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Standing with Sojourners: When Progressive isn't Progressive Enough

May 11th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Sojourners, the bastion of evangelical progressivism, has found itself in a maelstrom of criticism.

Sojourners rejected an advertisement by Believe Out Loud, an interdenominational outfit dedicated to helping churches and clergy become GLBT affirming, and then set about defending his rationale.  The decision and (allegedly) tepid justification have angered many in the religious left, some of whom have suggested that Wallis' refusal to run the ad means that he can no longer be considered the leader of their movement.

At stake is whether Sojourners can claim the mantle of "progressive" if they remain on the sidelines on what has apparently become the cultural barometer for the progressive/conservative distinction.  And it's not just conservatives that are treating it that way:  the reaction to Sojourners' decision suggests progressives think it is as well.  As Andrew Marin puts it:

Jim and Sojourners are currently getting thrown under the bus every-which-way by the LGBT community. Rightfully so, in my opinion. If a person or an organization is going to align themselves with a very specific social and theological ideology and take the donations of that very specific ideology’s people and organizations, how can they then pick and choose what constitutes as proper progressively? They can’t.

Of course, it's not like Wallis has hidden his position on homosexuality.  So it's hard to see why he's to blame for taking money that was given by people who apparently presumed more than they should have.

But there's a dilemma here for the religiously progressive community:   It's not enough (anymore) to be liberal on economic or racial issues and conservative on the sexual ones, as sexual politics have taken precedence over any others in the religious left.   Don't think for a second it's just conservatives who have made gay marriage an issue to draw lines over:  the reaction to Wallis' decision suggests that the time is coming when folks like him and Ron Sider, who want to stop their progressivism at the line of gay relations and marriage, will find themselves in just as odd a position as those who are conservative economically but liberal on sexual politics.  And maybe an even worse one, as the number of folks in that camp seems to be growing rapidly.

There's a deep question, of course, whether such a principled line around sexual politics can be drawn once the progressive stance is adopted on race and gender.  Oddly, I find myself in agreement with emerging church advocate Tony Jones:  count me among the wary.  But this is something odd, for it implies that there is more at stake in these arrangements than what happens in the bedroom--it's about the stitching in our social fabric, rather than the isolation and privacy of the bedroom.

But I do wish we could all agree on this much:  Sojourner's wariness of conducting this "dialogue" in and through the mode of advertising is right.  It strikes me that the forum for a discussion like this is the written, reasoned word.  Logos, not pathos.  The reduction of this discussion to advertisements is one of its most unsavory aspects; the questions simply do not fit the medium, and the medium inevitably undermines arguments by distorting positions and engendering distrust.  This decision may significantly hurt Sojourner's credibility within the evangelical left, but it's a decision which those who are committed to hashing these issues out civilly and responsibly in public should applaud, for it is a decision of which I suspect Socrates would be proud.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.