“Progressives” and the “Religious Right”

Bruce Bjork of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches says:

We are appalled by the idea that progressives and Christians don’t belong in the same sentence. We need not to limit moral speech but to expand it. The Religious Right has defined moral conversation in this country to include homosexuality and abortion and nothing else. But affordable housing is a moral issue. The environment is a moral issue. Fair public education funding, public health care, all these are moral issues.

Many progressives believe we should have no political relationship with a religion. On the other hand, the Religious Right’s culture demands civic engagement from its people, but limited only to specific areas that involve individual choice. Our task is to create a third social contract, and I don’t think we know what it looks like yet.

Doubtless these two groups think differently about religion and politics. From the point of view of some in the RR, the Progressives have reduced Christianity to social action. From this interview with Bjork, it seems that some Progressives see RRs as reducing Christianity to single-issue politics. As an Evangelical United Methodist, sandwiched between the two worlds, I see both as over simplifications.
First, it is the case that many on the RR make the most public noise about abortion and homosexuality. But public noise does not equal interest or action. I know of plenty of churches that Progressives would associate with the RR that are quietly involved with much hands on work with the poor and oppressed. Their involvement with Habitat for Humanity, homeless shelters, prison ministries, children’s programs, etc., is not something they make much public noise about. They just do it. Most commonly they see meeting these kinds of needs as something they themselves are responsible for and not something they should push government to do.
Second, most Americans seem to deal with an impoverished notion of politics. If politics is onlyDemocrat vs. Republican, Liberal vs. Conservative (or “Caring” vs. “Uncaring”), then we miss out on the old fashioned Aristotelian (and biblical) notion of politics as the formation of a people. Given the nature of our “procedural republic” (as Michael Sandel calls our system), it is extremely difficult to do this. We – both RR and Progressive – are committed to individualism and the rights and freedoms it entails (though in different ways). We are equally committed to the coercive powers of the State, though again, in different ways. It will take much work to shift to a substantive notion of the good, develop civil ways of arguing for it, and equip people to live it out.

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