The New Christians

The New Christians

“Progressive” or “Liberal”

Over at GetReligion, Mollie dissects a WaPo story on the new Religious Left…um…er…the religious “progressives.”

Progressive? Is this the best descriptor for
religious groups who advocate for liberal political aims? I have used
the term regularly in the past and can argue for its use. But I’ve
heard from people all across the spectrum who don’t like it. Some on
the right say that it implies people who don’t share a belief in, say,
higher taxes are regressive or oppressive. Some on the left think that
it denigrates the theological basis and grounding for their views. What
do you think? Is that the best term out there or what would you prefer?
It is somewhat funny that religious groups on the right are frequently
called the religious right or Christian conservatives but we don’t see
much use of the terms religious left or liberal Christians. So maybe I
should ask what are some better terms for all the varied religious
groups that engage in the public square.


Then she tackles Social Justice…oops…

This is a good example of why I refrain from using the term social
justice. Basically, I have no idea what it means. I understand what it
means in terms of Catholic social teaching.
But the foundational principle of Catholic social teaching is the
sanctity of all human life and the inherent dignity of every human
person. But I don’t think protecting all human’s right to life is what
is meant in this story’s use of the term social justice. Does it mean equal allocation of society’s benefits
— another definition of social justice? Or what? I just don’t know what
that term means and see no reason against being very specific about
what it does mean in an article like this. 

I tend to use the term “progressive.”  In fact, I used it several times with a WaPo reporter yesterday.  But is it the best?  What say you?

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posted February 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

I dislike the use of secular terms like “right”, “left” and so on to describe positions that for a Christian, should be derived from the basic tenets of his faith. Frankly, I think most of the differences between the right and left in American politics are illusory, and so the terms are misleading. I would love to see the church begin to articulate a truly Christian approach to politics, economics, peace, social justice and so on. (I do not think that this would be an easy, or quiet, task).

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posted February 3, 2009 at 2:11 pm

my conservative evangelical friends/aquaintances hate it because they say it implies that I am “more advanced” than they are and that if they would “progress” they would agree with me. I stick to the term but I see their point.
and other conservative evangelicals I knew didn’t like me to use the term within their context because it implied that we were liberal and they didn’t want to be affiliated with us if that’s what we were.

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Gideon Addington

posted February 3, 2009 at 2:16 pm

The problem has a lot to do with the baggage involved, as well. Liberal has been turned into a dirty word in the last few decades and so to use it religiously has a lot of repercussions (not the least of which are the ones you mentioned in reference to liberal.)
It’s also problematic in the sense of words like “Orthodox.” Orthodox means the correct view (or doctrine, or whatever.) When we use that word for someone we’re giving them a leg up on what is “right” even if we don’t think it is. If we use the term “Progressive Christian” we’re saying something like “This is a different Christianity.”
But people in both camps would imagine their Christianity as Orthodox! If I say I am a “Christian” that could mean any number of things – which means that term is nearly useless because there are as many Christians doing things I would find horrendous in the name of my faith as there are doing what I believe our faith teaches.
So… we’re at a stand still. I don’t agree with Larry that these differences are illusionary. They are real. They are legitimate. It’d be nice to act as one body, but that simply isn’t what happens. If some people are teaching that gay people are outside the faith, in some way or another, and other people are claiming inclusivity there is a real difference. Especially to the homosexual people in question.
I think, in the end, we have to use some term to indicate where we land on some of these issues to help organize ourselves (the same way denominations are used. Again, real differences.) But we have to be careful not to use words that have become loaded or meaningless as well.

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Scott M

posted February 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Hmmm. I tend to describe my faith perspective as simply Christian or learning to become Christian. If someone has a specific question, I’ll try to answer it the best way I see it today. My political perspective is independent. Again, I’ll discuss a specific question and see where we end up.
However, I do tend to read ‘Orthodox’ as describing a specific Christian tradition. Go figure.

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Dan H

posted February 3, 2009 at 2:47 pm

I use both terms, but don’t really like either of them. ‘Social Justice’ irked me all through seminary because, as the more-conservative-wanting-to-learn-more-about-following-Jesus guy that I was at the time, I just found it so vague. It has a sense of ‘we all know what we’re talking about here’, and included a lot of specific ideological approaches to policy, that remained unstated and I kept waiting to be unpacked more. Now that I am more liberal than I used to be though, I find myself using it in the same way, kind of a lazy shorthand.
The reason that ‘progressive’ bugs me is pretty much for the same reasons Mollie cited, it just assumes the ‘correctness’ of our position without really describing those positions. Left-leaning views about how society ought to be are “progressive”, meaning “better”. If you break it down, it’s kind of like calling ourselves “Right Ones”.

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Blake Huggins

posted February 3, 2009 at 2:59 pm

I quit using “liberal” a long time ago simply because of all the baggage involved. I use “progressive” from time to time, but very loosely and as I’m not really all that attached to it. For me it conjures up images of the modern myth of progress and idealism which I don’t particularly like either. So I guess I’m in search of different word, with less caveats.

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posted February 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm

I sometimes use ‘progressive.’
But like others here, I wish there was a better word.
‘Conservative’ and ‘liberal’ just don’t cut it for me at this point.
Neither do ‘left’ or ‘right.’
There are some who call themselves ‘conservative’ Christians, but but to me have more to do with a modern liberal/libertarian position…
For instance, those who advocate no/lower taxes are really just being enlightenment ‘liberals’ arguing for the most freedom from government intrusion on individuals… this is hardly a traditional or ‘conservative’ view of government!
And some so-called ‘liberal’ positions are hardly progressive. There is a long tradition of thinking of society in terms of what is good/equitable for the whole, not just certain individuals… fair distribution of goods, etc. This is fairly conservative/traditional!

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Trinidad. Adventist. Gay?!

posted February 3, 2009 at 6:56 pm

The term “religious right” is deliberate on the part of the people who coined it–the media.
Liberal positions are rarely labeled as such in the media because they think that those positions are the default.

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Jeff Moulton

posted February 3, 2009 at 11:14 pm

What I want is a set of terminology that is as equally positive in both opposites of a term. For instance, if I call myself a pro-gressive, there is an implication that someone who believes differently than me is a re-gressive. That’s insulting.
If someone who disagrees with me is not willing to take the opposite term and wear it proudly, the problem is with my terminology.
I don’t think this terminology currently exists. The only example I can find is an artificial one that has cropped up over the past 35 years – the opposite of pro-life is now pro-choice, though it isn’t a logical set of choices. Really, is anyone anti-life? Is anyone really anti-choice?
Our terminology is such that in speaking about ourselves in our common terms, we immediately insult someone who does not agree with our position. I’m not in the business of insulting people (though I inadvertently do it all the time). But, whenever I can (that is, whenever I am aware of my impending breach), I should avoid throwing out that insult and show respect, even in my disagreement.

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posted February 4, 2009 at 1:24 am

Maybe I’m just anal retentive but I think that the term “progressive” is a lot like the term “evangelical.” It’s just an easy way for folks to compartmentalize others (and maybe even themselves) into easy categories without the subsequent (and necessary) process of dealing with actual beliefs and practices. I really do agree with Mollie that these terms have little substantive meaning. These days I’m uncomfortable calling myself either “progressive” or “evangelical” because neither of these terms adequately describes what it means for me to be a Christian person in American society. And, honestly, since the American political scene is more about deception, wordplay and power, I’ve got little confidence that these terms can have any substantive meaning within the public square in the future.

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emergent pillage

posted February 7, 2009 at 1:36 am

Umm…for the record, I think most people out there know that “progressive” is merely another word for “liberal”, so please don’t think that you’re really fooling anyone by changing words.

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