cjbanning: (The Bishop)
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Ross Douthat’s Wednesday New York Times column this week was “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump,” which examines the future role of Christian conservativism in an America where 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. (Lord, have mercy.) Douthat draws heavily (and expectedly) on Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, which argues for a Christan partial withdrawal from society to accomplish a renewal and redefinition of vision, to examine what it means to be Church in a society all too often hostile to the message of Jesus Christ.

Douthat's entire column is worth reading (as Douthat usually is), but I was most interested in the passage when Douthat briefly addressed progressive Christians:

The basic model [of the Benedict Option] could be applied just as easily to non-Christian faiths, and it could be embraced by the progressive Christians who find Dreher’s vision — and [ Philadelphia Archbishop Charles] Chaput’s, and [Providence College English professor Anthony] Esolen’s, and [Southern Baptist Convention president] Russell Moore’s — too dogmatic and rigid and anti-modern.

Being a bit of a dogmatist myself, I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.

In doing so they wouldn’t be abandoning political engagement, but they would be laying a foundation for faith’s endurance when political activism fails. As fail it so often does, as both progressive and conservative Christians have learned at different times across the last few decades — and may soon learn again.


Even given the rise of Donald J. Trump, I simply don't see a long-term future for "conservative Christianity" as it exists in America (anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ) other than death or, more likely, marginalization (think the Amish)--in many ways the very marginalization that Dreher is encouraging conservative Christians to at least partly embrace. I think most Christian institutions will either eventually adapt (albeit some more slowly than others) to the recognition of homophobia and transphobia as real moral evils, as they have (mostly) with racism and slavery, or else wither away.

But in an era of declining religiosity overall, progressive Christianity's future is hardly certain either. I'm more optimistic about our chances than Douthat, who I think doesn't really understand progressive Christianity or what motivates us. Progressive Christianity is not, as Douthat thinks, about simply accommpdating the cultural shifts of liberalism, but instead engaging them with both faith and humility, critiquing them even as we allow ourselves to be critiqued, following the example of the Holy Trinity which exists Godself in a dynamic, perichoretic dialectic of conversation. But church attendance among the more liberal, mainline denominations has been declining, most of our church buildings are emptying and/or closing, and it's important not to minimize the challenges which we face.

But we progressive Christians know that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that there is a part of Christianity--the core, we progressive Christians believe, the message and Good News of Jesus Christ--which is very much worth saving. There is something which the Church has to offer America, and the planet, which secular liberalism simply cannot. We are, after all, the light of the world.

I'm already on record as agreeing with Douthat that there's very much a need for a progressive version of the Benedict Option. I've said as much before, on Twitter and elsewhere. We need to embrace what is distinctive about progressive Christianity--not only when compared against conservative versions of our faith, but against the world at large--and live it fully and enthusiastically. We need to be willing to take risks and move beyond that which is comfortable.

Now, I've found most progressive Christians--including progressive Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants (and including most of the Christians of any tradition reading this, most likely)--already understand that our movement IS supposed to be countercultural, that we stand against structural forces of evil and embedded systems of social sin, ranging from poverty and war to homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, classism, and so forth. And obviously political activism is an integral element of that part of our progressive Christian faith, but we also need to be prepared to wander in the wilderness, to be rejected by a society insistent on trying to make us choose between the hateful nativism and social conservatism bent on controlling bodies practiced by our conservative co-believers on the one hand, and an aggressively Godless secularism on the other which denies that religion has any proper place at all in a liberal society or an enlightened age.

Is America a "post-Christian nation"? Well, I suspect that very few atheists would agree with Dreher on that assessment. But it's really a meaningless question, because there ultimately are at least as many definitions of "Christian" as there are Christians ourselves. I do know this, though: America is full of people who are desperately in need of the liberating love of Jesus Christ, who need to be told that the Church of Jesus welcomes them. David Brooks is right that "most Americans [. . .] are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation." As the progressive Church, we need to initiate those conversations.

As progressive Christians, we are called to be the hands and feet and eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ on this planet Earth, which means being persecuted for Jesus' sake as we seek justice. We are called to speak with prophetic voices and witness, which means frequently being unwelcomed in our own lands, our own communities, sometimes even among our own families and friends. We are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God; that, in a verse, is what a "progressive Benedict Option" means to me.

But the most important thing is that, even with Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, even with a Republican-controlled Congress, even with our own co-believers seeking to enshrine in the law the right to discriminate against our sisters and brothers and siblings under the guise of "religious liberty," we must not despair. I firmly believe that we progressive Christians have history on our side, but far more importantly, we have the Holy Trinity as well.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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