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Two Religions?

This will act as a kind of book review of George Yancey’s new book One Faith No Longer, the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America. It is kind of review because I don’t intend to address most claims in the book. I simply want to highlight those claims that interest me as a progressive Christian pastor.

The book starts with a recounting of the fundamentalist modernist debates in the early 20th century. This helps situate the current divides to a history that spans over a century. Those debates often happened in mainline Protestant bodies. And this continues, as the author notes, as the United Methodist church is likely to split the denomination along progressive vs conservative lines over the question LGBT inclusion.

But a curious decision was made. There are no interviews of mainline Protestants. And while George Yancey wonders if this divide also defines American Catholic life, there are no interviews of progressive or conservative Catholics. The progressive and conservative Christians interviewed were all evangelicals, many of whom came from the same family of churches, some of which came from the same local congregation.

This explains why conservatives were more likely to see progressive Christians as fellow Christians with different strategies because you are asking fellow evangelicals to measure each other, from often the same congregation. It would be a reasonable response to believe those in the same church or family of churches are on the same team.

Had evangelicals been asked the status of progressive Christians, of LGBT Christians, of those in the mainline denominations , I’d venture to guess that they would likely see us as part of the out group. I say that after 30 years in campus ministry where I have never met an evangelical who believed I was anything but a dangerous deceiver.

I have sought outreach of evangelical campus groups in that time. Always the answer is no. I had a conservative Presbyterian pastor scream at students who attempted to come by our campus ministry table. I’ve had campus ministers come to talk to me about why I am going to hell. I had Southern Baptist ministers condemn us on LGBT inclusion. And Intervarsity warn their students of the dangers of our progressive campus ministry.

I know I rely on personal anecdotes but I also work with 23 churches and 7 mainline bodies in my campus ministry. I work with 26 UCC congregations in our conference, serving on the committee on ministry, I interact with the National Campus Ministry Association, the Pacific Northwest ELCA campus ministers and the UMC Mountain Sky group of campus ministers. Every mainline pastor I have spoken to on the subject has had the same kind of experiences.

Maybe a different kind of survey is needed to situate such stories, one that includes a discussion of the mainline, for conservatives and progressives. I am willing to bet that one will find a mutual outgrouping of the other side.

It is also noteworthy that no discussion occurred over the LGBT divide. It’s mentioned in reference to the United Methodists, but just as there are no mainliners interviewed, there is also no LGBT Christians interviewed nor is this subject even broached. Which is curious given the literature and the survey data that is out there on the subject.

As a gay Christian pastor in the mainline, I have been in the outgroup for evangelicals, not only because of theology but who I am as a human being. A less charitable reading of the book would suggest that excluding LGBT voices and the divisions resulting from it, would indicate that both sides otherize the other. And it would situate conservative Christians as equally part of the culture wars as progressives.

The latter is an important point

Our argument is that conservative Christians, they’re deriving their meaning, their purpose, their security, and their identity from their interpretation of the Bible, from a notion of God being exclusive. Progressive Christians, while they too have the Bible, that’s not where their source of meaning is coming from. Their source of meaning is coming from values of inclusion and tolerance, and from that then, they go from that to them using the Bible to sort of support that. 

Throughout the book conservatives sort themselves from what they understand is fidelity to Christian faith as understood through the Bible. Progressives take their cues from politics and the larger culture understanding of inclusion. Who do you think the author sides with in such a description? The prior.

Had George Yancey used the LGBT issue, views on gender, he would find the otherizing happening on both sides. He would find the Bible being appealed to on both sides. And he would find conservatives as likely if not more to to depart from the Bible to a social cultural configuration about gender and identity.

The divides would be just as real if not more so. But it would be clear that conservative arguments are not simply interested in theology or the afterlife. They are motivated by politics and culture. And progressives are interested in both to be sure, would also be likely as appeal to the Bible and the tradition.

Three books that cover this divide well include Jesus and John Wayne, White Too Long, and Taking America Back for God. These texts were not referred to. Had they been consulted both data and history would show that race and views on immigration, not simply theology, undergirds evangelical responses to Islam. It would be clear that a specific vision of gender and race undergirds the conservative church.

Instead George Yancey takes conservative self evaluations at face value. As he quotes J Gresham Machen on how progressives twist the meaning of terms from their intended usage, you can tell that Yancey does not take progressive self evaluation at face value. There is something dishonest about progressive Christians for the author. This book is not a detached work of sociology. It’s a plea to for conservatives to be seen as the rightful heirs of the term Christian.

How do you know when it’s just that and when it’s a distinctive religion? And what I come back to is how do you answer questions of meaning? And by that I mean questions of purpose, questions of security, questions of identity, questions of value, questions of what’s right and wrong. And if you use a different criteria, then I think what you’re on to is two different religions, even though they may use the same terminology.

The most startling claim the book makes is the one I’m apt to agree with. And for much of the same reasons. But it is not progressives look at culture, conservatives the Bible. Both sides look to both but their answers to the question of meaning an purpose are at odds in such a way that they inevitably find themselves in opposition in the culture wars.

If I was to as a progressive Christian, identify the question of meaning it would be rooted in the imago dei, the image of God, the unique source of individuality and possibility found in every person. Finding ways to support the development and flourishing of every person in their uniqueness is the goal of life. ,

If I was to define conservative attempts at meaning it would be there is a divine order, a hierarchy, when it comes to gender, religion, one’s social and political make up, even racial make up and finding one’s place within that order makes for meaning.

The clash happens because progressives won’t accept this hierarchy, so it feels like an attack on conservative Christianity. And certainly the hierarchy is terrible news for those of us who are LGBT, it is an existential threat to our well being. So we’re at odds on a fundamental level. Enough to say we have two religions afoot.

Both religions appeal to the same tradition both are influenced by the wider culture, both believe they represent the spirit of Jesus, both can feel embattled, both worry about the existential threat the other side poses. Both feel the tensions of polarization within the wider American culure and politics.

This is not an appeal to metoism. As a gay married man I don’t intend to entertain why my legal rights and dignity should be up for debate by conservatives. But the book’s case there are two religions could be helpful. For those in the mainline who worry excessively about those who misuse the term Christian, it may be time to not worry and not to relate to such folks as part of our tradition and get on with the ministry we have been called to.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings

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  1. Hi, David –

    I see this a little differently, though I think that the corollaries to my axioms reach your conclusions.

    I think that conservatives believe that God wishes us to prevent evil. The only way to do that is to constrain behavior, and enforcement of those constraints requires hierarchy.

    I think that progressives believe that God wishes us to recognize evil as a separation from love. While God permits evil, what was granted Adam in Eden was the right to heal that separation. It is the capacity to heal that is important. As that healing occurs, evil no longer will take root among us (the “rising like smoke” in Revelation).

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