For the better part of 10 years, I was steeped in Conservative Evangelical Christianity. Around the mid-2000s a severe internal unrest began to bubble up in me. Since the mid-nineties, I had lived in a culture where the norm was that if you were a “real” Christian, you’d vote Republican. You had to. Because… abortion and gays… and then Bill Clinton closed the deal with his abject abuse of power (Sorry, Hillary, you’re wrong- it was an abuse of power) in his treatment of a Whitehouse intern.
But in 2000 the ante went way up on this. For whatever reason, more so than any Republican candidate I could recall, George W. Bush was the perfect Christian candidate. Emails threads abounded (no Twitter and Facebook, remember), demanding that any and all who call themselves a Christian must vote for W.
Quietly, without ever being able to say anything, I went to the polls and, again, did not vote Republican. This was my 3rd presidential election as an evangelical Christian, and once again I sat in my Christian community, riddled with fear that someone might find out that I didn’t vote Republican. Phrases like, “how could you not vote for Bush”, and “You cannot call yourself a Christian and vote for Clinton”, and “It’s clear God wanted Bush”, etc. filled me with a deep sense of anxiety as I felt I didn’t belong. But as long as no one knew my secret, I could survive.
By the 2004 election, things got crazy. I was working in a large evangelical church, and I remember showing up to church one day and there in the parking lot were several cars, almost like a parade, with massive signs on them calling for the banning of gay marriage and proclaiming “homosexuality” a sin. As I walked into church to minister to students, I wondered how this would land on those wrestling with orientation and identity.
The political temperature in evangelical Christianity had been raised. There were times when I was shaking, as the pressure became no longer just about voting Republican; now it was about constructing your faith in such a way that “republican” became part of your Christian identity to the point where Christianity and Republicanism seemed inseparable. The pressure on our pastor to respond was immense, and though today I would’ve liked him to go several steps further, considering the climate, I think he handled it brilliantly. He said from the pulpit that morning, “if you’re concerned about the sanctity of marriage… work on your marriage.”
But then something happened that would forever change me. Greg Boyd (an evangelical pastor across town whose sermons I often listened to online) preached a sermon series called “The Cross and the Sword.” In it, he outlined the ways in which the evangelical church had essentially been hijacked by the Republican party. You can still find that series at Woodland Hills’ website, and his subsequent book on the topic, “The Myth of a Christian Nation” is still out there.
I felt liberated. Though there is much about Boyd with which I disagree today, a that time an important chain fell off my soul: No longer did I need to doubt my faith for having serious doubts about Republican politics. The pressure didn’t go away, though. In fact, it increased, as did the sense of not belonging, of feeling passively shunned. But the shame went away. The doubt went away. Hallelujah.
A lot has happened since 2004. A great many evangelical leaders have begun to doubt the Church’s alignment with the Republican party and its agenda. And in 2016, if you ask me, the evangelical church’s alignment was exposed for what it really is: a mechanism to keep rich white guys in power. But that’s a whole other blog. Today I’m grateful that there is a greater freedom for Christians to vote how they choose.
Or is there?
As many progressive ideas have begun to break into Christianity and find Christian expression (for which I am grateful), I fear the same hijacking of Evangelical Christianity that took place in the 90s and early 2000s is happening in Progressive Christianity today. I identify as a Progressive Christian and Pastor, but I am disturbed by the pressure that exists for the Progressive Church to align itself with the Democratic Party, its candidates, and its agenda.
The same kinds of pressures that I experienced in the 90s and 2000s, wherein one’s very faith is called into question if they don’t vote Republican, are now taking place on the left. Rhetoric like “how can you call yourself a Christian and vote Republican” is thick. Our modus-operandi seems to be shame and outrage, and our interpretations of the Bible have grown narrow and guilt-ridden.
I left Conservative Evangelical Christianity because of its narrow, closed-minded, politically aligned interpretations and applications of the Biblical narrative. I’m finding merely another form of the same thing in Progressive Christianity.
The truth is, I sometimes fear how Republican voters may feel in our pews. As I think about them experiencing what I experienced 20 years ago, I fear that in our efforts to win over voters, we may be destroying someone’s faith. Justice and righteousness will not be won through a regime change. As Progressive Christian icon Walter Breuggermann says, “[Moses] was not engaged in a struggle to transform a regime; rather, his concern was with the consciousness that undergirded and made such a regime possible” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 21).
the call of Christianity is bigger than American politics. It must be. If it’s not, then I want out of this game as soon as possible.
I am not saying that Progressive Christians shouldn’t vote democratic, or even advocate for certain policies. As Brueggemann even says, there are times for political action. But what I am calling for is serious caution in our alignment with any political candidate or agenda. It is a slippery slope, and if one slides down it too far, you end up with the likes of Donald Trump. Don’t think a dumpster fire democratic version of a Donald-Trump-like presidency isn’t possible. Furthermore, when our Christian expressions are reduced to mere political successes, we pervert the Gospel in a nasty story of shame and condemnation. Which is exactly what the religious right did with it.
The Bible is most certainly a politically relevant book, and we Progressive Christians should voice our opinions and fight for justice and liberation. But we also must be careful not to cross over the murky and difficult line from political relevance to political alignment. When we do so, we domesticate the Gospel of Jesus and the kingdom which he ushered in, no matter where on the political spectrum we may fall.
Let’s do better. Let’s be sure our preaching of the Bible and our religious expressions are laced with the grace of a Christ who died in love of his enemies. Beware, Progressive Christianity.