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What Is Progressive Christianity? 9 Tendencies

What is progressive Christianity? Progressive Christianity is a rewriting of essential and important elements of biblical teachings to fit Western secular values. Progressives tend to pick groups they feel are the underdogs and then read the Bible through a lens of what will help people in those groups achieve self-actualization. For many evangelicals, progressivism feels new, fresh, and relevant. But it is actually a replay of old-line Protestant Liberalism. This matters, because Protestant liberalism is among the fastest dying religions in the world.

Some will be surprised to know that theological liberalism, with its broader vision of progressivism, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that it has fairly well-established canons. Indeed, some will be surprised to learn that progressivism is a peculiar historical movement, and not, as some seem to think, “just the way things are.” By going over the history of progressivism, including its most liberal forms, we will better understand what progressivism is, whence it came, and where it is going.

North American liberal progressivism sprang from a 19th century movement developed by aristocratic white pastors, poets, and academicians for the purpose of creating a civic religion that promoted Victorian virtues for the newly-formed republic of the United States.[1]

To be accessible to a broad range of white citizens, theological liberalism required Jesus to be more of an ethicist than the Son of God. It also required that reason and experience be given priority over divine revelation and Christian doctrine. Religious sentiment, social action, and political concerns soon eclipsed personal holiness and salvation from sin to become the defining concerns of the Christian faith. Progressivism became a religion all its own.


What is progressive Christianity? “Religious sentiment, social action, and political concerns soon eclipsed personal holiness and salvation from sin to become the defining concerns of the Christian faith.”


For theological progressives, humans were no longer regarded as corrupt and inherently sinful like they had been by the Calvinists before them. Rather, humans—especially the white, urban, and educated ones—were optimistically regarded as partly divine and fully capable of constructing their own republican paradise here on the North American continent. As a result of the demands of progressivism, many core orthodoxies of the Christian faith had to be redefined, downplayed, or even eliminated. Let’s look at some of the most critical ones.

1. Jesus’ divinity.

One of the first orthodoxies to fall was the fundamental Christian claim that Jesus is the divine Son of God. Unitarianism—the earliest institutional form of progressivism—required that Jesus be redefined from Son of God to mere role model for social reform. Because progressives believe that humans are inherently good, the cross is not needed, and Jesus doesn’t have to be “God incarnate.” Instead, for progressives Jesus is just a role model for living an ethical and just life.

From this assumption it follows, then, that the doctrine of the atoning death of Jesus is no longer comprehensible—if everybody’s okay, we don’t need to be rescued from sin. Many progressives find the Bible’s teachings on atonement utterly reprehensible. One of the hallmarks of today’s evangelical progressivism is a tendency to focus only on the human work of Jesus “the activist” or “the ethicist,” downplaying his divinity, if not totally denying it.


What is progressive Christianity? “…a tendency to focus only on the human work of Jesus ‘the activist’ or ‘the ethicist.'”


2. Scripture as final authority.

Progressives regarded the doctrine of the authority of Scripture as standing in the way of sensibility, experience, and reason, so Scripture had to be devalued. At first, Scripture was turned into poetry, but in the closing years of the 19th century, it was subject to acidic evaluations by American academicians who were glad to discover that German universities had deconstructed the Scriptures half a century earlier.

Biblical claims of miracles, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, were considered hopelessly linked to the prescientific worldviews of antiquity. Often, they were treated as quaint metaphors. At other times, they were simply dismissed. Evangelical progressives today accept the assumptions of old-line historic liberalism, namely, something cannot be true if we don’t feel that it’s true. So no authority—including the Bible—can be right if it contradicts our sensibilities. This explains why progressives continue publishing reinterpretations of the Bible.


What is progressive Christianity? “…no authority—including the Bible—can be right if it contradicts our sensibilities.”


3. Darwin and the Bible.

Darwinism, which hit the English-speaking world like a meteor, forced liberals to reconsider how they read the Bible. The creation account of Scripture could no longer be taken historically, and perhaps the entire Bible was more mythical than historical. Mythical, poetic, and even dismissive hermeneutics were developed by progressives for the purpose of updating biblical theology to bring it into line with the work of Darwin and other scientific enterprises for progressive purposes.

Many progressives exaggerated the differences between contemporary science and the biblical narrative. But such exaggerations actually demonstrate something of a bias among progressives. African Americans believe in science as much as white elites, but they are much more likely to believe that the Bible is the actual Word of God than general Protestants. Exaggerating the distance between the modern sciences and the Bible belittles the viewpoints of many African American Christians.[2]

4. Progress and human nature.

Biased toward the white Anglo-Saxon race, a number of progressives worked toward racial purity through eugenics, which was a liberal enterprise based on the conviction that white, English-speaking people are destined to civilize the whole world.[3] Eugenics sprang from an attempt to cleanse the human race of inferiors along the lines of Darwin’s natural selection.

Eugenics was not a conservative enterprise; it was a progressive one based on the belief that humanity can only achieve true progress if undesirables are prevented from reproducing. Even those liberals who did not advocate for eugenics found themselves having to reconsider the entire framework of anthropology—now believing that we humans are not the work of a creator God, but rather, of blind chance. The ability among progressives to adapt the Christian faith to the precepts of Darwin signaled refinement and sophistication. Progressives considered anyone who rejected Darwinianism as anti-scientific, backward, and fundamentalist.


What is progressive Christianity? “Progressives considered anyone who rejected Darwinianism as anti-scientific, backward, and fundamentalist.”


Evangelical progressives today pay homage to science—often opening sentences with the loose phrase “the science says.” But progressives are often the least scientific of Christians, as they tend to be blinded from simple facts by a utopian ideology. For example, there is no scientific question about when human life begins; it begins at conception. But there is an ideological question, and evangelical progressives tend to shut their eyes to science for the sake of ideology when the disgrace of abortion comes up. No blindness is as dark as the willful blindness of ideology.

5. The authority of the church.

In the face of the democratic and empirical spirit of North American progressives, the authority of creeds and ecclesiastical structures hardly stood a chance. Rather, theories of science, social theory, and political advocacy became authorities for progressives.

Downplaying the orthodox doctrine of the second coming of Christ, progressives began to interpret Christian eschatology with a post-millennial mindset—coming to believe that the very work that progressives were doing constituted the thousand year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20. In this view, progressives themselves are the coming messiahs. This eschatological view of progressivism fueled America’s political sense of Manifest Destiny: white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant virtues are destined to conquer the continent, and eventually, the farthest corners of the globe, as progressives build the kingdom of God here on earth.


What is progressive Christianity? “…largely ignoring personal sin and insisting, instead, upon political theories.”


Evangelical progressives today continue this heritage, largely ignoring personal sin and insisting, instead, upon political theories—sometimes with good results but often at the cost of neglecting the destructive bondage sin levels upon individual people. Systems may be broken, but they are broken because individuals are broken. Progressivism largely ignores this fundamental truth because insisting on personal accountability requires serious personal change on the part of individuals, and it feels judgmental. Advocating for social change requires very little personal change, but it feels very ethical.

6. Public policy as the gospel.

By adapting, liberal progressivism in the 20th century survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. Early on, progressives took on such social causes as prostitution, alcoholism, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and poverty, among others. Already a civic religion, progressivism depended heavily upon the government and other public institutions to achieve its goals. Massive reform movements and progressive projects joined forces with government to achieve what was perceived as a more just society, characterized by the 19th amendment, the passage and then repeal of prohibition, eugenics, labor reforms, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, abortion, gay rights, and the like. All were inspired by liberal progressivism’s desire to create a virtuous nation through public policy and civic religion.


What is progressive Christianity? “Early on, progressives took on such social causes as prostitution, alcoholism, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and poverty…then repeal of prohibition, eugenics, labor reforms, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, abortion, gay rights, and the like.”


One should applaud much of the social action of liberalism in the 20th century, as it provided correctives to a number of grave injustices—especially civil rights for women and African Americans. Indeed, it is only fair to point out that liberalism was, in the 20th century, sometimes more closely aligned with biblical Christianity than were biblical Christians themselves. But as with other movements, progressivism has overplayed its hand in the area of public policy, and often its issues are extreme and its proposals misguided or even harmful.

7. A bend toward Marxism.

Already suspicious of industrialism and capitalism, 19th-century liberals flirted with Marxism in the early and mid-20th century. Some theological liberals went as far as to fully embrace Marxism—in spite of Marx’s hostility toward religion. Such movements as liberation theology became popular among various theologians in Latin America and within North American universities. Most progressives did not become outright Marxists, but almost all progressives have fully adopted Marx’s view of history as warfare between the social classes.

Class warfare as identity politics has in fact become a defining characteristic of contemporary theological liberalism—dividing humanity into various social groups, then pitting them against each other in a supposed struggle for justice: blacks against whites, women against men, gays against straights, immigrants against citizens. Consistent with Marxist impulses, theological progressives always pick the side they perceive to be the underdog, relentlessly attacking its enemies and insisting that one must only “punch up” and never down. This explains why theological liberalism cannot bring itself to criticize various groups even when such groups exhibit very bad behavior. This also explains why progressivism is always searching for a new class of privileged people to topple—exempting only itself.[4]


What is progressive Christianity? “…theological progressives always pick the side they perceive to be the underdog, relentlessly attacking its enemies and insisting that one must only ‘punch up’ and never down.”


8. Salvation as self-actualization.

In the last half-century, theological progressivism has begun adapting American psychology to bolster its agenda. Since the highest personal good in much of American psychology is self-actualization, liberal progressivism seeks to aid people in the pursuit of self-acceptance and authenticity. The highest individual virtue among theological progressives is discovering who you feel you are and then having your feelings affirmed by those around you. Progressives are constantly changing to keep up with the latest experiences people have. It’s considered a sign of virtue among progressives to leave the door open for the next change (hence the plus sign in “LGBTQ+”).


What is progressive Christianity? “…The highest individual virtue among theological progressives is discovering who you feel you are and then having your feelings affirmed by those around you.”


9. The sexual revolution.

In the 1960s, the baby boomer generation started coming of age. A rebellious and self-indulgent generation, progressive baby boomers created the sexual revolution, turning generations of sexual ethics upside down. It had taken centuries for Westerners to create a just and loving system for managing human sexual appetites through the institution of Christian marriage, which teaches men that they cannot indulge their every sexual urge. In Christian marriage men must commit themselves to one woman for life and offer their bodies to their wives in an act of mutual honor and devotion.

The sexual revolution, fueled by both the birth control pill and the hippy ethic, taught both men and women that sex is merely a matter of pleasure, no commitment or love required. The damage done by progressivism’s sexual revolution is the greatest social injustice of our time—millions of lives have been permanently damaged by the sexual ethic of the left, as millions have been born and abandoned by parents moving on to new sexual and relational adventures. And this does not include the millions of lives cut short in the abhorrent practice of abortion. One cannot be sure where the next change in sexual ethics among progressives will lead, but even such practices as pederasty are now being given a hearing among those on the far left.


“The damage done by the sexual revolution is the greatest social injustice of our time—millions of lives have been permanently damaged by the sexual ethic of the left, as millions have been born and abandoned by parents moving on to new sexual and relational adventures.”


Commandeering Universities and Denominations

As early as the late 18th century, liberalism was taking over American universities—virtually all of which started out as orthodox Christian schools.[5] Like a long string of divorces, various reformers reacted to these liberal takeovers by founding new schools, only to discover their own schools had fallen under the spell of progressivism—from Harvard, to Yale, to Princeton, to Westminster, just to name a few.

By the middle and late 20th century, liberal progressivism had taken over not only many universities, but also the leadership of most mainline Protestant denominations. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Reformed churches, Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and even some Baptists found themselves bitterly divided between orthodox and progressive members and leaders. Most denominations split; some have split several times.

This article on progressive Christianity is an excerpt from David Young, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith (Renew.org, 2019). To check out the book, click here.


[1] Progressivism remains largely a white, middle and upper-class movement, even though it often embraces issues and concerns of non-white, non-aristocratic persons. The early founders of American theological progressivism were often overtly white racists—as were, of course, many of their evangelical counterparts. Indeed, the father of modern American theological liberalism, Horace Bushnell, argued that African Americans were so inferior to whites that they stood in the way of American progressive ideals (see Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology, vol. 1, [Louisville: John Knox Press, 2001], 128ff). Bushnell was also anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. White culture is native to theological progressivism, since progressivism is, at its heart, a civic religion engineered for an English population by white, East Coast gentry. So for example, the liberal PCUSA reported in 2005 that 97 percent of its membership is white. Compare that with evangelical churches, which report only 76 percent white membership (David Olson, The American Church in Crisis [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008], 160). The old slur WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) was originally used to describe progressives, not evangelicals.


What is progressive Christianity? “Progressivism remains largely a white, middle and upper-class movement, even though it often embraces issues and concerns of non-white, non-aristocratic persons.”


[2] See the recent Pew Research study that showed that African Americans have a considerably higher view of the Scriptures than white, elite Protestants. See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/07/blacks-more-likely-than-others-in-u-s-to-read-the-bible-regularly-see-it-as-gods-word/, accessed December 23, 2018.

[3] See Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, vol. 1, 318ff.

[4] I say “exempting only themselves” not to be mean-spirited or cynical. All of us are probably hypocritical at some level, but in my experience, progressives sometimes take hypocrisy to new levels: building walls around their homes while protesting the building of border walls; flying first-class while railing against fossil fuels; buying every new gadget while calling for the dismantling of free markets; arguing for increased funding for public education while sending their children to elite private schools, etc.

[5] See also Jon H. Roberts and James Turner, The Sacred and the Secular University, The William G. Bowen Memorial Series in Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

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