Aug  2017 15
Progressive Christians Need to Evangelize

Last week, the evangelical website Christian Today ran an article on Hillary Clinton, following an article in The Atlantic. Mrs. Clinton, say the authors, is “coming out” as a religious person.

I scoffed. My scoffing was not about Mrs. Clinton. I was angered that journalists in the U.S. did already know and acknowledge that Mrs. Clinton is a deeply religious person. It may be news that she wants to open a new chapter in her life as a religious rather than a political leader.

But anyone who has followed Mrs. Clinton’s public life should know she is a deeply committed Christian, a member of The United Methodist Church and a practitioner of John Wesley’s call to weld personal and social holiness in practice.

It is angering and baffling to me that anyone can be surprised that Hillary Clinton identifies strongly as a Christian.

Baffling, that is, until I consider that white evangelicals who voted (which may not be a majority of white evangelicals) in the 2016 election voted 81 percent for Mr. Trump. Somehow, the Two Corinthians, never-did-anything-needing-forgiveness, little-juice-and-cracker eating Mr. Trump was more acceptable to voting evangelicals than Mrs. Clinton was.

Mr. Trump is about as close to the Presbyterian Church in belief and practice as the adult Mr. Nixon was to his Quaker upbringing.

Dreams of defunding Planned Parenthood, a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, wedding cake bakers who are free to refuse service, and the destruction of “godless” schools apparently connote a sufficient “Christian agenda” for Mr. Trump to be hailed as the friend of Christians in the presidential race.

Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, is a woman. Pause there. And she is a defender of American values that evangelical “values voters” oppose. Thus, her deeply-rooted, explicit Christian faith was deleted or rebuked by the voting evangelical public, and Mr. Trump’s faith was imputed to him.

Apparently, the claim to be progressive and Christian is news to some people.

Here is a problem for my kin, for those in the progressive quadrant of Protestant Christianity. The public’s perception of Christianity is thoroughly dominated by white evangelical Christianity.

Sure, there are numerous kinds of Christians who are not included in that public perception. Catholics and African-American Protestants are just two. And local news in places like Boston and New Orleans will focus a different lens on religion than national reporters.

But, in terms of what “Christian” means to America’s publics, white evangelical Christianity is every bit today’s mainline as were my kin from the early 1900s until the 1960s.

It may be the case that the U.S. is becoming less religious. That is certainly the worry for religious people of all kin groups based on religious adherence of Millennials. But consider this about evangelicals:

  • Most Christians today worship in large congregations, and those congregations are overwhelmingly evangelical.
  • The average age of evangelical and Pentecostal congregants is significantly younger than the average age in formerly mainline congregations.
  • Evangelicals and Pentecostals plant far more new communities of faith than formerly mainline denominations do.
  • Evangelicals and Pentecostals succeed better than formerly mainline churches in attracting newer immigrant groups. Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries are deployed throughout the world, and immigrants to the U.S. are likely to be Christians adhering to evangelical or Pentecostal perspectives. When looking at which kinds of Christianity are better positioned for the no-majority nation of 2040, Catholics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals are the winners.
  • Evangelicals operate K-12 and higher education institutions, as well as constitute two-thirds of homeschooling families (Atlantic article on the topic). Including both congregational and parachurch ministries, evangelicals have created “circle of life” institutions capable of forming and maintaining identities to resist secular culture. (Now, how well their enculturation system works is a different question and the subject of a great deal of research, criticism, and angst.)
  • Evangelical leaders evangelize; they believe they have Good News to share and, from church curricula through seminary education, they teach what and how to share.

While nearly all organized Christian religion in the U.S. might be showing numerical signs of trouble, evangelicals are positioned to define the mainline for some time. One can predict the end of white Christian evangelicalism, but Christian evangelicalism per se is being replenished.

Now, consider this graph from the General Social Survey:

Liberals are disconnecting from religion much more than conservatives are severing the relationship.

In contrast to the evangelical world, on the progressive side, we have nearly none of the culture-forming institutions that evangelicals have. While we support public schools and a richer understanding of “public” than more secular-resistant forms of Christianity, the love is not always reciprocal.

I wish the school I serve had $100 for every time we set up a booth at a gathering such as the Pride Parade or a “changemaker” conference and someone sneered at us, “What are Christians doing here?” And, no, I don’t think we the formerly-mainline “won” any culture battle in a sustaining way (see After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History).

Consider the recent spate of legislation undoing voting rights and abortion access, or the Trump Administration priorities as compared to, well, nearly every administration in my lifetime, or nuclear saber-rattling with North Korea, or the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, and one will look at history as cyclical rather than linear.

If the long arc of the universe bends toward justice, there are many loops in that arc and the direction of history is by no means “forward.” A nation can regress. The U.S. is in a time of regression. A very dangerous time of regression.

We in the progressive Protestant quadrant of U.S. Christianity need to learn to evangelize, to reach others with what we consider to be Good News, without losing or sacrificing our Christian-based progressive values.

I hope Mrs. Clinton claims a role as a religious leader and becomes a face of progressive Christian evangelism.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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