is "progressive christianity" a useful distinction?

Some have gravitated away from labeling themselves "Christian," even if they've largely kept the faith. They just follow Jesus or perhaps consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious. Others add modifiers like "progressive" or "post-evangelical" to differentiate their beliefs from the faith of their fathers.

My faith has evolved, too, as I've grown, which I imagine is the case for most people. I've never felt drawn to exchange labels, but I recognize also that I hold the advantaged position of not bearing deep trauma wounds from the Church. I've been a Christian since I was a kid, and I'm still a Christian. I'm not particularly concerned that you'll think I'm one of those Christians. Christianity is diverse, and while I claim all Christians as kin, I speak only for myself.

Even when my bag was pinned with a "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" button and my feet marched in anti-war protests, I didn't consider myself a "progressive Christian." My politics were surely formed by my faith, but I considered myself as regular a Christian as anybody else at church, even if we voted or interpreted Scripture differently.

Recently I stumbled across a conversation on Twitter about the difference between "liberal" and "progressive" Christians/Christianity. One respondent offered that in the UK, progressive means "hyper liberal," but in the U.S. it seems to indicate "moderately liberal." The terminology can certainly function that way in the lexicon of politically centrist post-fundamentalist American Christian social media users, revealing in part why the label is so profoundly unhelpful.

For one thing, on the political spectrum, although progressive and liberal are sometimes used interchangeably, progressive does not functionally mean "moderately liberal." Political progressives are more radical and populist than liberals, rooted historically in the United States with activist movements for labor and education reform, environmental conservation, women's suffrage, and more. Liberal politicians are generally establishment Democrats, while progressive candidates are more likely to represent third parties and more radical reform platforms. Candidate Obama was fairly progressive, but he isn't a progressive president by any real stretch of the imagination. Progressives, who by definition seek greater progress, exist further to the political left of liberals.

Then there's the other problem, which Fred Clark explains: "The theological spectrum does not mirror the political spectrum for many, many reasons, the most important of which being that there is no such thing as the theological spectrum.'”

You could try telling that to third way-ers, whose theological identity seems to hinge on a unique ability to mediate the allegedly hostile, polar wastelands of progressive and conservative Christianity, but I don't think it would go over any better there than with the crowd who narrowly defines orthodoxy as whatever they believe, branding anyone and everything else "liberal," regardless of affiliation. (Adding to the confusion, liberal theology is a historical thing, but it's worlds apart from what many of us would recognize as postmodern or progressive Christianity.)


I suspect that growing up in evangelical communities for whom "liberal" was akin to a Scarlet "L" pushes post-evangelicals to embrace "progressive" as their preferred signifier, but does progressive indicate anything meaningful in the context of popular theology?

Blogger Zach "Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet" Hoag "heartily embrace[s] the progressive label in its simplest definition of 'not conservative or fundamentalist evangelical.'” I agree with Zach that plenty of Christians claim the label as a static "not like those Christians" badge of distinction, but that sort of definition by negation is a weak baseline for an identity (particularly for one employed by a progressive Christian website). Failing to adequately define one's terms leads to the unhelpful lumping together of disparate theologies, people, and groups, as well as throwing other Christians under the bus in ways that aren't entirely charitable. Fundamentalism isn't interchangeable with evangelicalism, and I'm left wondering what exactly sets Hoag's or anyone else's faith apart as progressive? Comfort with mystery, tension, and questions? Affinity for liturgy? Less rigidity? More diversity? Social justice? I'm not pretending that I have no idea what folks mean when they say progressive Christianity, but many of those signposts aren't peculiar to Christians of a more progressive political bent. Christians across time and tradition practice a generous orthodoxy.

Hoag expresses concern for "unhealthy conversation...which so often wields the 'progressive' label as a weapon against anyone less 'progressive,'" seeming to argue that interrogating a self-identified progressive is off-limits: folks are progressive if they say they are, and any challenges to aim higher, go deeper, or listen more closely to the margins will be dismissed as unhealthy and even violent. That's certainly played out in his comment threads lately, where queer, female, and other dissenters have been deleted, blocked, and branded as toxic trolls while a sexist, sexually demeaning joke is left to stand. Also perplexing is the cake/too desire to don the progressive label, transcend it by exemplifying Jesus' own alleged "third way," and then grump should anyone point out that the left is more progressive than the center by definition.

If this absence of demonstrable belief and praxis is "Progressive Christianity," the theobrogians and conference circuit celebrities can have it. But unfortunately for them, progressive remains a political label. It doesn't function particularly well as personal branding, but as long as they claim to be progressive, we will ask to see their work:

  • Are they/(we) practically oriented toward progress, justice, reform, growth, and those existing at the margins?
  • Do they/(we) pass the mic, or do they/(we) prop up entrenched hierarchies further benefiting them/(our)selves?
  • Are learning, change, and liberation ongoing--or is a one-and-done changing of the mind on an issue good enough?
  • Are they/(we) truly affirming of racial, ethnic, economic, sexual, gender, body, and class diversity; Blackness; people of color; women and survivors; disabled and neurodivergent people; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, intersex, asexual, and queer Christians and people--or is nicer, gentler discrimination sufficient "progress?"
  • Can they/(we) recognize and subvert oppressive power dynamics--even if personally implicated? Do they/(we) caution patience, civility, better humor, greater reason, and less emotion across lines of privilege, assuming faux-neutrality and a moral high ground they/(we) are perhaps not worthy of?

That's some of what I mean when I use the term progressive, and as long as we're operating from different definitions, worldviews, assumptions, and expectations, progressives are bound to conflict. More than that, we are talking past each other in essentially different languages, and the ways we communicate often reinforce rather than subvert established hierarchies and systemic injustice. Perhaps acknowledging that self-described progressives aren't on the same theological or political pages, easing up on the language of forced-teaming and hyperbolic war, is a step forward.

As a Christian whose politics are progressive and whose theology leans feminist and liberationist, I'm looking for a demonstrated commitment to justice, peace, and liberation among those who'd claim the progressive label, and I want to know that you believe in inequality. In Christian terminology, I'm seeking to loose the chains and break every yoke. I'm looking and working for repentance, resurrection, and all things made new. Yesterday's victories are worth celebrating, but the harvest is plentiful, and there's much yet to do. I name white supremacy and misogyny among the "powers and principalities" for which Christ died and over which he rose, and I admit that the rules are different according to privilege and power. There are times to listen and times to move our feet, and those most accustomed to leading are not necessarily best equipped for the work of birthing and building better paths forward

Progressives of faith, like all humans across time, won't agree on everything, but at the very least, might we affirm a commitment to ongoing growth as a community? Can we pin down a definition more meaningful and motivating than "Not X!" Can we interrogate whatever's standing in the way of our movements toward justice--even if it's u!--unafraid of "surfacing tensions already present" and seeking the sort of peace that's hard-won?

I dare say we'd be making progress.