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No, The Growth of Progressive Christian Politicians is Not a Good Thing for America [A Response to the New York Times Opinion Piece by Nicholas Kristof]

If you’d rather listen to this blog post, you can do so below, or in your favorite podcast player (search for “The Natasha Crain Podcast”).

In an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “Progressive Christians Arise! Hallelujah!” Nicholas Kristof made the case this week that “with a churchgoing Democrat in the White House, faith becomes more complicated in America”…and that that’s a good thing.

The piece is filled with so many logical problems (and equivocation in particular) that I have to respond. Why? Mainstream media loves articles like this because they paint theologically conservative Christians in a negative (or at least inferior) light—all to the praise of thousands who buy into the lack of nuance and critical thinking exhibited in articles like this one. It’s important that Christians are able to see through this confusion, so I’m going to respond to several quotes from the article point-by-point (quotes from the original are in bold italics).

“With a churchgoing Democrat in the White House, faith becomes more complicated in America. Thank God.”

Consider the two major assumptions in this one statement: Being a churchgoer is an important characteristic in a political leader, and a more “complicated” religious makeup in America is a good thing.

Just from a logical perspective, it means absolutely nothing that a person goes to church, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican. There are plenty of atheists sitting in pews every Sunday. If Kristof’s point is that regular church attendance is significant in some way for a person’s views about morality, social concerns, and so on, that simply doesn’t follow. Atheists who don’t attend church can be just as moral as Christians sitting in church. I couldn’t care less if Biden attends church. The question is, what does he actually believe, and how will that inform his political decision making?

Furthermore, what’s good for America is when people believe what is true—what actually corresponds to reality. If that’s Hinduism, then the best direction of the country is for more people to take on that worldview (the same with any other religion). Complexity alone is not inherently valuable. What’s valuable depends on what’s true.

But let’s give Kristof a chance to work out what exactly he means by this in the following quotes, and then we can say more.

“Young and middle-aged Americans could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was a social conservative who denounced gay people and harangued the poor to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, until he was crucified for demanding corporate tax cuts.”

This is obviously a ridiculous characterization of Christianity and Jesus in particular. If people have this idea of Jesus, they either haven’t read the Bible, or they’ve read too many articles like those of Kristof that repeatedly mischaracterize what those who hold to the historic Christian faith actually believe.

But more importantly, here is where Kristof begins to blur the lines and equivocate between progressive theology and progressive politics. Notice how he moves from a strictly moral issue (homosexuality) to primarily economic ones (policy decisions on how to help the poor or tax businesses). This is a common move of politically progressive Christians. While they popularly accuse politically conservative Christians of mixing politics and religion, they frequently do the same, bundling progressive politics with what Jesus would “really” want.

Kristof plays his hand through this mixing: It’s not that he thinks the growth of progressive Christians in politics is good for America because he’s committed to the truth of progressive Christian theology, but because he’s committed to progressive politics. This isn’t about his Christian faith at all. It’s a political piece wrapped in a Christian veneer.

Of course, he doesn’t take the time to distinguish the difference between progressive theology and politics, but that difference is critical for understanding his writing, so let’s do the explanation for him.

Progressive Christianity is hard to define (and people would define it in a lot of different ways), but in general, it’s the belief that our understanding of God is evolving as society progresses, and the Bible simply reflects man’s understanding of God in the time it was written. In other words, the Bible is a helpful tool—maybe even a beautiful one—but it’s not God’s final say for all time.

In my most recent podcast episode (Critical Thinking in a Secular Culture), I explain that the number one idea that separates a biblical worldview from a secular one is the source of a person’s authority. For Christians who hold the Bible to be the inspired Word of God that describes reality and prescribes human action in response, the Bible will be authoritative because of its very nature. Progressive Christians, however, don’t share this view of the Bible. If the Bible is just one step on the way to our understanding of God, then humans are the source of authority for ourselves.

This idea of authority is no different than a completely secular view.

Whether you’re a progressive Christian who believes in God, or an atheist who does not, your authority is yourself, rather than any supposed revelation.

This understanding of the basis (or lack thereof) for progressive Christian theology is critical for responding to the rest of the article. Now let’s go on.

“That perception might arise because since the 1980s, the most visible Christians have been conservative evangelicals who often emphasize issues that Jesus never explicitly mentioned, such as abortion and homosexuality. But now more progressive Christians are moving onto center stage.”

The Gospels don’t record Jesus saying anything about child abuse, infanticide, racism, or domestic violence, either, but few would argue these things are unimportant or morally acceptable. Even aside from one’s view of the Bible, this is an illogical argument. Jesus couldn’t have commented on everything.

In this statement, Kristof betrays his progressive theological assumptions about the Bible—he believes the only words that matter are those of Jesus himself. He subtly passes this off as if we should all understand issues like abortion and homosexuality must not be very important to Jesus. Ironically, however, Jesus’s own words show that he considered the rest of the Bible to be authoritative. He repeatedly said, for example, he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17-18; see also Matt. 22:29; Luke 16:31; 24:27; John 5:47).  

Notice the slight of hand: Kristof takes the truth of his progressive theology here as a given, suggesting that we need more Christians who believe the same to move to center stage in politics. By specifically speaking to the hot topics of abortion and sexuality, it’s again clear he’s most interested in the support for progressive politics, which Christians with progressive theology are more likely to support.

Again, he is lumping politics and theology together without acknowledging as much.

“Enter Joe Biden, one of the most religious presidents of the last century, along with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Biden attends Mass regularly and inhabits faith as Donald Trump merely brandished it (as if speaking to two Corinthians).

Likewise, Vice President Kamala Harris is a Baptist who says she has regularly attended church. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Catholic who says her faith inspires her to address health care and climate change. Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school. Raphael Warnock, a new senator, is an ordained Baptist pastor.

Other Democrats, including Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, speak the language of faith fluently as well, so a critical mass has formed of progressive Christians inspired by religion not to cut taxes for the rich but rather to slash poverty for children.”

Again, how one labels oneself religiously or whether one goes to church is neither here nor there. Just because all of these politicians claim a religious label doesn’t necessarily mean they believe anything that aligns with what those labels have traditionally meant. That said, once again, Kristof doesn’t seem to care much about theological beliefs. He lists these people as progressives because they align with his politics, and cleverly implies that we should all want to move in this direction because of the moral heroics these politicians have displayed.

Of course, whether the things they champion are moral is a completely different question. He takes it for granted that you will agree on that definition with him. But a person’s view of morality depends, once again, on their source of authority. There’s no level-headed discussion here of how people might disagree over what’s considered moral depending on their view of the Bible or any other supposed revelation of God. It’s just assumed that we can all see these things are of the highest moral value, and given that they are, we should be happy to see more progressives take leadership in government.

“At the same time, conservative Christians have taken self-inflicted hits, not least the way some invoked religion while invading the U.S. Capitol. (After seizing the Senate floor, insurrectionists prayed, ‘Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ.’) And while human motivations are complicated, the suspect in the massage parlor murders in Georgia is a Southern Baptist whom a former roommate described as having a ‘religious mania.’”

My head is just exploding at this point. Progressive politicians are portrayed as heroes of morality in his prior points, but he portrays conservative Christians as those who storm the Capitol and conduct mass shootings (with no conversation about whether those actions are actually consistent with what the Bible calls us to do)? I trust readers will understand why this is absurd, and am moving on to my next points.

“The Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, told me, ‘Some folks hijacked Christianity and decided that they were going to put up a lot of money to promote the idea that to be a person of faith was to be anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-gun, pro-tax cut.’ Barber calls that ‘theological malpractice.’

Jerushah Duford, a granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, agrees: ‘We have seen homophobia, hostility toward women’s rights, xenophobia and lack of concern for the poor.’ She compares the damage right-wing Christian extremists have done to Christianity to the harm Muslim extremists have brought to Islam.’

These are just a couple of several similar quotes from the article. To summarize: “Here are some big name Christians who are unhappy with politically conservative views and there’s a lot of turmoil like this going on for conservative Christians. There’s chaos in the ranks! They’re starting to see the light!”

It’s easy to cherry pick examples of anything. Logically speaking, who cares if you can find examples of people who identify themselves as Christians saying these things? If they’re theologically progressive, they don’t look to the Bible as their source of authority, so they’re not necessarily going to believe any differently than nonreligious people on moral issues. There’s literally nothing of shock value (or quote value) here if you actually tease out these important distinctions.

“The progressive wing of Christianity is not, of course, new. It began with Jesus. ‘Woe to you that are rich,’ Jesus says (Luke 6:24). He advises a rich ruler to ‘sell everything you have and give to the poor,’ and then suggests ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18:22-25).”

OK, I know my head already exploded once, but it really exploded with this one.

Progressive Christianity started with Jesus.

Theologically speaking, that’s just absurd. As I already explained, Jesus repeatedly validated the authority of the rest of Scripture—he certainly didn’t have a progressive view of the Bible in the sense that God’s Word was somehow bound in time. But Kristof (again) is speaking through a theological veil (using Bible verses) to make a political point: Progressives are the ones who care for the poor.

As someone who is both theologically and politically conservative, I couldn’t be more tired of this lazy characterization. Nearly everyone—Christian or not—cares about the poor and wants peoples’ lives to be better. Conservatives and progressives have different ideas about how to best accomplish that, but we value the same thing.

“If the public face of faith becomes less dominated by right-wing figures, it may become easier for the country to heal its fissures. . . .When the religious/secular divide doesn’t neatly overlay the political divide, it may become a bit more difficult for either side to demonize the other.

‘‘Right’ and ‘left’ aren’t so helpful here,’ said Father Greg Boyle, who runs highly regarded Catholic programs for gang members in Los Angeles. ‘The more reverent we become, we see things not as black and white, left or right — but complex.’

Hallelujah for complexity! It might lower America’s political temperature, I pray.”

There’s no question that the demonization we see today in politics is horrible, and I would love to see that fissure heal. But the irony in these concluding words is stunning. While I wouldn’t characterize Kristof’s piece as demonizing in the sense that it was blatantly insulting, it was demonizing in the sense of implicitly claiming that theologically and politically conservative Christians have morally inferior views they bring to the public square. After all, his whole article is thanking God that there are more people claiming the name of Christ in public office who agree with his political stances! The running assumption, of course, is that those politically progressive views are what are good for America. Then he goes on to claim, through a quote, that we shouldn’t see things as so left and right, but rather as complex. He says this after writing a piece without the slightest hint of acknowledging the complexity that lies in differences of theology, worldview, authority, politics, and policy.

It’s not complexity that he values, and I’m sure he knows that.

It’s change in a single direction, with the growth of theologically progressive Christians embracing politically progressive values. I have no doubt he wouldn’t shout, “Hallelujah!” if the movement went the other direction. But championing “complexity” sounds much more tolerant to progressive ears.

The growth of people claiming the name of Christ in politics is not necessarily a good thing. It depends on what they actually believe and how that will inform their political decisions. If the Bible is God’s Word for all time, as theologically conservative Christians believe, then the growth of politicians claiming Christ but rejecting the authoritative nature of the Bible is actually a bad thing. It leads to confusion in the public eye of what Christianity historically has been, and the decisions these politicians make will often be more aligned with a secular moral consensus developed from self-authority than with a moral standard developed from the Bible.

The sort of oversimplified, assumption-ridden narrative that we find in Kristof’s piece is precisely why people can’t have reasonable conversations today. If we want to heal fissures, as Kristoff says he does, it starts with far more nuanced conversations that acknowledge the complexity of people’s worldviews.