Conservative and progressive US evangelicals head for divorce

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Protestant Reformer John Calvin, an inspiration and guide to many evangelicals. Religion News Service file photo.

Protestant Reformer John Calvin, an inspiration and guide to many evangelicals. Religion News Service file photo.

Protestant Reformer John Calvin, an inspiration and guide to many evangelicals. Religion News Service file photo.

Protestant Reformer John Calvin, an inspiration and guide to many evangelicals. Religion News Service file photo.

American evangelicalism is fractured, probably irreparably. The split between two major camps, which we might roughly label conservatives and progressives, is comprehensive. It was hugely visible in the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton. It is visible all the time, if you know where to look.

READ: “Why this resolution of Hawkins case is bad news for American evangelicalism”

This is a very sad development. It goes against the Christian theological confession that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” It also goes against repeated New Testament exhortations to unity (John 17:11, Col. 3:15). Those exhortations have motivated numerous efforts to bridge the gaps, and on some occasions the tribes do get together for shared goals. But at this point the overall division seems irreparable.

Let me see if I can offer a description of each side that both could acknowledge as generally accurate.

Conservative American evangelicals are a majority of American evangelicals, a very strong majority among white evangelicals in particular.

Conservative evangelicals tend to be conservative across the board.

Theologically, they are strictly conservative and focused on doctrinal clarity and purity. The ascendancy of Calvinist theology has played a major role recently, with leaders as John Piper and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., setting the tone.

Morally, they remain unbending on traditional Christian understandings of moral values, with special focus on bioethical and sexual ethics issues. Look at Franklin Graham as a key example here. He is the latest successor to (the late) Jerry Falwell and (the still active) James Dobson on this front.

Politically, they are conservative and lean strongly Republican. White evangelicals vote for Republican presidential candidates at a 75-80% rate.

Overall, conservative evangelicals tend to be led by white male pastors, activists, and theologians, though there are a number of black, Latino, and Asian-American conservative evangelical leaders as well.

(A huge complexity related to evangelicals of color is that they are conservative theologically but often politically moderate, liberal, or hard to categorize, due to very different social locations and historical experiences than white evangelicals. This is often overlooked. It also creates tensions when multi-racial groups of evangelicals try to work and worship together.)

Progressive evangelicals are still conservative by many religiosity measures (Christ-centered, conversionist, evangelistic, Bible-focused). They tend to center on the moral practice of Jesus and are less focused on guarding doctrinal boundaries. Evangelicals who identify with the Radical Reformation and Pietist traditions are more likely to move to this side of the fence.

Morally, though usually traditional in their own practices, they tend toward a greater emphasis on compassion and eschewing negative judgments of others. Some (not all) have moved to a place of inclusion of gay people and support for their covenantal/marital relationships, at least at a civil level. They tend toward economic equality and environmental commitments and to oppose war and the death penalty.

Politically, they lean independent or Democrat. They tend to speak the language of social justice. Progressive evangelicals are disproportionately younger and less white. Leaders include Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and Brian McLaren.

Conservative evangelicals are angry about abortion and gay marriage. Progressive evangelicals are angry about racism, sexism, and Islamophobia.

Conservatives tend to accept a narrative of cultural decline. Progressives tend to reject that narrative due to a focus on historic American racism and other sins.

Conservatives are concerned about protecting religious liberty. Progressives are more concerned about protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

Conservatives tend to be strongly pro-Israel. Progressives aim for balance or side with the Palestinian cause.

I could name a hundred other fractures.

In a 2008 book I argued for a category called “centrist evangelicals.” I said that they occupied as much as 30% of evangelicalism in the US. But in the meantime, polarization has nearly evacuated that category of any serious and visible leaders or institutions. The center is collapsing, and this 30% is moving right or left or right out of evangelicalism altogether.

One last bifurcation: Conservative evangelicals tend to caricature progressive evangelicals as liberal Protestants. Progressives tend to caricature conservatives as fundamentalists.

That takes us back to the very origins of modern American fundamentalism — and liberalism. The so-called “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries over issues such as evolution, biblical inspiration, and historical-critical study of the Bible. The fundamentalists wanted to resist the winds of modernity, while the liberals believed Christianity needed to respond to modernity by integrating its insights and claims into the faith. The modernists became identified with mainline Protestantism. The fundamentalists rejected mainline Protestantism and set up their own separate subculture/s.

What we now call American evangelicalism was a descendant of the fundamentalist side of this controversy. But then World War II era leaders like Carl Henry sought to pull fundamentalists out of their enclaves and into full engagement with culture, including academia, media, and politics. For this new effort Henry and others retrieved the term “evangelical.” It was a brilliant move.

Seventy years later, though, the descendants of the Henry-era evangelicals are fractured. One might even consider the radical idea that “evangelicalism” was a fictive rather than real religious community. In any case, the community bearing that name is today slipping back into the divisions (or labels) of a hundred years ago, when we need to be moving forward to face the challenges of the 21st century.

The differences appear irreconcilable. Angst and bitterness often get the better of us as we discover and debate those differences.

Conservative and progressive evangelicals need to let each other go their separate ways, acknowledging that despite shared faith in Christ we have become two separate religious communities. Our fighting is doing no one any good at all.

  • Sadly, I think it is the “conversionist” bent of both sides, as you point out, that keeps us from going our separate ways. We still have hope on either side that we can “convert” the other. That’s what we do, right? We never give up hope for redemption of the “other.”

  • Anonymous

    Excellent analysis, David.

    Many of us have identified as conservative Evangelicals for years. Some of us are in leadership of Evangelical organizations. I am one of those, and I know a lot of others.

    We realize that old familiar hyper-conservative “box” is too small and legalistic for us. We are offended by the statements of Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, and James Dobson. We have friends who are gay or bi- or righteous atheists. We refuse to treat them disdainfully.

    When we look around, we see our peers, other high ranking people in Evangelicalism, experiencing the same cognitive dissonance.

    We whisper at Christian events, board meetings, and leadership seminars. We know that our public rejection of that over-conservativism will have repercussions for our jobs and our church and friendships. We saw what happened to World Vision. Nonetheless, I think we must be courageous and make the move.

    For now I’ll remain anonymous, but not for long.

  • Sue Edison-Swift

    Blessings, Not-For-Long Anonymous. Coming out will be dangerous, indeed. Not “fed to the lions” dangerous, but “killed career and impugned reputation” dangerous. I’m so sorry.

  • George Bullard

    David, I am glad that you have previously identified the “centrist evangelicals”. I hear a louder cry than you are currently indicating for this category of evangelicals who cannot identify with either the conservative or the progressive evangelicals.

  • Ralph

    I love my friends gift of making simple and understandable the history and how it has moved us to this point. I love David’s courage . I think the drawing of circles ,making them smaller and smaller, is what has been the turning point for so many of my Christian friends who have walked away from the church. When thinking you are always right, or have the only true understanding has become more important than love and grace,it leaves many of us sad..and alone.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Most interesting. I have no doubt what you say is true. It reminds me of an apocryphal tale of American and British POWS in a German Prisoner Camp during World War II who were members of Masonic Lodges and kept this hidden once they learned of each other’s affiliation as the Nazi regime was anti-Masonic. As Masons do, however, they met in secret as they could and practiced Masonic degree work, but once they were observed by a guard, who gave them a Masonic hand sign and bade them to carry on. Perhaps you are the equivalent of that guard.

  • I was raised and education in centrist evangelicalism & consider myself strongly biblical. My 40+ year pastoral career has taken me into mainline denominations where I have been able to keep my biblical commitment without the catastrophizing & criticism that seems to have overwhelmed evangelicals. Though never in an anabaptist congregation or denomination, I embrace much of that underlying theology. I have been enriched by “progressive evangelicals” but have no stomach for the wars going on there with the propensity to anathemize those who don’t toe the party line. I reject and abandon such party spirit labels for myself and try not to apply them to others. I simply want to follow Jesus as informed by Scripture and guided by the Spirit wherever that takes me. Though there are certainly problems and divisions in the mainline, I have found much more freedom to pursue this discipleship there than the evangelical camp seems to allow today.

  • DL Renollet

    Great Article. Few even have the courage to *recognize* these factions esp in my ‘church’. but what is the church, we are the church. Keep up the good thoughts!!!

  • Ben in oakland

    So all of these heresy screeches have been active since the early church.

    Color me surprised.

  • samuel johnston

    Christians ignore their own history and continue predict the same future that their ancestors did. Astroligy, granting that it has had a few failures and misunderstandings haere and there, is more ancient, more often correct, and just as reasonable.
    So, keep the faith brothers!

  • samuel johnston

    Astrology. My typing/spelling is horrid.

  • Delusional

    Evangelicals believe their church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? That is absurd. You are divided (not one), angry (not holy), exclusionary (not catholic), and, well, I have no clue how you think you’re apostolic. Protestantism will continue to be marked by division as it suffers from the fatal flaw that everyone gets to decide on their own what the Bible says.

  • ben in oakland

    Progressive Christians, or even NALT christians have remained silent for far too long. Much as the Anglican and Methodist Churches have remained silent in the face of obvious prejudice given the thinnest veneer of respectability by calling it sincere religious belief. The thought of a schism in their respective organizations– over, of all things, decent, equitable treatment of gay people– is a good indication of moral courage, though it is neither moral nor courageous.

    Good luck,

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  • anonymous

    So much for the power of the gospel.

  • Interesting article. I thought the author made some good observations and distinctions between conservative and progressive evangelicals. I especially liked the historical comparisons between fundamentalism and liberalism where the centrist position resulted in evangelicalism. I’m opposed to divorce and would like to see more dialogue between these two camps and a greater exploration of what a centrist position would look like. For me I would like to see the best of both movements preserved and fostered while helping prune away that which is diseased, broken, and misguided. The conservative good would be their foundation on the fundamentals of the faith (see Nicene creed), the authority and inerrancy of scripture, the importance of human life and allow scripture rather than culture and science to dictate mores and truth. The good of the progressives is their heart for people, the rule of love, caring for those on the margins, and rejecting hate, fear and violence as means to an end…

  • Jack

    The saddest commentary on evangelicalism today is how many evangelicals in both camps take their cues on how to think culturally and politically more from talk radio on the right and MSNBC and Black Lives Matter on the left than from a transcendent biblical world view.

    CS Lewis once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if we were to get a glimpse of Heaven, those of us on the right would like its rootedness and traditions and hierarchical nature while those of us on the left would like its egalitarianism regarding possessions.

    A good old book that centrist evangelicals would like was Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square. It’s on religion and public life, but it can be applied to our politics today.

    The intellectually serious battle within evangelicalism remains between centrist and conservative. What is called progressive evangelicalism is mostly a rehash of the late 1960s. JIm Wallis, its head, is an old SDS-er.

  • Jack

    I would add that evangelicals look especially foolish when we try to imitate the larger culture, sometimes on the conservative side but more often on the liberal side. The result is that such evangelicals are always ten years behind whichever trend or fad they’re following. Christian pop music is a big culprit.

    I call it “me-too-me-too!” evangelicalism. Unfortunately, I see David Gushee as among the culprits.

  • Jack

    One big problem with so-called progressive evangelicalism is its willful ignorance of just how badly liberal policies on helping the poor have failed the poor over the past half century or more. In other words, its supposed strength — a re-focus on the biblical command to help and empower the poor — becomes a weakness when it buys into the demonstrably flawed premise that if you’re against failed Big Government approaches to poverty, you must be against fighting poverty.

    This is an astonishing blunder on progressive evangelicalism’s part, because the church, of all institutions, should not only know how Big Government fails the poor, but should’ve predicted it before it even became manifest.

    On this issue, progressive evangelicals must ask themselves the hard question of whether their motives are to do good or just feel good, or worse, feel morally superior. If we care about doing good, we must have the guts to admit when pet policies fail.

  • Jack

    What David calls centrist evangelicalism is far from dead. It’s just that the secular politics of our day, on both right and left, are causing millions of evangelicals who are not biblically grounded to pull away from a more sober biblical view of human fallenness and of how every culture and political system or scheme is ultimately under the judgment of God. That does not mean we should withdraw from the culture. That was the great fundamentalist error of the 20th century and America is paying for it to this day. What it does mean is that we are to operate with integrity and conviction in the culture but not be of it.

    Put another way, if we had our spiritual heads on straight, Republican and Democrat evangelicals should feel more a kinship with each other than with our secular allies. In reality, we don’t. And that shows how something is wrong with the American church.

  • Jack

    Delusional, you do have a point, in that the only evangelicals who would use creedal language — holy, catholic, apostolic — are from mainline denominations or the Reformed wing of evangelicalism. The majority of American evangelicals are in the premillennial and Baptist or Bible church wing, and they do not see themselves in that way. As a non-Baptist premill, I do, but we’re in the distinct minority, although we’re growing.

  • Jack

    The first step back toward centrist evangelicalism is to put aside culture and politics for a moment and get back to the basics of the faith…..starting with such books as Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with special attention to the intro.

    For those of us who are cultural and political junkies, we will always care about issues, but there’s something to be said for tuning out talk radio or MSNBC or other megaphones of the secular right or the secular left.

    I would rather get my politics from CS Lewis’s theological reflections than Rush Limbaugh’s radio musings. While I agree much with Limbaugh, to make him my guide would be a colossal error. It leads to places that no Christian should go, such as supporting Donald Trump and other vulgarians.

  • Jack

    Samuel, with all due respect, I have no idea what you’re talking about. To what are you comparing astrology? I read and reread your post….it’s just not apparent.

  • Billysees

    ” …in the mainline, I have found much more freedom to pursue this discipleship there… ”

    That’s understandable when it’s realized that the ‘mainline’ is basically —

    The Kingdom of God is not in ‘word’ (scripture verses), but ‘power’ (Spirit of God in us)……it is not food and drink but ‘righteousness’ (good works and deeds) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”….1 Cor 4:20 plus Rom 14:17

    Ahh…that good ol’ peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing like it. Seldom have known lovers of the Word to possess it.

  • Billysees

    ” …the fatal flaw that everyone gets to decide on their own what the Bible says. ”

    But if we are to work out ‘OUR OWN’ salvation, that’s what’s going to happen.

  • Thanks for your helpful article, David. The broader public doesn’t know how much variety there is among evangelicals, and your articles makes that quite clear. That was part of the point of my recent blog article, “What About Evangeliphobia?” (

    Rather than a “centrist evangelicals,” though, I think we need to emphasize that it is the progressive evangelicals (and maybe many centrist evangelicals) who stand in the “radiant center” (as described in my book “The Limits of Liberalism”) between fundamentalism and liberalism–and that is the centrist position we need to work to expand.

  • Matt

    Vague, snide and sweeping generalizations help no one; but maybe you weren’t trying to be helpful.

  • Brad

    As a former “fundamentalist” attending a conservative evangelical seminary – which, by the way, unknowingly first introduced me to progressive evangelicalism through church history classes – I agree with almost everything in this article. However, I believe the desire to neatly put ourselves into two separate boxes and “divorce” is a mistake. I’m now in that difficult middle space – both fundamentalists and liberals avoid me. And I’m not sure, as I near completion of my M.Div, where I will be able to pastor with my strong belief in the Bible as God’s fully inspired word and my strong belief in social justice, peace, etc.. What I do know is that, although I’m now a “mutt” without the “pedigree” to fit into either extreme of evangelicalism, it’s important to keep the conversation flowing, even if the relationship is getting a little bit bumpy. We’re all part of the one body of Christ.

  • Michael Purnell

    “willful ignorance of just how badly liberal policies on helping the poor have failed the poor over the past half century or more.”

    Tell that to the Ben Carsons of the world, many of whom have clearly forgotten how they got where they are today. I would argue that whatever metric you want to use for failure should be laid also at the feet of the unrepentant wealthy, not just “liberal policies”. There’s plenty of blame to go around. What we need is shared responsibility for the future.

  • Scott

    Thanks for your reflection, David. I think your description of the current situation is persuasive as to its social and cultural analysis, however I would argue that the differences are more than emphasis, temperament or style. At heart, the differences are theological – and while the “conservative evangelicals” are credited with clinging to doctrinal clarity and purity – I’d argue as someone concerned with doctrine and tradition – that theologically and biblically their understanding of “purity” is misguided in light of the biblical witness, and not theologically clear at all. And as to the rejection of modernity among “conservatives”, I’d suggest that often their theology is much more informed by modernist notions than those whose approach is more historical and self-critical. No where is this more evident than in their use of Calvin – a humanist whose theology (if actually read) would seriously challenge some of their (and their opponents) basic theological assumptions and…

  • Bob

    What’s interesting about the prospective conservative/progressive split is that it seems to me to repeat a pattern in American conservative religion in recent years: that is, intolerant legalistic jerks who feel embattled and marginalized in their own denomination or community will widen their bounds of fellowship enough to include fellow jerks in other denominations or communities. A surface veneer of ecumenicalist conviviality only conceals a particle-board core of hate and anger. And you get Trump at Liberty, the debacle at Wheaton, and the Graham Family Experience.

  • M. Meginnis

    Good analysis Jack. Social media seems to be escalating the divide as the anyonimity empowers people to react without accountability. I often get into doctrinal issues with both progressives and conservatives and am verbally abused by both. I guess its just where we are. Sadly, manners and respect for all are a thing of a bygone era.

  • I would suggest that being in the spaces between well identified positions is where we can hear from God. As an interim pastor I have preached from the Revised Common Lectionary for several years and this Lent coming around again to that idea You can look at those sermon scripts at for March and April 2013 and how I am handling them right now. I agree that not only is it tragic for schism within evangelicalism but that even the schism between “liberal” and “conservative” is scandalous. If we would listen to each other to learn instead of talking at each other to win arguments, we’d be enriched and better live the unity we share in Christ even when we ignore it. You might want to see if somewhere in anabaptist tradition or those open to it you could find a home. The way you described your view of Bible and justice is how the “progressive” evangelicals I know define themselves. God bless you on your journey.

  • Ben in oakland

    There is a very simple solution to your dilemma, or so I think.

    Don’t mix church and state. Don’t try to use the secular law that governs all of us to press your purely theological concerns onto people who don’t share them. Provide solutions to real problems, not to theological problems. Two easy examples.

    You don’t like abortion? Dont have one. Don’t oppose birth control and claim you are doing it because of God and abortion. Rather than try to take freedom of choice away, provide alternatives to abortion.

    Think gay is a sin? dont be gay. Don’t tell lies about gay people for power and money. Allow gay people the same rights and treatment in secular society routinely granted to all of the other people, like non Christians, that you think are going to burn in hell forever. But DON’T pretend we’re a threat to humanity, marriage, family, children or faith. The same could be said of anyone.

    Like social justice? Then do it.

  • Ross

    No, there is a divorce and should rightfully be. I don’t think anyone truly saved can be a democrat and support what was outlined in the article about Progressive Evangelicals. Sin and support of sin is putrefying as sores (Isaiah 1:6). James 4:4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. On one side you have a group of Christians that want to stay Holy in their acts, are willing to give their lives to stand for righteousness and have their ear nailed to the door in utter servitude (bondage) to Jesus. The other side wants acceptance from the world, denies sin and portrays the gospel as a wishy washy book that is outdated when it comes to sin. The persecution of the church is coming. Jesus outlined this in the Olivet Discourse. It’s time to get our houses in order and trust in Jesus 100%.

  • Karl Clifton-Soderstrom

    If this plays out as you suggest, I wonder whether the conservative/progressive divide necessarily maps onto the denominational divide. The situation as it develops seems to offer three choices for denominations. 1) Split into two separate polities, 2) Go strongly congregationalist while maintaining a centralized political structure (thus weakening the theological distinctiveness of the denominational identity) or 3) Holding the tension of “both” sides in self-aware and creative ways that grounds unity in Christ alone and perhaps a set of practices amidst difference, rather that in exclusive idealogical unity are particulars (option 1 above) or in inclusive idealogical blindness (option 2 above). Interestingly, there is a somewhat parallel debate in whether nations identifying with traditions of political liberalism (i.e. contemporary Western democracies) can be radically multicultural in their notion of citizenship.

  • Paula

    ONLY 2 separate groups?

    Is a member of the Anglican church, which doesn’t ordain women, in the same group as F. Graham and Liberty. J. Osteen — where shall we put him. Don’t think the liberal Protestants claim him.

    Can you carry the evangelical card if you like Frederick Buechner, or have you officially decamped to liberal Protestant? If you are a universalist, are you a liberal Protestant, or can you stay with C.S. Lewis and G. MacDonald, over on the evangelical team. Is hell a requirement to keep “evangelical” in your name? What if you’re a member of the Metropolitan Church — pro-gay, but also Pentecostal. If you think the dinosaurs were for real, are you a liberal evangelical, no matter what you think about women ministers?

    As soon as you find yourself in a category, you can look around and find plenty of people you don’t share every value with. And we don’t love being told what we HAVE to believe to carry a label, do we?

  • Ben in oakland

    And what were the conservative policies on helping the poor? wHat did they accomplish?

  • Paul Frazier

    Heading for rupture? I think it’s *been* ruptured. I have heard too many times, as a Presbyterian, called “unChristian” and “unBiblical”. So, the rift is merely getting wider.

  • The problem with this twofold characterization is that it puts progressive evangelicals who are affirming of same-sex marriage in the same boat as more moderate evangelicals who do not, even if they are supportive of the LGBTQI marriage as a civil right. In terms of predominantly white protestantism, there are at least four clearly distinct groups: liberal, progressive evangelical, centrist evangelical and conservative evangelical. The progressive evangelical group is the most difficult to nail down because it is the least organized, and some have indeed been absorbed into the Mainline, but many have not.

    But gay marriage remains the most divisive issue separating progressives from centrists, and it is this way because there remains still the even bigger issue as Protestantism continues to unravel — namely, the authority and the interpretation of Scripture. The biggest difference between centrists and progressives is that progressives are willing to say that the Bible can be…

  • Ben in oakland

    Sometimes, it is very difficult to tell the difference between satire and real fundamentalism.

    This is one of those times.

    BTW, if you’re serious, that’s MIster Homo to you. :0)

  • Beinhart

    This would be a much more enlightening read if the author wouldn’t so obviously rely on characterizations of both sides. Conservatives are “strict,” “doctrinaire,” “unbending.” And white. Progressives are sweet and cuddly. And less white.

    Come on… The social justicy crowd is profoundly white. In a way, they are the true heirs to the social gospel, patronizing and coercion wrapped in benevolence. And on things that matter to them, they are no less doctrinaire than their conservative counterparts. Both groups share an inability to live and let live, and an unbending desire to shape society into whatever they consider more Christian and more just.

  • Catalinakel

    I was thinking exactly that.

  • Catalinakel

    This is incredibly encouraging to hear.

  • Catalinakel

    I like your style, Ben in Oakland. Finding a place of rest (or, should I say, resting in The Place of Rest) in the midst of all these divisions is tricky, but it seems to me that for some reason we humans have a need to stand with others in our beliefs. Perhaps we are not able to believe alone. Perhaps we only feel our beliefs are valid if others share them. Perhaps it’s all about power. Probably. Yet to stand where we believe and to rest in it, and proceed accordingly in our daily lives with love and compassion, this must be a worthy goal, no? God help us.

  • Catalinakel

    An excellent, real life illustration!

  • Catalinakel

    I believe the only label we should claim is “Christ’s.” Yet, humans have a curious, (destructive?) need to delineate. This must be a big part of the definition of original sin, no?

  • Price Grisham

    I should guard against walking away from brothers and sisters in Christ simply because we may be exasperated with them: One of the worst things Christians can do for spiritual growth is to cloister themselves away from those with whom they disagree.

    For how else shall we learn from each other? That is how we have hearts that are more open to growing in God. But it takes patience and humility to admit we might be wrong, and neither side has the moral high ground there.

    If the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church can come together for the first time, as they did yesterday, to help mend a rent in the Church going back nearly two thousand years, I should think Evangelicals of both the progressive and conservative persuasions would do well to follow suit.

  • Ben in oakland


    We need others to live as we live because we are social animals. The trick is to find a like minded community without trying to force others into that community.

    I’m a great believer in people working together. But my basic mantra is “Leave everyone else the hell alone.” Though I am an atheist, I have no problem living peacefully with people who are not. My argument is with do,unionism and theocracy, not faith.

  • Brad

    Thank you for your insight Norman. The arguments you mention are a sad state of affairs – doing nothing to build unity within the body, and turning off unbelievers watching from the sidelines in the process. Listening is a rare skill, but a necessary one. I have checked out the anabaptist route in the past, might have to head back in that direction again. I can relate to many of the “progressives,” but sometimes sense of lack of God’s majesty in a person-centered emphasis. Nothing will be “perfect” of course, we’re all images in the making. Thanks for the link, God bless.

  • Kevin Trevithick

    Is that really what Gushee meant by conversionist? Perhaps you were being ironic? I believe he meant the principle that people need to be converted to faith in Christ from a position of lostness.

  • Kevin Trevithick

    Well said.

  • Brad

    Hello Ben,

    Please excuse my reply to you if your reply wasn’t to me.

    I agree – there should be separation between church and state. Without it, where does that leave First Amendment rights of others? I am personally opposed to abortion (as well as opposed to capital punishment and war) although I agree with you more alternatives to abortion must be made available.

    I don’t believe “gay is a sin.” I don’t believe the social historical context of the Bible supports this. All people are created in the image of God, and God is love. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) to me, means God loves ALL people of the world. I personally do not believe nonChristians “are going to burn in hell forever” – by this I assume you mean the common conservative evangelical belief in eternal conscious punishment. I do believe we will all – believers and unbelievers alike – one day face God at the judgment. The kingdom of God is also now – working for social justice helps all see &…

  • Scott Shaver

    The naivete Jack exposes is that if there’s something wrong with American politics (i.e chasm between Democrat and Republican) then there’s must be something wrong with the “American Church” (collectively speaking).

    Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the American Church (collective) which, by the way no longer has the obvious influence on American political decisions it’s enjoyed in the past. Christ’s church, however, remains Christ’s church.

    Contrary to Jack’s take, perhaps the issue is church “leaders” and “pastors” who can’t decide whether they want to be Billy Graham or Charles Krauthammer.

    They’re no longer PROPHETS. They’re political PUNDITS.

  • Ben in oakland

    Thank you, Brad. My response was indeed to you. RNS’s commenting system doesn’t make it clear.

    Your position is better than most, as far as I can tell. As I say elsewhere on this thread, my issue is not with faith and religion itself, even though I am an atheist. (At one point, I very nearly became a Christian. Ironically, it was John 3:16 that convinced me otherwise, but that’s another story).

    My issue is with theocracy and dominionism, both of which are political animals, not religious. Believe ever whatever you like. If it makes you (a generic you) a better person and your life better, I’m all for it. But contrary to the late, unlamented Scalia, purely theological concerns have no place in our secular law. Disguising mere social prejudices, even those millennia old, as sincere religious belief, and using secular law to enforce them, does no service to either religion or law.

    Thanks again for your measured response.

  • John B

    The written Word in the bible hasn’t changed. Conservative Christians lean on the Word, not a modern day interpretation of it. That they ” tend to center on the moral practice of Jesus” is to walk a slippery slope of interpreting what they think Jesus “would” do instead of what he commanded.

  • I would agree that the written Word hasn’t changed, but what conservatives take as its straightforward interpretation is historically specific to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. I’m not dismissing it, only suggesting that we all understand Scripture through the lens of our own times, as the Church and even ancient Israel always has. That also does not mean that the Word can be made to mean anything we want, but the way it was understood by the original readers is quite different than how today’s evangelicals of all stripes understand it. Trying to get at the original understanding is the essential starting place, but then extrapolating into subsequent generations is always challenging. I know this can be unsettling, but once grasped it makes sorting out interpretative schools more manageable, and thus to better more reliable understanding for ourselves.

  • Joe M

    “Conservative evangelicals are angry”

    No. Except momentarily here, regarding biased descriptions like yours. Progressives “tend toward a greater emphasis on compassion…”

    Check giving stats and see who seems more compassionate.

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  • Soong-Chan Rah

    I would further distinguish between Progressive Evangelicals and Progressive Christians.

  • Marlene Lund

    It sounds like you are experiencing what I noticed back in the early 90’s (right around when Bill Clinton was first running for President). I have always embraced the name Evangelical, because I believed it reflected my beliefs as to the Gospel of Christ. But, suddenly, my Evangelical world and church took a huge step to the right, politically and culturally,
    leaving me standing in a “liberal” camp that felt like a foreign land. I didn’t move, the church and political landscape shifted dramatically to the right, and I no longer recognized my church.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    “Theologically, they are strictly conservative and focused on doctrinal clarity and purity. ” you write.

    This is an extremely controversial claim to make without wide and deep textual, or perhaps YouTube proof.

    My own impression is that the doctrines they are dedicated to are as un-Biblical as the Constitution they are always whining about is of their own invention.

    As for “conservative,” their political positions are rarely conservative, often reactionary, sometimes fascist.


  • David Gushee

    Thanks for the thoughtful engagement. I invite you to check out my follow up piece posted Monday 2/15 and continue the conversation there.

  • Jack

    Scott, without simply repeating what I wrote, I would say that yes, there is something very wrong with the American church on many levels, among which is an inability or unwillingness to look at politics from a theological and biblical perspective. Absent that perspective, the result is an unbiblical, idolatrous, and ultimately un-American search for the perfect candidate or political party, a dangerous belief in politicians as saviors, and a refusal to apply the biblical doctrine of the Fall to politics and politicians, as well as an impatience with constitutional process resulting from a failure to understand how it’s based precisely on the biblical notion that political power must be dispersed and not concentrated.

    A biblical world view would preclude allowing the cult of personality, be it of Obama or of Trump, to develop.

    The German church made the same mistake in the late 1920s and we all know how that turned out.

  • Jack

    Ben, RNS won’t give me the room to elaborate fully, but suffice to say, the best way to fight poverty is not from the top down but bottom up. We need to shut down big welfare bureaucracies in Washington and return much of the money saved to local, community-based poverty fighters operating in cities and towns across America. The best ones are far more competent, and help far more people with far less money because their overhead is so much lower, and because unlike government, they deal with each person as a unique individual, and are able to assess on the spot what each individual needs to survive and thrive. Government’s one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and cannot work. You have to get to the root of a person’s poverty, be it drugs, alcohol, lack of education, or just plain bad luck or hard times. Each person is different regarding this. Only grassroots neighborhood groups can make those assessments and help accordingly.

  • Jack

    Ben, I think you’re falling into the fallacy that says that all evangelicals care or think about are sexual and reproductive issues and that when they think of sin, they immediately think of sex. That’s like saying black people all like fried chicken and watermelon or that Jews are all liberals on the one hand or black-hatted Hasidim on the other or that Anglo-Saxons are all stiff-upper-lipped unemotional people (boy is that one wrong!) and all the rest. I can speak for myself and the people I know when I say that the prevailing stereotypes of evangelicals are far off the mark.

    The funniest stereotype is that evangelicals all go to Billy Bob Hick College rather than Ivies or similar schools. I take particular pleasure in refuting that one.

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  • Tanya Maddox

    And how many angels can dance on the head of a pen?

  • gholden

    Christ said that the greatest commandments were to love God, and to love thy neighbour. Those who wanted to live by the letter of the law rather than by the spirit of God’s Word wanted to vilify and crucify him for this. I see the same thing today from the conservative right. It’s horrifying, and anyone with at least half a brain and/or half a heart will run from it because it clearly does NOT embrace Christian values. The Christian Left embraces a far more comprehensive and coherent Christian worldview. I pray with all my heart that Christians everywhere will turn away from the simplistic and hateful simplifications made by uneducated and discompassionate preachers that are not seeking the kingdom of heaven on earth, but power and riches instead.

  • Laura

    Jack, I cannot say enough how valuable your final two sentences are–because they hit at the root of the problem.

    Cult of personality is what the American church seems to be after, these days. We don’t need Dobson, Graham, Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans, Falwell or any of the figures that head the polemic sides. Guidance and leadership are fundamentally different than having a persona that others wish to emulate. A persona is not equivalent with guidance, thoughtfulness, or wisdom.

    I know a number of conservative evangelicals to whom Trump is a very serious concern and a threat. But they do not bring this up with secular friends or those in the church who support him. Their silence will do us all in.

  • Marlene Lund

    I will pray that you have the opportunity and opening to feel safe speaking up. We Christians seem to love eating our own, and I know it is a huge risk in some circles to speak out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of you who are whispering together at gatherings could all speak as one, thus helping to insulate each other from the blood bath, and showing those wounded by conservative evangelicalism that change is happening?

  • Revisit the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. It may be a struggle, but a healthy Church ALWAYS stands outside of the social, political, national context in which it lives. For its first three centuries the Church was alien to the Roman
    Empire and the Jewish mainstream and perhaps at its best. Whether in the flow of human history or eschatological climax, the US is temporary and trying to treat it as permanent or eternal risks idolatry. The Church points toward the eternal reign of God, and God will preserve and invigorate its remnants so the Church will be present for Jesus’ appearing. The silence of Christians may be the doing in of the US but not the Church. Those who refuse to be silent may well suffer and institutional superstructure may collapse, but Jesus promised the gates of hell would not prevail. I take that image to mean that the gates of hell cannot keep Christ’s people out or silence them all. We are intended to invade hell with the Gospel of redemption.

  • Kay

    I had been happy and at home in a conservative evangelical church for decades but hostilities had grown against the things you speak of in an ugly way. It was sucking life out of me being around that and I left feeling spiritually harmed. I am more moderate/centrist in my religious and political views so I no longer fit there and felt pushed out. I now attend as a visitor in a mainline protestant church, but am not engaging as an institutional member. My acts of love and service are more on my own now since going through the pain of the experience. I am one of many already hurt by the divorce like divisions because I loved those I left.

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  • gholden

    Great article, but I would disagree with the idea that the fighting isn’t serving anyone at all. Genesis 32:24 speaks of “Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” Although the church may be one in Christ, it’s not unusual for someone to be of two minds on various issues. It takes some wrestling to resolve the conflict, and I think the fact that we are going through this is a healthy and necessary thing. Personally, I pray that for the church to maintain an allegiance to legitimate conservative values, while living out a compassionate and progressive life. What values are “legitimate?” How does one live a “compassionate life?” These are important questions that must be debated and resolved if the church is to be any kind of light in this day and age. JMHO.

  • JohnInDenver

    As someone who once volunteered and then worked for Young Life, I’ve been exposed to various versions of Evangelicals. As a volunteer leader of a small inclusive congregation, I interacted with a range of believers ranging from hard core fundamentalists to eccentric/undefinable believers in an amalgam of Jehovah’s Witness and Billy Graham to liberal mainline Protestants to left-wing “Creation Theology” believers.

    In those experiences and others, I found people motivated by a desire to love God and love their neighbor could find common ground and work together. When they were motivated by a desire to “be right” or “be real Christians,” we had difficulties. When willing to listen to each other and admit no one person could plumb and grasp the reality of God, we were okay. When we argued without listening and knew the other was trying to lead people astray, we couldn’t find ways to get along.

    Would that people would learn to “fight fair” in churches and religious…

  • David Lloyd-Jones


    What you write here I think tries to sound lovey, patient, impartial, and so forth.

    But what you want to do fairly is fight, right? And you are evangelizing because you have truth that you think will save people from damnation, so it’s very important to show them their errors, isn’t it?

    Or what am I missing?

    Best wishes,


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  • Dan

    I just came across this thread and after reading it I was struck by what seems to be a definite strain of Marcionism in the stereotypical “progressive” evangelical agenda. Am I correct in this analysis? If not, why not?

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  • Thank you for this article. Having taken a job in the Bible Belt a few years back, I’m surrounded by conservatives, and that makes me feel very alone. Can anyone recommend progressive blogs or other fellowship resources?

  • You might want to check out the Facebook group It is a closed group but you could request joining. I’d welcome you to visit my blog Go to the Navigate list on the left to see if anything I have there is of interest to you. I do post on Twitter a few times a week @NormanStolpe.