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.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Interesante, as the Spanish would say. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. First, Andrew Marin’s quotation effectively moves him from putative neutrality to partisanship, as I figured all along. The McLarenian call for a moratorium on the moral status of homosexuality is cowardice. McLaren and Marin might as well come out of the closet and explicitly declare that, according to their lights (however dim they might be), homosexuality is just a divergent – but not disordered – expression of God’s creation. Second, I’m trying to rack my brain with examples of people “who are conservative economically but liberal on sexual politics.” No one comes to mind. Third, the mushrooming of sexual politics only reinforces our need to deconstruct the socially constructed sexual identities that have impoverished biblical anthropology. And fourth, while I’m no fan of Jim Wallis, I’ll raise a pint of Chimay Grande Réserve to him for not capitulating to gay Christian activism.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Christopher.

      “Second, I’m trying to rack my brain with examples of people “who are conservative economically but liberal on sexual politics.” No one comes to mind.”

      If libertarians count as “conservative economically,” then I think there are probably plenty of them. They just hang around Cato and Reason Magazine. : )

  • park

    Curious what you mean by “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.” I get what you mean by a “progressive” stance on gender, but what do you mean by a progressive stance on race? Recognizing that it exists?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Park, great question. See my reply below to TR.

  • Matthew, your last paragraph is telling. Our culture renders us increasingly incapable of carving out space for the “written, reasoned word” as distinct from “advertising.” When the larger culture assumes all moral evaluation must eventually reduce to preference, it becomes all but impossible to defend one’s moral stance against the forces of manipulation. Instead we are left with nothing but language in service to the will to power and deciding between right and wrong becomes not a matter of reason, or even rhetoric – but mere fashion.

    • Jane

      Andy, you have made a very valid point. The decision about moral evaluation seems to often be made apparent by who shouts the loudest, whose advertisement is more expensive, and who shoves the hardest. Is this a result of the modern expression of democracy?

      • Matthew Lee Anderson

        Thanks, Andy, and very well put. Jane, I hope it’s not tied to democracy per se, as much as when democracy loses its moorings to a metaphysic that isn’t reduced to power relations.

  • TR

    Hi Matthew,
    I’m asking this out of ignorance (not to be snarky, but because I genuinely don’t know): What is the “progressive stance on race” that Sojourners adopts, and in what ways is it problematic?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      TR,

      I clearly should have thought through my example a little more. I think I was echoing someone else who suggested this. My sense is that the “progressive” stance on race means something more than just recognizing its existence, but means allocating resources or opportunities technocratically to remedy injustices on its basis (i.e. quotas).

      That’s my understanding, at least. The race issue is one I need to do a lot more work on, so I hold the above very loosely.

      Matt