August 2, 2016

Progressive Politics, Progressive Religion

Years ago, I was at an interfaith meeting with influential religious leaders from across San Diego county. Something stood out to me as the meeting went on. The Christian voices in the room, mostly mainline Protestant, were the least compelling of all traditions.

I took note of this and watched them over the next few years at public gatherings. I would watch rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders speak in compelling ways about their faith–how it convicted them and informed them about standing up for whatever issue of justice was addressed. Then a Christian priest or pastor would stand up. If my eyes had been closed, I would have no idea what tradition they came from. I wouldn't have known that they had committed themselves to the way of Jesus. There was little to nothing that was compelling about their speech. Just spiritual gibberish. If I had been a spiritual seeking person, I would not want to be a Christian. There was nothing compelling about that voice. Buddhist? Rastafarian? Maybe.

The trend, both nationally and globally, towards more progressive expressions of faith is welcome, in my opinion. But it seems important to point out:

1) This is not the first time this has happened. Learn from history.

2) This does not mean that progressive faith communities can automatically expect health and growth. You still have to do the work of building a community. Which are you building capacity for? The social movement or the spiritual or both? The mechanics of social and spiritual movements have historically had very little difference between them–for example, notice the similarities between Saul Alinsky's (social) and John Wesley's (spiritual) organizing tactics.

3) But this does mean that progressive faith communities ought to be wary that acceptance from political power players will result in pressure to dilute and generalize the convictions that brought you to where you are. That too has happened in the past. Politics have always used religion. Read your Bible. You don't think King Saul and King David both used religion to get what they needed politically? Progressive Christians ought to continue to be more than the chaplain of the Democratic party. Continue being prophets.

Wider influence does not need to equate an increasingly generic message. That's a choice you make.