Quosigk demonstrate the opposite: it’s progressives who rarely defy political orthodoxy and who harbor disdain for conservatives. And the hardening lines between these two groups add weight to the thesis of J. Gresham Machen a century ago: when it comes to Christianity and theological liberalism, we really are talking about two different religions.
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