Mainstream Christianity QUESTION

Arthur, in his response to my post last week about Christian yoga, asked me to “look at how mainstream Christians can get attention (and differentiation) when overshadowed by the loud—and often flaky…fundamentalists.” I’d love to, but I can’t, and I’ll tell you why.

During one of the debates during the 2004 Presidential campaign, the candidates were each asked about their faith stance. George W. Bush gave his standard response about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. John Kerry gave what I thought was a fine answer about how his Roman Catholic faith compelled him to respond to the social gospel, i.e., to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, et al. But after the debates, more than a few pundits suggested that Kerry had somehow evaded the question. And, according to that PBS series God in America, that I keep recommending, Kerry himself concluded that he had “blown it” on the religion issue.

So the junior senator from Illinois was out making speeches in 2005 and 2006, touting his religious conversation, from someone of not much faith, rather like his mother, to someone who had found Jesus. Then when he decided to run for President, you would think that this would have put him in good stead with that crowd. But the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy muddied the waters, and his absence from regular church attendance since he was elected President helped the “Muslim” thing stick.

Much of the media, particularly in the early part of this century, helped establish the narrative that the fundamentalists were the “values voters”, which truly infuriated me. I have values; I vote. How did the term get so co-opted?

Part of the problem with the liberal/progressive church is the problem with liberals in general. Some people have suggested that we condemn this one or that, but unless it’s a real outlier (Rev. Terry Jones, the would-be Koran burner), it is generally disinclined to criticize. “That’s not we believe, but you’re entitled to your views.”

And let’s face it: fundamentalism is just plain simpler. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God and every word is factually true vs. the Bible is not a history book, and that God gave us reason, intellect, tradition to discern what God is saying to us in these times. Now what’s easier to explain, a black-and-white philosophy or nuance? And as this article suggests, the fundamentalists work harder because they have, historically, been outsiders.

But hey, maybe you folks out there have a better idea. How DOES the mainstream church better present its message of tolerance so that it is isn’t drowned out by some yahoos who suggest, e.g., that the Haitian earthquake, or Katrina or 9/11 is God’s punishment?

0 thoughts on “Mainstream Christianity QUESTION”

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  3. You’re quite correct in observing that Fundamentalists – and I think this is true of Conservatives to large measure – ‘don’t do nuance.’ “Rules” are hard and fast, problems are black-or-white, either/or. For a Liberal, the truthful answer is often “It depends,” and that is viewed as a wishy-washy, fence sitting cop out.


  4. Thanks for taking that on, Roger. You summed up the problem better than I could, and you described my experience, too. Raised in a liberal (by current standards, anyway) Protestant church, we were taught that the bible was “the inspired word of God” and not a literal dictation as the fundamentalists believed.

    I think that what liberals—in religion or politics—don’t seem to get is that their “that’s not we believe, but you’re entitled to your views” attitude, while noble, isn’t even remotely shared by the right, who seek to impose their beliefs on everyone else by codifying them into law, making dissent impossible.

    You asked about how conservatives became “values voters” when liberals have values, too. Part of it is newsmedia laziness—a shorthand phrase to describe groups of people is easier than a offering a fuller description. But in their defence, the rightwing are the modern masters of propaganda and have been able to frame pretty much any issue you can think of in their terms. So, since they see themselves as “upholding traditional values” they become “values voters”. At the same time, liberals have been reluctant to talk about their own values.

    Part of the solution, I think, is for liberals and progressives to take back those terms—to describe their own values using similar terminology to the right. If successful, it’ll take away the right’s arrogant presumption of sole authority. The same is true on the secular political side: Liberals need to talk about values, too, so that the right isn’t seen by default as being the only folks who have them.

    As I see it, the real objective is promoting what we’ve always believed, that “that’s not we believe, but you’re entitled to your views” attitude. I believe that the only way to do that is by providing alternative views so that we can all have the freedom to have and express the views we do.


    1. I come back to wondering, though, why John Kerry’s Biblically-based response was not acceptable. OK, I know it was all about abortion. But to the degree I’m willing to encapsule my faith, and I find it far too limiting, the notion of feeding the hungry – and Jesus said that when you are feeding the hungry, you are feeding Him – is a core doctrine.
      In a sermon this month, someone was noting that there are those who work really hard at trying to make sure that someone getting a free (non-tax-payer paid) meal on Thanksgiving isn’t getting two of them, as though the greater horror isn’t the poverty and despair that got that person there.


  5. takes the Words of Our God of Torah *LITERALLY* 9:14 And it shall come to pass when I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the cloud that I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.


  6. I remember hearing a sermon by Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York city, wherein he identified two basic postures churches tend to take toward culture; I believe he termed them chaplaincy and sectarianism. In the first, you have the stance that is accommodating toward culture, and in the last you have a withdrawal from culture. Neither of them, he states, embodies the biblical idea of being in the world but not of it. The first he says finds legitimation by taking its cues from the cultural elites and adopting it, and the latter finds legitimation by rejecting the dominant culture all together, and withdrawing into a religious ghetto. Neither of these approaches requires risk or transformative engagement. I tend to think of liberal/progressive Christianity as that form which becomes too accommodating, and fundamentalism as that form that withdrawals, and I am constantly looking for a third way.

    I mention all this because it seems to me that since mainline/progressive Christianity mirrors the values of that part of the culture that is liberal in its politics it doesn’t provide much that is provocative. Likewise, just as much of Evangelical Christianity mirrors values of that part of our culture that is conservative, it doesn’t have a voice that prophetically stands out. (Actually, Evangelicalism is kind of weird because it capitulates to conservatism in one aspect, and withdrawals from culture in another aspect.) Related to this, I think the media feeds on generating controversy, which is certainly what you get with strident fundamentalist voices, and this is why they are featured more regularly than the more calm, reasonable voice of a progressive believer.

    When you asked how the mainstream church can better spread its message of tolerance, at risk of being a jerk, the first thing I thought was that the message of tolerance is the dominant message of our culture. Practically everywhere I have taught (Christian liberal arts college, state college, high school for at-risk-youth) I heard “don’t judge” “don’t be a hater” “we’re all entitled to our beliefs and opinions” to the degree that it’s almost a reflexive mantra. The thing is, I don’t think tolerance is the central, or most provocative idea of the Christian faith. Certainly, inclusion is part of the Christian message, but inclusion must be understood within the context of Jesus’ redeeming work, which I would assert is the center.

    I realize that my last assertion could use some elaboration, but not including this paragraph, I have already written three paragraphs, and this is only a comment.


  7. I’m first to admit I’m more conservative than some, but not as much as others. So I’ve labeled myself as a conservatal…or liberative…take your pick. I believe it’s misguided to think all 66 books are to be taken literally. Within the covers of the bible, there is poetry, allegory, history, biography, gospel (combination of biography and history…or Hellenistic history), apocalyptic literature and prophesy. The book simply cannot be read the same from beginning to end. Plus, there’s context. You can’t read something that was meant for ancient cultures with the same literalism as current day. The themes and central message are consistent throughout the ages, but we can’t force the book to conform literally to our limited space and time expectations.


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