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Theology

Evangelical Christians can be Liberals, too

By Rev. CHRIS EMERSON

THE 2004 election was a war of words. Take the word, “evangelical.” Campaign strategists in both parties used “evangelical” as a tool for uniting their constituency against the other party. They created the fiction that evangelicals are a united bloc, a monolith of identical religious convictions, friendly territory for Republicans, hostile territory for Democrats. Complicit in this convenient fiction were the media, always happy to lump people together under one label.

The forgotten truth is that not all Christian evangelicals are conservatives or Bush supporters. Not all belong to churches with contemporary worship styles. Not all are uneducated dupes in flyover country, as many coastal liberals imagine.

A significant minority of evangelicals supported Kerry. Many on both religious extremes are highly educated and sophisticated. Many are social liberals. Some evangelicals are radicals with a passion for the Gospel which impels them to make it real through aggressive community activism.

Evangelicals are a diverse lot, spanning the spectrum, and some of us are called progressive evangelicals. We are evangelical because our spiritual and moral grounding is firm in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but our eager application of that glorious Word to modern life is more flexible and responsive than our conservative cousins. We are progressive because we believe in an interactive, open engagement with a changing world.

It’s not hard to find progressive evangelicals.

Exhibit A: “Sojourners” is a fellowship and a magazine that for many years has preached radical discipleship, aggressive social action, spiritual renewal and bridge-building community reconciliation, all based on a strong evangelical faith in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

Exhibit B: Tony Campolo, a self-described progressive evangelical, has just published a book called “Speaking My Mind: The Radical Evangelical Prophet Tackles the Tough Issues Christians Are Afraid to Face.” As he said in a recent interview, “There’s a difference between evangelical and being a part of the Religious Right.”

Exhibit C: Ron Sider is a progressive evangelical whose passion for the poor and disgust with ‘litmus test” Christianity has been eloquently sounded for decades. Building on the Hebrew prophets and Jesus’ own engagement with the poor, Sider worries about Christians whose faith is being increasingly politicized by the right.

Exhibit D: Tom Sine, a professor at fundamentalist Fuller Theological Seminary, also calls himself a progressive evangelical. Using terms like “radical Christian generosity,” he takes a Biblical view of social responsibility in housing. “The call to follow Christ is first and foremost a call to whole-life discipleship in which all of life’s decisions, including how we house ourselves, are discipleship decisions,” he writes.

Exhibit E: Earlham School of Religion, in the Quaker tradition, holds that “The term ‘progressive evangelical’ refers to persons who maintain traditional Christian doctrines but who are open to learning with and from persons who have different points of view.”

Exhibit F: In a few days the American Academy of Religion will meet in San Antonio. A paper will be presented by Brantley Gastaway of the University of North Carolina, subtitled “The Progressive Evangelical Critique of the Bush Administration.” The abstract says, “This paper demonstrates how the indivisible commitment of progressive evangelicals to both social justice and personal faith shapes their political engagement and distances them from conservative public expressions of evangelicalism.”

Exhibit G: Me. I am a progressive evangelical, which for me means that I am passionately devoted to Jesus Christ as the walking, talking God and feel compelled to share and show his spirit to this aching world. I equally believe Jesus calls us to build bridges not divisions, to exercise magnanimity in our relations with those who differ, to be open to learning from others and to be patient and humble in letting God guide my steps.

A radical centrist and a passionate proponent of the free church, I am intrigued and disgusted by the shrill voices from the left and the bombast from the right. I am worried by the widening culture war which bodes poorly for us all. I particularly deplore how the media has declared that all Christian evangelicals are conservative and that no liberal can be Christian.

Every Christian church worth its salt must be evangelical, both to survive and to serve Christ, but we progressive evangelicals will not allow ourselves to be painted red or blue by the media. We are progressive, forging new alliances with other faiths, resisting the juggernaut of conservative evangelicalism, drawing on the greatest model of spiritual magnanimity and global embrace, Jesus himself.

The Rev. Chris Emerson is pastor of the First Congregational Church in Manchester.

http://www.theunionleader.com/articles_showfast.html?article=47080

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