No one likes to be called a “liberal” these days. Whether in politics or the church, the word has a whole string of bad connotations. In the church, it means culturally captive, unconcerned (or illiterate) about Scripture, open-minded to the point of empty-headed, etc. Most of all, it means that one rejects the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, and believes the future of the church is as a political lobbying arm of the Democratic Party.

“Emergent” icon Brian McLaren will have none of this. He’s no liberal, it turns out, but rather a “progressive.” This, of course, is nothing more than a change of nomenclature, in the church as in politics, but McLaren tries to make the case that he is somehow different. From

When I try to re-enter the mindset of my younger years, here’s what I think “liberal” means to my fellow Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and conservative Catholics:

  1. Liberalism is lax. Liberals have no passion. They’re sometimes nice. They’re usually moderate. They’re often boring. But they’re never firm and fired up and willing to stand up, be counted, and even suffer for what they believe.
Meaningless. There are people without passion at every point on the theological spectrum. I’ve never heard it said that one of the most objectionable things about liberalism is that it has no passion. The problem, rather, is that its passions are all misplaced.
2. Liberalism is lazy. Liberals have no backbone. A liberal has never met a capitulation he doesn’t like. That’s why liberals capitulated to Darwin on evolution (we won’t mention Galileo before him), and then on divorce and feminism, and then on homosexuality. Give them some time and they’ll capitulate on atheism and motherhood too. This laziness erodes their identity and leads straight from neo-orthodoxy to nominalism to agnosticism to atheism.
Again, the problem isn’t “laziness.” McLaren wants us to believe that liberals simply fall into cultural captivity. The problem, rather, is that most enthusiastically, whole-heartedly embrace it. They are more Darwinian than the Darwinist, more feminist than the secular feminist, more celebrative of gayness than the average gay person on the street. There is nothing accidental about the liberal’s passions.
3. Liberalism is fuzzy and flimsy. Liberals don’t know what they believe. Everything for them is nuanced and complexified to the point of being incomprehensible and incommunicable. They walk around in a theological fog and if you walk with them, you’ll be in it too.
See the pattern that’s developing? Most liberals know exactly what they believe, which is why they are so ruthless in dealing with non-liberals once they get into power. They have a specific agenda that involves politicizing and de-theologizing the church, and instituting a standard for heresy as intolerant as the Spanish Inquisition.
4. Liberalism is proud. Even though they’re lax, lazy, fuzzy, and flimsy, liberals think they’re better than us—more educated, smarter, richer, more high-class, more politically powerful. They’re snobs, always putting us down.
This is the one he got right. It doesn’t matter how well-educated a person is; to many liberals, if they disagree with liberalism, they are per se stupid.
5. Liberalism is dying. When you’re lax, lazy, fuzzy, flimsy, and proud, what motivation do you have to evangelize, to expand, to create, to celebrate? Without that motivation, liberals just sit back on their institutional assets and look down on the rest of us—who are passionately committed, energetically expanding, clear on our essential beliefs and mission, and humble enough to work with common people with their messy problems.
This is either disingenuous or ill-informed. Liberalism doesn’t discourage evangelism because it lacks motivation; it reviles evangelism because of its multicultural and pluralistic convictions.
In short, McLaren doesn’t understand why evangelicals have a problem with liberalism, thinking that the problem is essentially with liberals as people rather than with liberalism as an ideology. That being the case, its no wonder why he thinks he can escape evangelical opprobrium if he rejects the label “liberal” and embraces “progressive.”
Now my liberal friends might point out the flaws in this diagnosis, and they might defend liberalism as being far better than these crude conservative stereotypes. But however justified their self-defense might be, it will only lead to a fruitless argument. That’s why I think it’s far better to forego that argument and instead to prove—in actions first, then in words—that to be a progressive Christian means more than being lax, lazy, fuzzy, flimsy, proud, and dying.
In fact, the progressive Christians I know are highly committed, not lax. True, they don’t measure fidelity in terms of “the five fundamentals of the faith,” but they do take two fundamentals very seriously: “love God and love your neighbor.” And it gets even more interesting when they extend “neighbor” to stranger, outsider, outcast, alien, and enemy. True, they aren’t strict when it comes to drinking a beer or using some colorful vocabulary, but they can be downright puritanical when it comes to recycling and advocating for the environment. Talk to them about equal human rights for Palestinians or LGBTQ folks, or engage them on global poverty and pre-emptive war, and you’ll see real passion.
I could rest my case right here (though I won’t). McLaren falls headlong into the indictment that I re-wrote for him. It has nothing to do with whether liberals (or “progressives”) are “lax, lazy, fuzzy, proud, and dying.” It has to do with an the politicization of the church and its mission and the denigration of theology. So what does McLaren do? He proves that progressives aren’t liberals by…talking about gay rights, environmentalism, and the Palestinians!
And although they aren’t rigid doctrinally, they aren’t lazy either. They’re still seeking for meaningful ways to express their faith, and when they find those ways, I think you’ll see a lot more passionate progressive Christians rediscovering “the E-word”—Evangelism. No, it won’t be, “Be a progressive Christian or you’ll burn in hell forever.” It will be more like, “Let’s join God in the healing and liberation of God’s community of creation.” It will be, “I’m part of a faith community that’s learning to live in the way of Jesus. You’re welcome to be part of our journey together.” Or “Why waste your life selfishly pursuing money and power and pleasure when you can join God in the healing of the world?”
Once again, politics! I know McLaren didn’t go to seminary, but does he really not know what evangelism is, and that getting people to work together on political goals ain’t it? Of course he knows better. He has simply rejected biblical evangelism for liberal “evangelism,” which is political, not theological, and which involves the transformation of society, but not the individual. Just at a point in history when evangelicals have rediscovered their heritage of keeping personal evangelism and social concern together, McLaren wants to through out the former for the sake of the latter–just like liberalism.
When it comes to fuzziness and flimsiness, the progressive Christians I know are making great strides beyond old liberalism. What initially seemed like a morass of complexity—the quest(s) for the historical Jesus, biblical criticism, revisioning the Bible’s inspiration and authority—is turning out to be highly productive. The scholarly process just needed some time to mature. As a result, Progressive Christians aren’t disregarding the Bible; they’re studying it even more diligently than their conservative counterparts, and they’re producing sparkling, challenging, inspiring theologies rooted in the Bible. Fueled by this renewed biblical engagement, they aren’t simply functioning as the religious chaplains of the Democratic party (as their counterparts have often been for the Republican party); they’re articulating a vital political theology and a vigorous theological politics that challenges everybody to seek the common good.
Right. Much of the “biblical scholarship” I’ve seen from progressive Christians has been directed at finding proof texts for their political views, as McLaren admits in his last sentence. And I dare him–I double dare him–to name for me one significant issue on which he both disagrees with the stance of the Democratic Party and has done any significant activist work.
Nor are the Progressive Christians I know proud. If they come from conservative backgrounds as I do, they’ve been beat up pretty bad on their way out and so they’re not interested in doing unto others as they have been done unto. And if they come from liberal backgrounds, they’ve seen the bankruptcy of certain forms of institutional, compromised, culturally accommodated faith. They’re not proud of where they are; they’re excited about where they’re going.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Progressives have “seen the bankruptcy of…culturally accommodated faith”! Of course they have! Their positions on abortion, on homosexual behavior, on economics, on multiculturalism, on foreign policy, etc. have absolutely nothing to do with cultural accommodation, or importing the culture’s stances on any of those matters. Why, the church has always supported an absolute right to choose to kill unborn children, if you read the sources just the right way. The church has always seen homosexual behavior as perfectly hunky-dory, especially if you torture the Bible to get it to give you the answer you want. Why did I see that all before?

And as for dying, I guess only time will tell. It is a moment of opportunity for Progressive Christianity, I’d say. My sense is that Evangelicalism is in a contraction process, playing to its right wing much the way the Republican party is. And Catholicism seems to be doing something similar, working for a “smaller, purer church” in which less diversity of thought and practice are permitted (at least in the short run; I know that Catholics are masters of the long view). And the historic black churches are often (not always) stuck with two unacceptable options—nostalgia for the Civil Rights era or wholesale sell-out to the Prosperity Gospel.

“Only time will tell.” Translation: I know what the numbers say about the decline of the mainline (i.e., “progressive”) churches over the last 45 years, and I know about the explosive growth in evangelicalism over that time, and I’ve even seen the figures that indicate that liberalism and infrequent or total non-participation in Mass go hand-in-hand in the Roman Catholic Church, but you know what? Those are just numbers! They don’t mean anything. I know that “progressive Christianity” is getting stronger and stronger, and smarter and smarter, and better liked by more and more people every day, or my name ain’t Stuart Smalley!

All that’s to say that the right kind of Progressive Christian movement could welcome thousands and thousands of Christians who don’t want to contract into more rigid conservatism, live in nostalgia, play the Prosperity Gospel game, keep sinking institutional ships afloat, and so on. But that will only happen if Progressive Christians can make it clear they aren’t simply yesterday’s warmed-over liberal Christians with a new label.

Good luck with that. Say hello to your fellow rats on-board the sinking ship for me.