A few years ago I wrote a piece for Mere O called, “The Progressive Evangelical Package.” It probably helps to read it before proceeding. Simply put, though, before the language of “tribes” and “tribal thinking” became lingua franca, I tried to point out that Progressive Evangelicals had a developing orthodoxy of key doctrines just as much as conservative Calvinists did. I did that by identifying seven of them, trying to pinpoint some of the underlying, causal roots funding this cluster as a whole, and inviting folks to recognize that social pressure was being exerted on them to conform to it.
My thought was that folks were starting to find each other due to certain overlapping critiques, or a couple of shared positions, and build friendships and informal coalitions. As that happened, the folks who only affirmed three or four planks would be pushed to affirm all seven or so to belong in much the same way that folks in more conservative wings did. It wasn’t meant as an out-and-out critique (indeed, I said as much), but more as a descriptive project. In a sense, I just wanted to analyze and name something I saw that I didn’t see anybody really owning.
In this post I want to briefly revisit the package and chart some points where I think I got it right, some where I got it wrong, and note some developments that have occurred in the meantime. Mostly for my own analytical benefit, I suppose, but hopefully it can also be of use to those who spend any amount of time trying to understand one corner of the ever-shifting, Evangelical public landscape.
Looking back at it now, I think my argument holds up well enough in most places on the issues themselves. I have seen folks definitely progress along lines I anticipated (I’ll come back to that), especially on the sexual revolution front. There is the predictable, slow move towards affirming stances by some, while a few folks basically took the slippery slopes conservatives warned about and treated them like slip-and-slides into ethically sourced porn and holy polyamory. Similar trajectories could be traced with theologies of Scripture, atonement, and so forth.
When looking at the section on underlying causes, I realize I had not read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the time. If I had, alongside the business about empathy and authenticity, harm, and anti-authoritarianism, I would have made much, much more of the liberty/oppression axis that funds so much of progressive Evangelical moral and theological reasoning. It popped up, of course, but it really wasn’t something I was as attuned to at the time and that was a big blind spot.
Part of me also is tempted to think I should have added a couple of extra issues to the package. I’m also tempted to think I should have framed them less in terms of what conservative doctrines they were against. That said, to some degree the negative framing, the againstness has actually remained something of an essential feature for the most prominent voices.
Things I Could Not See Coming
Beyond that, there were some big developments I did not anticipate over the last four years, which have shifted the conversation around the issues in those circles. Here are just a few, in no particular order.
First, progressive call-out culture on the internet (especially on forums like Twitter) ratcheted up what I saw as more initially subtle pressure, to very public, very direct appeals to important figures within the movement to shift or change on key issues.
Second, the rise and growth in awareness of intersectionality concerns. That’s had its own effects in conservative, theological circles too (which is a subject for another day). But the effects of adopting and foregrounding intersectionality premises (which I’m not critiquing at the moment) does a couple of things.
First, it roots itself in the liberative moral instinct and links together various causes to which you must become committed to if you’re really going to be an ally in one area. You can’t just be anti-racist, you have to be anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-transphobic because interlocking systems of oppression are seen as mutually reinforcing.
Second, this loops us back into the call-out culture practices whereby someone who has been an ally on X issue is pressured to become an ally to the oppressed on Y issue if they’re to be truly progressive. There’s more but those are two of the more obvious effects I just didn’t see coming.
Third, the Ex-Evangelicals. The rise of the Empty the Pews and Ex-Evangelical movements out of either more radicalized Progressive Evangelicals, or folks who have more recently burned out, has generated a crowd that is more vocal, more unrelentingly critical (many times for legitimate reasons–realize I’m not critiquing here), less interested in changing the church, than emptying the pews. While the prog evangelicals are/were interested in a reclamation or transformation project, the ex-Evangelicals seem more intent on an evacuation. And in many ways, they have created a critical pressure on folks from the Left, pushing it further down that trajectory.
Fourth, #MeToo (#Churchtoo) and #BlackLivesMatter. In a sense, they are just big, concrete movements that are occasions for the other three factors I’ve already mentioned to grow in strength, as well as feeding into the liberative dimension, anti-clerical, and anti-authoritarian dimension I’d flagged originally. (And this is understandable–remember, I’m not critiquing here.) On top of that, Conservative Evangelical responses here fueled an already growing sense of betrayal, alienation, and disaffection. And again, these impact conservative Evangelical conversations too.
Finally, Trump. It’s hard to overstate the effect his election has had on agitating and radicalizing progressive Evangelical consciousness politically and theologically, nor the way that has reverberated and been a factor in the four aforementioned points. I don’t think I need to substantiate this much. Progressive Evangelicalism is now Resistance Spirituality or it is nothing else.
I know there’s more to it than this–I suspect a more economically attuned observer would know how to augment this analysis along those lines–but these are a few of the key ones that I’ve observed.
The Case of Brian Zahnd
By way of a concrete example, I actually think Brian Zahnd is kind of illustrative of both the places I think I was right in the original piece, as well as the way recent events have changed things.
In the first place, just thinking about the ways folks with differing theological concerns can end up being pulled or influenced to embrace the whole, Rachel Held Evans’ endorsement of Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a good example. Four years ago, Rachel was still mostly focused on writing about issues of gender and sexuality, doubt and the church, and so forth. She was anti-Calvinistic in many ways, but a neo-Girardian, radical pacifist, soteriology rejecting any Western, satisfaction-type theology wasn’t really on high her public theological agenda, nor were themes of divine violence and so forth.
Of course, folks think and grow, and develop. And that’s fine and normal. And she’s since written a book dealing with some of these matters in relation to Scripture (which has always been a concern of hers). But the endorsement itself fits really well into the pattern of seeing group affinities and alliances having those mutually-influencing, theologically-consolidating effects I was talking about. Friendships, communities with some baseline shared values begin shifting your views on particulars other than those that initially brought you together.
Second, you can see some of the recent shifts playing into the couple of instances of criticism Zahnd has faced from his left wing. First, there is the not unpredictable heat he took for his position on gay marriage. So far as I can piece it together, an exchange on Twitter led to folks pressuring Zahnd to clarify his actual position on the matter. He ended up giving a muddled answer about welcoming folks in his church, but not yet being able to perform marriages for them.
There was understandable frustration from many progressive folks who simply disagreed with him, or were frustrated by a lack of clarity, and even a sense of betrayal from folks who had gotten the impression he was affirming the whole time. It was a violation of an assumed trust, enabled by the prior group dynamics already mentioned, And honestly, it’s not one I entirely blame, because a lack of clarity here really can a pastoral failure, no matter which position you end up taking on the matter, for reasons Jake Meador has laid out.
The more surprising critique he’s gotten came within a few days. Zahnd tweeted out that he’s got both ICE members and undocumented immigrants in his congregation worshiping Jesus together. At which point, he immediately faced a pile-on for his seeming obliviousness or recklessness with the safety and freedom of his undocumented members. While I doubt this sort of thing would have happened four years ago, it makes perfect sense in light of the recent turn to more Left and Democratic politics provoked (or simply drawn out) by Trump. It has turned the progressive Evangelicals more skeptical of the sort of kingdom-transcends party, anti-politics Anabaptist political frame that was more popular only recently.
Far from being a one-off incident, this seems more illustrative of a broader shift among some Progressive Evangelicals. Many who would have been tempted to not vote or “Vote for Jesus” a few years ago, as opposed to either Republicans or Democrats (but mostly not the Republicans their Evangelical parents told them to vote for), are increasingly fine participating in the coercive power of the State through voting now that they see some of the real-world effects of the abdication of political authority in the lives of their neighbors. In other words, (fairly or not) Neo-Anabaptist politics has begun to feel kinda white.
So while folks in those camps still might want to reject penal substitution, anti-authoritarianism, and violence in their theology of salvation or doctrine of God, the Resistance ethos growing from liberative and intersectional concerns are overwhelming the formerly ascendant, Neo-Anabaptism. Indeed, you even have some surprising. re-appropriation of violent, Old Testament texts in progressive spaces in the service of progressive politics.
Where all this goes remains to be seen. Much of it, I suspect, is just going to continue go to the mainline–both numerically and theologically. It’s becoming clear that certain wings of it are just a more natural, theological fit.
The more liberal theological tradition ensconced in those churches already participates in (or at least pays lip service to) the politics that most progressive Evangelicals are headed towards. Theologically, there is certainly as much elbow room to the Left as any progressive Evangelical might like, and I’m sure there is the welcome of new energy into those bones. Though, there might be some head-butting when more classic liberals run into those sort of younger progressives who still have no problem with the supernatural elements of Christianity.
At that point the question is whether there is any reason left for folks to think of themselves as Progressive Evangelicals–whether they have reached a place of adopting a more self-consciously, positive mainline identity, less concerned with identifying oneself against the Evangelicalism you left and more as the thing you are now. I think many have already dropped the moniker, but it remains to be seen whether the stance, with its inevitably dependent relation of rejection will be let go.
A cynic might suggest that for the writers in this group there is a not inconsiderable audience base that gives real incentive to never fully cut ties. But the reality is that leaving home is hard for anybody. You still have friends and family there. Psychological roots. And for many, a possible evangelistic urgency to save those you can from the sinking ship you’ve just escaped.
Of course, given that half of my post was dedicate to pointing out what I didn’t see coming, I’ll leave off from any actual predictions and simply note that it’s been an interesting little study for me to observe the way broader cultural trends and events have real-life repercussions in theological and ecclesiastical life. Theological progression doesn’t take place in socio-historical vacuum. Which is hopefully a chastening thought for conservatives looking on as in a mirror, recognizing some of the same trends at work in our own lives.