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The great evangelical divorce: continuing the conversation

The author responds to numerous questions about his latest post saying conservative and progressive evangelicals are heading for a divorce.

David Gushee in his office at Mercer University in Atlanta. Photo by Alice Horner.
David Gushee in his office at Mercer University. Photo by Alice Horner.

David Gushee in his office at Mercer University. Photo by Alice Horner.

My post last Friday suggesting that conservative and progressive evangelicals are genuinely different religious communities and need to separate struck a chord. I was especially impressed by the searching and (almost entirely) respectful quality of the responses from people in various camps. Here is my follow up.

READ: “Conservative and progressive US evangelicals head for divorce”

Q: You say that conservative and progressive evangelicals “rarely” cooperate and are “headed for” divorce. But they never cooperate and are already divorced.

A: No, there are still a few occasions when evangelicals across the spectrum cooperate. One signal example was the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table, which sought comprehensive immigration reform and brought together a very broad spectrum of evangelical leaders. Also there are numerous institutional settings in which conservative and progressive evangelicals work and worship with each other and have to cooperate whether they enjoy it or not.

Q: You say that there used to be an evangelical center but it has collapsed. On the contrary, it is still there in the Gospel core of our shared faith and just needs to be protected from politics.

A: Yes, the Gospel message ought to be a broad enough platform for shared life in Christian community. And yes, worldly politics has been allowed (disastrously) to infect Christianity. But still, I am not sure the two sides of the evangelical world actually share the same Gospel, at least in terms of what each side emphasizes. Progressive evangelicals tend toward a Radical Reformation type Gospel centered on the justice-advancing ministry and teachings of Jesus, and on his message of the kingdom of God as holistic salvation and social transformation (see Stassen/Gushee, Kingdom Ethics). Conservative evangelicals mainly lean toward a Calvinist/Lutheran Gospel centered on Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls, on biblical inerrancy and pure doctrine, and on conservative social values. Of course, even these different Gospels (and there are other variants) should not make cooperation impossible, but the differences are quite profound.

Q: My long-time conservative evangelical sparring partner Mark Tooley asks “How would separation look? Could avowedly liberal evangelical institutions survive financially?”

A: In many settings, separation probably looks like one side wins and the other side leaves. (Sadly.) If progressive evangelicals keep losing institutional battles, they will mainly be the ones to leave. New initiatives and organizations will develop, such as Red Letter Christians and the OPEN Network. New congregations will be planted by and for progressive evangelicals. I foresee partnerships or mergers with mainline Protestant bodies. Some Christian colleges and seminaries may come under progressive evangelical leadership, in which case the conservative evangelicals will probably leave.

Q: Are the divisions you are describing among evangelicals the same as those found in the historic mainline Protestant denominations?

A: Not exactly. My experience with the mainline Protestants suggests that there are not two but three very distinct groups: conservative evangelicals, progressive evangelicals, and what I call “sure nuff liberals.” Conservative evangelicals often appear to be unwilling to grant that there is any difference between the latter two groups. But “sure nuff liberals” are different from progressive evangelicals. I am referring to people like those in a mainline Protestant Sunday School class I once visited who laughed contemptuously at the idea that any modern Christian could believe in the Virgin Birth. That theology (and attitude) simply is not found in progressive evangelicalism, which makes it different from the liberal modernism that conservative evangelicals so despise. So there is a tripartite division in the mainline that makes the inevitable schism harder, messier, and more confusing.

Q: I wish you wouldn’t say that an evangelical divorce is inevitable, because some of us are out here in the trenches trying to keep the sides together.

A: I get that concern. Besides denominations that contain both parties, there are numerous congregations in the same boat. And the evangelical colleges (like Wheaton) and campus ministries (like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship) are in an exceptionally tough spot. Sizable and powerful conservative, progressive, and maybe even centrist evangelical blocs try to coexist there on a daily basis. I pray for the success of these mixed communities in maintaining Christian unity. But there is a downside to this effort — sometimes it involves trying so hard to avoid controversy that the congregation, denomination, parachurch organization, or college is reduced to paralyzed silence, vague platitudes, and a constant effort not to talk about critical issues (and suffering people) that really demand reflection and response.

Q: Why do the media write as if all “evangelicals” fall into the “conservative evangelical” group?

A: I think this is indeed a major problem, and it is helping to drive many progressive evangelicals to abandon the label altogether. The issue is exacerbated every election cycle, in which news stories talk about “evangelicals” as simply equivalent to “social conservative Republicans.” But there’s a good reason for the confusion. Conservative evangelicals have the majority, especially among white evangelicals. They have been purposefully wired into the Republican Party since the days of Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan. Their institutions tend to be larger and more powerful. Still, my practice from now on will be to always use the word “evangelical” with the modifier “conservative” or “progressive” to distinguish the two groups in America — groups which I think are at least as different as any current denominational distinction among Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so on.

Q: What is the distinction between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals?

A: Great question. Let’s say you accept my suggestion that modern American “evangelicalism” was the term given to the strenuous effort in the 1940s to rebrand and redirect old-school fundamentalism toward a less angry, better informed, and more engaged approach to contemporary theology and culture. It may be that conservative evangelical alienation from recent developments in American culture and church life is so profound that the distinction is weakening, that conservative evangelicals are in some cases receding back to their founding fundamentalism. In any case, it is certainly true that the political media this year is totally failing to draw any distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals. Bob Jones University is fundamentalist. Wheaton College is evangelical.

Here’s a project for the reader: look at the comments on my last post (or this one) and see if you can see a distinction between conservative evangelical and fundamentalist respondents. I think the distinction still exists. But it is fragile.

Q: Are you a progressive evangelical?

A: Having pretty much abandoned hope in the survival of a centrist evangelicalism, “progressive evangelical” fits me — most days. But I do wonder  whether the whole “evangelical” concept is fictional, whether it obscured actually quite important distinctions among Christian intellectual traditions, and whether it is now collapsing. Certainly the politicizing of the term in the US has deeply damaged it. So I will not be going out of my way to use that term any more to describe myself.

I just want to follow Jesus, and be left alone by those who don’t like how I do it, as I will try my very best to leave them alone. Which is what is supposed to happen in a divorce, right?

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