Return to site

The Rise of Progressive Christianity

Rick Rouse

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, we will know peace."

--Jimi Hendrix

Who defines what it means to be Christian in America? For the past five years it was white Evangelicals and Christian nationalism that seemed to have dominant influence on American life and culture, welding political power as the “Religious Right”. However, progressive Christians have begun to rejuvenate and reclaim the Social Gospel movement first popularized by people like Walter Rauschenbusch and Josiah Strong in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. And some of the renewed impetus can be attributed to the growing influence of the Black Church.

Christianity and the Black Experience

Liberation theology was born in the crucible of injustice and oppression. In Latin America, the poor and downtrodden saw Jesus as a Revolutionary. This was in response to the repressive authoritarian regimes that were often sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In the United States, those subjugated by slavery and later by Jim Crow laws, looked to God as a liberator, who would one day free them from their suffering.

According to Dr. J. Alfred Smith, the late pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, “African-American spirituality is a spirituality that was born and shaped in the heat of oppression and suffering. Blackness is a metaphor for suffering. To know blackness is to be connected to the suffering, hope and purpose of black people.”[i] And the Rev. Dr. James Coen, Prof. of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary—like others before him, challenged the white supremacist teachings of the Christian church. Author of Black Theology and Black Power (1969), and The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) he claimed that “God is the God of the oppressed!”

In the first half of the twentieth century, most liberal whites failed to see white supremacy as a matter for Christian attention, and as a consequence they ignored the constant dangers of daily life in America for black people. But avoiding racism was not a choice for African American Christians; it was a matter of life or death in a society organized by race and enforced by violence. The Black Church provided solace and hope while attempting to address the daily challenges of its people. His immersion in the Black Church in America was to make a powerful impression on a young German theologian prior to outbreak of World War II.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a significant amount of time in Harlem while he was a postdoctoral student in America at Union Theological Seminary during the 1930-31 school year. Bonhoeffer became a lay leader at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and many Bonhoeffer scholars believe that his time there was seminal for his prophetic Christian resistance to Nazis. Seeing society from the hidden perspective of Harlem helped Bonhoeffer to recognize white supremacy in Germany and to see it as a Christian problem that might demand Christian political action. Because he was exposed to American racism from the perspective of Christians who were subjected to it, Bonhoeffer was equipped with prophetic insight that his white German colleagues in the church and the academy did not have.[ii]

The Response to Trump

Harry Bruinius writes in Christian Science Monitor, “For nearly a half-century liberal Christianity has endured a steady decline. Often in tension with certain Christian teachings and their exclusive claims to truth, its openness may have in fact cut away the distinctiveness of traditional faith, some historians contend. As a cultural and political force, too, its influence has waned since the 1960s, even as conservative congregations around the country were growing and flourishing. But the remnants of these once-powerful Christian traditions have in many ways sparked back to life over the past few years.” [iii] 

The religious left was galvanized during the divisive presidency of Donald Trump. Part of this resurgence can be seen as part of a broader reaction against the expressions of Christian nationalism that coalesced around former President Donald Trump, many observers say, who appointed an outsize number of Evangelicals and religious conservatives in his administration. In fact, in a recent study, Dr. Beyerlein, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, found that a “staggering” 41% of congregations who identified as politically liberal participated in demonstrations or lobbied elected officials during the presidency of Mr. Trump, compared with only 5% who said they were active during the administration of former President Barack Obama.[iv] 

A Study in Contrasts

What does an energized and resurgent, liberal Christianity have to offer this country? For one, its de-emphasis on doctrines of exclusion and its embrace of an inclusive faith may fit well into the larger social movements in America that recognize the diversity of the nation’s people and long for justice for everyone, regardless of race, faith, or politics. Younger Americans increasingly care little about the exclusive nature of traditional Christianity. And there is a growing recognition that individual liberties or partisan politics must not stand in the way of the common good.

The rejuvenation of liberal Christianity today offers an opportunity for our political discourse to shift from the culture wars of the Religious Right to the broader issues of social justice such as prison reform, the death penalty, immigration, voting rights, and racial equality. There is a broad coalition of religious groups that support a progressive way forward for our country. This includes Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Mormon, and others that make up an increasingly diverse religious left.

There should no longer be a question about the influence of the religious left on today’s American political landscape. The coalition that put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House as well as Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Senate includes many people of faith with diverse religious motivations. The nation now stands on the shoulders of generations of faith-rooted activists before us, and new activists will be taking part in every movement for social, racial, economic and climate justice for generations yet to come. Lest our country lose its soul to the siren’s song of conservative White Christianity, the voice of progressive Christianity proclaiming God's love and liberation is needed now more than ever.

With thanks for the use of the photo, courtesy of Pastor Hans Lee and our many friends at Calvary Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.