4 Ways Fundamentalism Gets Progressive Christianity Shockingly Wrong


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By Derek Penwell

I sometimes get labeled “anti-fundamentalist,” which I find unfortunate. Some of my best friends are fundamentalist.1 I know some folks who are amazingly good people, who are also fundamentalists, people who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist.” So, I reject the assertion that I’m somehow against fundamentalists.

Instead, I prefer to think of myself as anti-Fundamentalism, particularly Christian Fundamentalism.

There, I said it. I think Christian Fundamentalism fails in so many ways to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “war on religion” is a war being waged by Christian Fundamentalism.

I want to be quick to point out that I don’t think I’ve got the whole Jesus-thing locked up myself. I’m open to the critique that I get things wrong about Christianity … perhaps even regularly wrong. However, I want to suggest that Christian Fundamentalism gets the gospel fundamentally wrong.

What do I mean?

Here is a list of popular charges leveled against Progressive Christianity, charges that, in many people’s minds, have ceased to be controversial. Christian Fundamentalism has successfully dominated the conversation about the nature and purpose of Christianity to the extent that these charges are viewed (by the culture, as well by other fundamentalists) as largely self-evidently true; they’ve graduated to tropes.

1. Progressive Christianity actively seeks to make America a less Christian nation.

Let me suggest that, as has been stated by finer people than I, America isn’t, nor has it ever been a Christian nation—a point even most Evangelical Christians concede).

On what basis do I say that America isn’t a Christian nation?

Notwithstanding the historical criticisms of a Christian America, politically and theologically the idea holds no water. For America to be Christian, a whole different set of politics would have to be in play than could possibly exist in a liberal democracy—namely, a theocracy, in which God appoints the political rulers and not the citizens.

The idea of an American theocracy fails the smell-test, since if it were actually a possibility that God determined American political life by divine fiat, presumably God would be good enough at the job that Christian Fundamentalists wouldn’t be fuming over America’s misplaced “Christian heritage.”

Additionally, though, the whole Christian America-thing doesn’t work from a theological standpoint. Christianity, in the person of Jesus, had an implicit anti-nationalist bent. Jesus, because of his proximity to historic nationalist messianic expectations, continued to be a source of disappointment to his followers, and a threat to his Roman enemies. In the end, Jesus’ failure as a nationalist cost him his followers (at least initially) and his life.

The thought, then, that the very nationalism Jesus walked away from in his own time ought to characterize the common life of his twenty-first century followers is the height of anti-theological presumption. Jesus didn’t look to ascend the throne in the ancient Near East. Why should he want to do so now in America?

Fundamentalism’s claims about the “Christian” nature of America is not only clumsy theology, but dangerous. Despite casual fundamentalist insinuations to the contrary, “Christian” and “American” aren’t interchangeable terms. A cursory glance at history demonstrates that every time Christianity gets too cozy with Caesar grave mischief inevitably follows.

2. Progressive Christianity’s emphasis on social justice isn’t Christian; it’s Marxist.

The fundamentalist belief that social justice is merely warmed-over Marxism is an intellectually lazy charge. If you can read the Gospels and come away believing that Jesus cared only about people’s spiritual health, you’re more intellectually nimble than I am.

The concern for just and equitable systems that tend to the day-to-day physical and social needs of people occupies a great deal of Jesus’ time as he wanders around the Judean outback. Like the prophets before him, Jesus saves his ire and his disappointment for those whose primary concern is their own spiritual aggrandizement (see, for example, the Pharisaic “woes”—Matthew 23; the rich young man—Mark 10:17-31).

This denunciation of “social justice” as Marxist takes as its counterpoint the “personal relationship” in which Jesus is concerned foremost about the state of your heart, while the state of your stomach is merely a distraction.

But don’t I think that God’s concerned with the state of people’s hearts?

Of course, but not conceptual”hearts” as abstractable from human existence. God cares about the state of our souls, yes. However, God didn’t create us as compartmentalized beings where body, soul, and mind are discrete entities, separable from one another and capable of being tended independently.

Fundamentalism’s emphasis on the “personal relationship with Jesus” in which the “heart” occupies the foreground at the expense of the rest of God’s creative handiwork serves to underwrite the Capitalist presumptions of a consumer society, which say that my primary obligations are to myself and my own happiness. If I can help some other people along the way, that’s gravy. However, I have a responsibility to get my own celestial bus pass stamped first.

What about loving brother and sister? The author of 1 John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20), which is not an admonition to muster up the proper emotions toward other people. It’s entirely practical.

What do I mean?

The author asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (3:17). In other words, love is not only a disposition to feeling a particular way about another; it’s a disposition to acting in particular ways toward or on behalf of another.

Contrary to popular assumption, caring for the needs of others isn’t just feeling nice things about them, nor is it “communistic redistribution”; it’s the gospel in work clothes, with dirty hands and sweat stains. That is to say, social justice is the heart of the gospel, not just something to consider after you’ve fine-tuned your soul.

3. Progressive Christianity supports obviously anti-Christian political agendas like same sex marriage.

The rub here comes not in the “supports … same sex marriage” part but in the “obviously anti-Christian political agendas” part.

There’s a story I heard a long time ago about Tony Campolo. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say. If it’s not true, though, it should be.

The story goes that Campolo was speaking at a conference about some topic or other, when he was asked about his views on abortion. He demurred, saying he’d rather stick to the topic at hand.

The person persisted, wanting to know what sort of stance he took on the issue of abortion. Again, Campolo said that it was inappropriate to raise the topic here, since he was asked to speak about something else.

Not getting the message, or perhaps, not caring about it, the person asked again about what Campolo thought of abortion, since whatever he had to say on other topics would surely be interpreted through the lens of his abortion politics.

Campolo said: “All right. You’ve asked me three times. So, I’m going to tell you. What do I think about abortion? I think it’s an issue dreamed up by rich Christians to distract themselves from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes. Because whereas there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about people’s relationship to money, there isn’t a single one that deals with abortion.”

The same thing can be said about same-gender marriage, a modern issue with which, I would argue, the Bible seems equally unconcerned, or at least unaware. That’s a whole different post.

Fundamentalism, though it claims to take the Bible seriously, if not literally, has an uncanny ability to be distracted from the central issues with which the Bible concerns itself, choosing instead to dwell on peripheral issues—many of which are embarrassingly preoccupied with what people do with their genitalia.

4. Progressive Christianity rejects the Bible.

In a nutshell the standard indictment of Progressive Christianity seems distillable to this: “The problem with Christians who don’t read the Bible according to the assumptions of Christian Fundamentalism is that they don’t believe the Bible at all.”

That a commonsense literal interpretation of Scripture is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Biblical interpretation is a fact that escapes most fundamentalists. The mistaken assumption that the Bible has always been read in the same fashion fundamentalists would claim to read it today is a fact that goes largely unnoticed in Christian Fundamentalism, where the underlying belief is that the Bible is a static document, the interpretation of which is, for the most part, straightforward, and can be undertaken by anyone absent individual preconceptions—an assumption that is most often asserted, rather than defended.

What I find so galling, though, is Christian Fundamentalism’s inference that holding Progressive Christian positions is somehow an accommodation to the culture in ways that holding Fundamentalist Christian positions is not. I reject the notion that whatever Progressive positions I hold, I hold in spite of the Bible and not because of it.

My positions aren’t a rejection of the Bible, but an embrace of the gospel I find pervading it. The danger of Christian Fundamentalism is that it believes a simplistic, surface-level reading of Scripture is sufficient, unfortunately missing the fact that a fundamentalist ability to focus on the spirit of the gospel is almost always compromised by its supposition that the good news Jesus announces is mostly private, concerned primarily with making sure my bacon gets snatched from the fire.

Progressive Christianity actually takes the Bible more seriously than its fundamentalist critics do.

So Here’s What I Think

I think that Progressive Christianity should quit deferring to Christian Fundamentalism as the de facto voice of Christianity.

I think Progressive Christianity should quit being cowed by charges of Marxism. The most damning criticism of a follower of Jesus isn’t “You’re a socialist,” but “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43; a charge that has the virtue of actually being in the Bible).

I think Progressive Christianity should embrace its love of the Bible, not as a repository of theological and ritual laws, but as the narration of God’s continued pursuit of humanity through the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace.

I think Progressive Christianity should actively paint a picture of that reign for a world threatening to tear itself apart, due to injustice and violence.

Humility, in this endeavor, is a virtue.

Timidity, however, is unacceptable.

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  1. See what I did there? ↩

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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