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What Is Progressive About Progressive Christianity?

Three questions need to be clearly explained to the American public. What is Progressive Christianity? Secondly, what does progressive mean in the context of this religious movement? And, why is Progressive Christianity especially needed in our time? Information on the first question abounds, but not for the second and third. Understanding the significance of the term “progressive” calls for a historical as well as theological perspective – and filling that gap is the purpose of this article.

It is important to distinguish Progressive Christianity from the way “progressive” is being used in the Democratic campaign for the presidency in 2020. Being a Christian progressive does not automatically mean someone agrees with candidates representing various aspects of political progressivism. Something new is afoot in Christianity that rises above political issues of the day.

Progressive Christianity is defined in action by local worshiping communities. A look at their websites demonstrates the many ways a positive force in Christianity is found at work around us. Just a few examples from Atlanta where I live would be Central Congregational United Church of Christ, the Virginia-Highland Church, and the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett. It is also easy to find explanations of theological justification in ordinary language on sites like PATHWAYS Theological, the online educational program, and the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity.

There is also a historical dimension of Progressive Christianity that should be appreciated. It represents a modern form of carrying out the ethical and action-oriented reforms that were central to the message of Jesus. Like Jesus, we live in a time when those in power claim to serve higher values but support policies that benefit themselves at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. Jesus was a critic and reformer, not a revolutionary. He called on religious and political leaders to turn from love of self to focus on love of God, neighbors, and even enemies. Executing Jesus as a revolutionary was a defense mechanism within Jewish and Roman society to smear and discredit legitimate demands for reform. Following the path of Progressive Christianity honors the reforming emphasis of Jesus and applies it to modern American conditions.

Why is progressive the best term for describing this religious movement? Because it draws on the political and social reforms of the American progressive movement of the early 1900s in which corruption was attacked to restore old values in a way that recognized everchanging modern conditions. As a religious movement, Progressive Christianity represents a more forward-looking version of the Reformation.

Progressive Christianity is largely a product of Protestant Christianity and thus of the Reformation, although its principles aren’t intended to rule out any variety of Christianity. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar often expressed a desire for a New Reformation as they worked together. Robert Funk and Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote books representing a call for such a new movement. Unlike Luther and Calvin, those in the Jesus Seminar did not want to return to scriptural times as the measure of purity, for they called for an updated understanding of the Bible and values in line with modern views as found in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Being connected to the Reformation is highly significant. The terms conservative, liberal, and socialist emerged from the European reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleon. They are linked to the notion of revolutionary change – tearing things down and building from scratch, as is so often done in American construction projects. Many studies of 20th century American religion have noted how the battles of liberal versus conservative undermined denominational loyalties and divided religious communities. This clash began to appear after the Second World War and reflected fears of communist subversion and revolution. Lost in the process was the American reform efforts of the 1890s that reached prominence in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The progressive reform movement was an American political, social, and religious phenomenon that was anti-revolutionary. It was a grassroots movement found in all parts of the country and in both political parties. Eliminating corruption and malfeasance of many forms in places high and low was the emphasis, along with recognizing changing conditions to modernize government. Turning to experts to bring the latest and best ideas was part of this forward-looking reform. Trying new ideas was demanded but also limited by an innate resistance to “going too far.” A birth control movement was considered too far along with racial equality but granting women the vote was finally accepted. Prohibition was the most radical reform and also a horrific failure.

Social agencies for families and laborers spread in crowded cities along with the Social Gospel as a religious outreach to the disadvantaged. Traditional evangelical churches feared reforms based on “social salvation” that appealed to the message of Jesus. Concentrating on a message of personal salvation, they rejected science, biblical criticism, and other adaptations to modern conditions as liberal or socialist.

The Fundamentalist Movement of the early 20th century and the Religious Right that began developing in the 1950s were backward-looking, change resisting appeals to the Reformation. Doctrines that emerged in the 1500s and 1600s hardened into articles of faith, even as the sciences and historical studies that emerged in those centuries were successfully undermining the foundations of many of those beliefs.

So, what is progressive about Progressive Christianity? Its purpose is reform, not revolution. It puts the central message of Jesus (which was focused on reform) at the center of Christianity rather than outdated and discredited dogma. But it also recognizes the change in time period so that the message is updated for conditions of our age – that is what makes it progressive. It’s not that progress is always right, but that adapting to changing times and conditions is necessary for a vital Christianity.

Finally, why is Progressive Christianity especially needed today? It emphasizes reforms that balance the past with the demands of an ever-changing present. In a frenetic environment of accelerating market-driven technological change, it is a constructive way to hold to durable values while adapting to a world driven by a revolutionizing economy.

Histories of the world since the Industrial Revolution are beginning to emphasize the accelerated pace of change in the modern world. The period since 1945 has been termed The Great Acceleration because the tempo of innovation and use of natural resources jumped to a higher gear. The impact of the Internet since the 1990s made multi-tasking an inescapable part of daily living even for children and the constant upgrading of our gadgets drives us to double up and speed up our ways of doing more things at a time.

Revolutions, whether political or market-driven, destroy as they seek to build. Reforms are efforts to balance the past with adaptation to the present and future. Progressive Christianity is a calming influence in a culture overwhelmed by open-ended change. There is a centering effect when nurturing the God-centered and people-centered values of Jesus amidst the economically and technologically driven values of today. The prayer habits of Jesus along with mystical and meditative practices which Christianity shares with other world religions can help us navigate a world in which change seems out of control.
About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons is a historian, Bible scholar, and Progressive Christian. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, he graduated from Mercer University and earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management after thirty-two years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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