Renegotiating Christian Identity
According to popular stereotypes, there are two kinds of Christians in America. The first is the liberal Christian. The liberal Christian is a member of a mainline Protestant denomination. He goes to church every Sunday morning because it is what nice people do, but is not overly concerned with salvation or evangelism. He believes that God just wants him to be a good person. The liberal Christian thinks that, as a Christian, he is to take care of the poor, be kind to strangers, and stay out of other people’s business. The conservative Christian is a more forceful character. He wants to know whether you have been saved. He cares about “family values,” by which he means the prohibition of abortion and same-sex marriage, and he probably lives in a Bible belt state. He issues dire threats of damnation and wrath, which will fall upon liberal Protestants, secular humanists, feminists, and ACLU members, not to mention Muslims. The conservative Christian always votes Republican.
While these images are gross stereotypes, they are stereotypes which hold much cultural currency. Most American Protestants know which stereotype applies to them – the sociologist Robert Wuthnow cites a study which asked Americans to classify themselves as religious conservatives or religious liberals. Wuthnow notes that “only one person in six was unable or unwilling to use these labels.”1 These stereotypes speak to an active conflict in American religion which is one aspect of the “culture war.” Although liberal and conservative Christians recognize stereotypes of themselves as inaccurate, they stereotype the other side in ways that suggest a genuine fear for the future of America. Liberal Christians fear an America dominated by religious homogeneity and intolerance, where the government ignores science and dictates what constitutes morality. Conversely, conservative Christians fear an America dominated by secularism and anti-religious sentiments, where it is impossible to raise faithful children or to be taken seriously as a Christian.
Liberal and conservative Christianity are categories which emerge from the culture war framework of diametric opposition. They are reinforced by polemical religious texts which construct the groups in monolithic terms. Yet there is a significant problem with the culture war as a framework: while, as Wuthnow notes, most Americans can identify with one side or the other, sociological research indicates that neither side holds views as consistent as polemical religious texts claim. American Protestants identify with one group or the other, yet these groups are more multivocal than monolithic. There are liberal Christians who oppose abortion and conservative Christians who oppose the Iraq war; each group contains a range of theological, political, and social views, in contrast to polemical texts’ implications of homogeneity within each group.
After conducting interviews with evangelicals, Christian Smith concludes that “we should not assume that all conservative Protestants are alike socially and politically.”2 He notes that ten percent of the evangelicals he interviewed said that “America was never a Christian nation.” In a 1997 study, Charles Hall surveyed members of conservative and liberal Christian organizations on a variety of political issues. His findings show that members of these organizations tend to align with the standard political views attributed to conservative and liberal Christianity, but with a considerable amount of dissent; 13% of respondents from the Christian left believed that abortion should be “never permitted for any reason,” while 19% of Christian right respondents held the same view.3 Of course, more conservatives than liberals believe that there should be no abortion whatsoever, but the numbers are surprising for both sides – the constructions of Christian identity assume that the figures are closer to 0% and 100%.
Findings such as Hall’s and Smith’s point to a little-acknowledged fact: Protestantism in America does not consist of two polarized, homogeneous groups; these two groups do exist insofar as most Protestants identify with one of them, but they are largely a construction. The reality is that there are far more moderate Christians than there are Bible-thumping fundamentalists or tree-hugging Unitarians. Christian writers such as Anne Lamott, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis illuminate this disconnect between the monolithic categories and the more complicated reality as they try to articulate their own religious identities and to critique the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity.
In order to have the authority to speak, writers must first clearly position themselves within their own religious group before they can critique it, demonstrating that they are truly members of liberal or conservative Christianity despite the fact that they disagree with some liberal or conservative Christian ideas. This is true of authors Anne Lamott and Tony Campolo, who position themselves within their respective traditions, yet struggle with totalizing constructions of Christian identity. Understanding how these authors question and redefine conservative and liberal Christianity illuminates how the political-theological-social categories of liberal and conservative Christianity operate, and where they break down in individual Christians’ religious identity.
I term authors like Anne Lamott and Tony Campolo “bridge builders” because of their efforts to create a less hostile dynamic between the two groups while still positioning themselves as liberal and conservative Christians, respectively. Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren instead reject the dichotomy between liberal and conservative Christianity in favor of an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian identity. These authors contrast with Lamott and Campolo, demonstrating the difficulty of constructing a Christian identity outside the mainstream discourse. Wallis and McLaren must craft a new way of speaking about Christianity in relation to contemporary issues, as even the language around religion and politics is culturally coded around the two categories of Christian identity that they attempt to defy.
Anne Lamott: “Are You Born Again?”
Anne Lamott’s efforts to define her faith offer insight into how the dominant discourse governs articulations of religious identity. Lamott’s religious identity is somewhat complicated; Lamott grew up secular, but converted to Christianity and became a writer, dealing with religion among other topics in her novels and personal essays. 4 Lamott aligns with many of the political, social, and theological aspects of liberal Christianity throughout her work.5 However, as a Christian who strongly identifies with the experience of being “born again” via a dramatic conversion, Lamott struggles to articulate her identity in a way that values her conversion experience without all the attendant implications of conservative Christianity. This struggle points to the complicated nature of articulating Christian identity in a cultural context that reduces Protestant Christianity to two totalizing categories. Lamott’s experience does not fit in with popular constructions of liberal Christianity, which complicates her attempts to articulate her identity.
Lamott’s essay “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” from her volume of essays Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith describes a turbulent airplane ride next to a conservative Christian. In the essay, Lamott notices that the man next to her is reading a Christian novel about the apocalypse which she describes as “hard-core right-wing paranoid anti-Semitic homophobic misogynistic propaganda.” She then describes her exchange with him: “‘Are you born again?’ he asked, as we taxied down the runway. . . . I did not know how to answer for a moment.” Lamott answers that she is born again, but underscores to the reader that the man is a very different sort of Christian than she is. She describes her thoughts about how to articulate her identity as a Christian with a powerful conversion experience but a liberal political, theological, and social outlook. Lamott describes her struggle this way:
[My friends] think I am Christian-ish. But I’m not. I’m just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation-theology enthusiast and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusy bon vivant. But it’s not true. . . . I am a believer, a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car. . .
This passage illuminates how the cultural coding of the term “born-again” inhibits Lamott’s attempts to articulate her religious identity. As a liberal, she is uncomfortable with the cultural connotations of the term “born-again Christian,” hence the temptation to present herself as a “vaguely Jesusy bon vivant.” The implications of this term, which Lamott finds more appealing than “born again Christian,” are more acceptable to her liberal sensibilities: it suggests a passion for social justice, an interest in the historical Jesus, perhaps even a spiritual sensibility, rather than the connotations of intolerance and exclusion which she and her friends associate with the label “born-again Christian.”
Lamott’s problem is that the cultural coding of the term “born-again Christian” makes it difficult for her to articulate her religious identity, since she identifies with the literal meaning of the term but not its coded connotations. As Lamott sees it, the fact is that she has had a personal encounter with Christ, accepting him as her savior. Liberal or not, she implies, this constitutes the experience of being “born again,” regardless of the cumbersome connotations this label carries. Despite her distaste for the man next to her, Lamott feels that it would be dishonest not to admit that she shares this aspect of her identity with him. At the same time, she is acutely aware that this label does not mean to him the same thing that it means to her – Lamott sees herself as accepting one element of the theological-political-social package of conservative Christianity. However, by giving an affirmative answer to the question “Are you born again?” she fears she has indicated to him that she accepts it all. “I knew,” says Lamott, “that he was telepathically on to me, could see that I was the enemy, that I will be on the same curling team in heaven as Tom Hayden and Vanessa Redgrave.” Thus, while Lamott would be lying if she did not agree that she was born again, she still feels as if she has lied because she knows that the man’s question was really meant to gauge not just her status with respect to Christ, but also her political and social views. In addition, Lamott claims that if the man knew her true identity, he would see her as “the enemy,” a label which recognizes the power of the polarizing opposition between liberal and conservative Christianity. Lamott’s essay, with its depiction of her struggle to truthfully answer this culturally coded question, illuminates the difficulty of articulating a religious identity which does not conform entirely to either of the two polarized theological-political-social categories.
Tony Campolo: Breaking the Conservative Christian “Cookie-Cutter”
In Speaking My Mind, Tony Campolo engages in a broad-spectrum critique of theological, social, and political aspects of conservative Christianity. In order to support an argument so transgressive of the dominant construction of conservative Christianity, he both makes certain to clarify why he continues to identify as an evangelical and uses a wide range of methods to defend his critiques. Campolo claims that:
There is a common perception among those outside our community of faith that we evangelicals are clones, and that when they have spoken with one of us they have spoken with us all. Too often they see us as people who have a single way of thinking and talking. Recently, I heard someone refer to evangelicals as “cookie-cutter Christians.” To be credible, we must demonstrate that we are a body of individuals, each of whom can think for herself or himself. . .
Campolo states that his book is an “attempt” at such a demonstration. This argument rejects a premise of the culture war framework: Campolo says that in order to be “credible,” conservative Christians must break away from the monolithic category and demonstrate that their community is one of thinking, debating individuals; conforming to the category, he argues, is actually detrimental to conservative Christianity. He is then able to construct the book as an attempt to solve this problem, expressing opinions which vary from the “cookie-cutter” while simultaneously reinforcing himself as a member of the conservative Christian community. By so doing, he attempts to demonstrate that there is room within conservative Christianity for diverse opinions on the issues he tackles. However, in order to achieve this goal, Campolo cannot simply question common conservative Christian positions and doctrines. It is also necessary for him to position and defend his identity as a conservative Christian.
Campolo uses several strategies to defend his identification with conservative Christianity. First, he defends his identity through describing his theology and aims. In his first pages, Campolo characterizes himself as “a detective . . . someone who works hard trying to ferret out the truth about what God is doing in the church and the world.” Despite the fact that he is questioning many of the positions and doctrines of conservative Christianity, however, “this one thing I do know, in accord with the apostle Paul, and that is Jesus Christ – crucified, risen, and coming again. The more I feel the certainty of who He is and what He did for me, the more I love him.” Here, Campolo asserts his identity as an evangelical Christian. The thing of which he is absolutely certain, the belief which he takes most seriously, is the core tenet of evangelicalism, a personal salvific relationship with Christ. This places him squarely within conservative Christianity, making it possible for him to express ideas that question conservative Christian thought, since these ideas are simply exploration and experimentation.
Second, Campolo defends his identity through the authority of biblical texts and the support of anonymous fellow conservative Christians. Campolo supports his assertions with biblical citations and arguments. He buttresses his alternate interpretations by citing the support of anonymous evangelical clergy who are afraid to risk their reputations by expressing the ideas he is advocating. Campolo writes:
I do not want you, the reader, to get the idea that I hatched the ideas that follow in isolation. I have discussed just about everything in this book with other Christian thinkers, some of whom are very well known in the evangelical community. . . . To my surprise, when I shared what I was thinking with these fellow evangelicals, I found much more agreement than I expected. Over and over again I heard words such as “I wish I could say those things, but it would be far too risky. I have a ministry to protect, and my ministry would lose the support of a lot of people – but I am glad that you are willing to step out there and say them.”
Here Campolo suggests that while his views question common conservative Christian positions, they are credible because they are supported by other Christian thinkers. The only reason they are not more widely voiced, he says, is because other conservative Christians are afraid of the consequences of unorthodoxy. Campolo asserts his identity as a conservative Christian and the compatibility of his views with conservative Christianity while suggesting that the construction of conservative Christian identity is problematic because it leaves dissenters unable to express their views.
Finally, Campolo positions himself as a conservative Christian by critiquing the institutions of liberal Christianity as ineffective and antiquated. This criticism is centered in the first chapter, “Whatever Happened to Mainline Denominations?” which points to a number of factors in the decreasing membership and vitality of mainline Protestant denominations. Campolo holds that mainline denominations have lost their vibrancy by focusing on a message of social ethics and neglecting the personal, transformative aspects of Christianity. He also points to the liberalism of the mainline Protestant clergy in comparison to the congregations of these denominations to suggest that parishioners are politically uncomfortable within these churches and suggests that liberal Christianity relies on socialization rather than conversion into the church, de-emphasizing evangelism. By making these critiques of mainline denominations, Campolo positions himself in opposition to liberal Christianity, fortifying his identity as a conservative Christian. He opens the book with an explanation of why liberal Christianity can only become viable by becoming more like conservative Christianity; thus, he implies, since the other side is hopeless, his only real choice is an attempt to reform conservative Christian thought. Hence, Campolo positions himself within the conservative Christian community before going on to critique its dominant views on political, social, and theological issues.
Campolo offers a wide-ranging critique of dominant conservative Christian political and theological views on topics from homosexuality to war to Islam. He characterizes his efforts as:
persuading both inquiring minds outside our faith, and shaky believers within our ranks, that being an evangelical need not involve rigidity in thinking or a refusal to venture into unknown intellectual territories. . . . What I have to say should not be taken as some kind of summa theologica, but rather as a challenge to my sisters and brothers to be willing, for the sake of eternal truth, to endure the heat that will come from those in our evangelical community who think the most important thing in life is to play it safe.
Here, Campolo states that his purpose is not to shift conservative Christianity from one strict alignment of theological, political, and social views to another. Rather, it is to change the dynamics of conservative Christianity to be more accepting of debate and dissent.
Campolo begins his chapter “Is Evangelicalism Sexist?” by describing the criticism he received for publicly declaring that the Southern Baptist’s Convention’s decision to cease ordaining women was “evil.” Campolo asserts that, given the centrality of the vocation of preaching to his own identity, “to these women, it means the destruction of who they are as persons. That’s why I call it evil when a denomination wipes out the ordination of women.” Campolo goes on to outline a defense for women’s equality both in ministry and in marriage. His argument takes an extremely wide-ranging strategy. Arguing from theology, Christology, exegesis, scriptural translation, and personal experience, Campolo constructs a multifaceted argument in order to make an overwhelming case for reconsidering conservative Christian views on gender. Analogizing sexism to slavery and racism, Campolo argues that it is a “principality and power,” a force that works for evil without conscious wrongdoing by anyone involved. Campolo then reinterprets the scriptural passages which are often used to defend the subordination of women. In order to do this, he points out adjacent and analogous passages that conservative Christians typically interpret figuratively, such as Paul’s directive that women refrain from wearing jewelry and braided hair. His argument is that conservative Christians do not interpret every Bible passage on women literally, and therefore their decision to interpret the passages about subordination of women literally is due not to hermeneutics, but to social context. Campolo then moves from exegesis to personal narrative, describing his mother, who was gifted in storytelling and communication. Often, he says, she told the story of almost running away to join an evangelical sect, the Pillar of Fire Mission.
One day I asked my mother what was so special about the Pillar of Fire Mission, and she told me, ‘They let women be preachers.’ Then it dawned on me: my mother not only had the gift for preaching, but also had a sense of calling. Evil was the ecclesiastical ruling that kept her from living out that calling, and poorer was the church that was deprived of her extraordinary gifts.
Campolo then points to the crucial roles women played in the early church and subsequently turns briefly to the double-bind in which feminist evangelicals find themselves. Finally, Campolo offers his own theory of how Christians should understand gender as equal, but counterbalancing. Over the course of his chapter on sexism in conservative Christianity, Campolo makes at least twelve separate arguments. In order to critique evangelical views, then, Campolo not only feels it necessary to clearly and repeatedly situate himself in the conservative Christian community, but also to take as many angles as possible in each argument in an attempt to gain credibility for his critique of elements of conservative Christian identity.
Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren: Transcending the Culture-War Dichotomy
The previous writers have been bridge builders, standing on one side or the other of the “chasm” in American Protestantism and creating structures that figuratively bridge the gap.6 However, theirs is not the only approach for questioning the dichotomy of the culture war. Unlike Lamott and Campolo, some writers refuse to identify exclusively and primarily with either liberal or conservative Christianity. Rather, they argue that these two categories and the chasm between them are flawed. These Christians, including writers Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren, make a case for an overarching, unifying vision of Christianity which transcends the culture-war dichotomy. This is a particularly challenging project because discourse around American Protestantism is culturally coded to reflect opposition between liberal and conservative Christianity. Like many of the bridge-building authors, Wallis and McLaren must work to prove their theological legitimacy in order to credibly question the dominant categories of Christian identity. These two authors construct a new rhetoric and co-opt pre-existing terms in order to transcend the divide between liberal and conservative.
McLaren objects to the culture-war dichotomy (as well as to other schisms in Christianity), and begins to articulate his objections and to lay out a theology that transcends schism through the title of his book, entitled A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. McLaren writes that his project is “to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts.”7 McLaren elaborates on each of the terms in his subtitle, employing a multidisciplinary approach that draws on history, theology, and literature to explain the merits and drawbacks of each of the movements and approaches he is incorporating into his “generous orthodoxy.” McLaren explains the term “generous orthodoxy” by tentatively defining orthodoxy as “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” This definition suggests why orthodoxy should be “generous” – while previous orthodoxies have been strict and unyielding, the new orthodoxy must be generous because only God knows the real truth; therefore, Christians should be receptive to truths that other Christians have discovered.
In Jim Wallis’s book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It: A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America, Wallis’s project is to lay out not a new Christian approach to theology, but a new Christian approach to politics 8 which supersedes the boundaries between conservative and liberal Christianity. In a project with overtones similar to McLaren’s, Wallis notes that “Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices – saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, . . . we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.” Wallis then sets out to articulate what he calls “God’s politics,” an approach to politics which does not align with either political party, but rather with the values and issues that seem to be most important in the Bible as he interprets it. He says:
God’s politics is . . . never partisan or ideological. But it challenges everything about our politics. God’s politics reminds us of the people our politics always neglects – the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenges narrow national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics reminds us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics pleads with us to resolve the inevitable conflicts among us . . . without the terrible cost and consequences of war. God’s politics always reminds us of the ancient prophetic prescription to “choose life, so that you and your children may live,” and challenges all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.
Wallis’s assertion that “God’s politics” are not “partisan or ideological” necessarily implies that the partisan politics of liberal and conservative Christianity cannot be God’s politics. Wallis’s description of God’s politics requests that the reader reimagine political engagement based not on existing theological-political-social categories, but rather on a set of issues that Wallis sees as God’s priorities: “the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind,” “creation itself,” peace, and “life.” Wallis constructs these priorities in biblical, rather than political, terms and employs language that does not reflect either side of the culture-war dichotomy. These moves serve his goal of imagining a politics which “challenges everything about our politics.” Although the projects of these two books are different in that Wallis’s project is a new vision for Christian political engagement and McLaren’s is a new vision for Christian belief and religious engagement, they share many of the same rhetorical techniques and political and religious implications.
Both McLaren and Wallis struggle to overcome the divisive implications of the language used in discussions of American Protestantism. In order to do this, they invent language in order to find a new way to speak about Christianity. Both use the titles of their books to introduce a new term, with McLaren referring back to “generous orthodoxy” as a concept and Wallis elaborating on “God’s politics.” At the same time, both authors attempt not to create yet another divisive term. In his introduction, McLaren speaks to the purpose of his paragraph-long title, saying:
The subtitle of this book creates a term so awkward and confusing that it’s certain not to catch on. Which is a good thing, because what we need is not new sectarian terminology or new jargon or a new elitist clique, but rather a humble rediscovery of the simple, mysterious way of Jesus that can be embraced across the whole Christian horizon (and beyond).
Unlike McLaren, Wallis is not afraid that usable terminology will cause further division. However, he allows for some difference of opinion about what it means to practice God’s politics. One of the seminal documents of his movement states, “we call Christians and other people of faith to a more thoughtful involvement in this election, rather than claiming God’s endorsement of any candidate. This is the meaning of responsible Christian citizenship.” By defining God’s politics as a way of thoughtfully considering questions about how to apply biblical texts to contemporary American politics, rather than as a particular way to vote, Wallis allows flexibility in the term which creates room for diversity of opinions among those who attempt to practice God’s politics, and therefore helps prevent his movement from creating more factions within Christianity.
Both authors critique the polarization of American religion, with McLaren focusing on the culture-war dichotomy’s theological aspects, while Wallis focuses on its political aspects. McLaren’s chapter “Why I am Liberal/Conservative” assesses liberal and conservative Christianity from his “generous orthodoxy” point of view. He gives a history of liberal and conservative Protestantism, interpreting the schism as a product of the reformation. He argues that they constitute two different schools of thought on interpreting the Bible and resolving differences in interpretation. The conservative position is to respond to questions about Christianity with absolute adherence to the literal truth of the Bible. When asked about ambiguities in the Bible, he says, a conservative Christian would respond this way:
Never, ever ask this kind of question. The Bible is the ultimate authority, and [one] is qualified to seek to understand it and interpret it (but not question it) using standard principles of interpretation, and that settles it. There are no contradictions in it, and it is absolutely true and without error in all it says. Give up these assertions, and you’re on a slippery slope to losing your whole faith.
Here, McLaren echoes liberal critiques of conservative Christianity, critiques which claim conservative Christianity is rigid and intolerant. McLaren sees conservative Christianity as rejecting curiosity, interpreting it as disrespect for the authority of the Bible. On the other hand, he sees liberals as having the opposite problem, erring to far on the side of questioning the Bible:
When the Bible’s trustworthiness was questioned, then the divinity, resurrection, and existence of Jesus were questioned; even the existence of God was suspect. What was left to believe in? . . . Had Christianity become a wrapper with no contents . . . ? What happens when the methodology of free inquiry that unleashed your movement now turns on your movement and threatens to suck the life out of it?
This passage constitutes a nod to conservative critiques of liberal Christianity, critiques which claim that liberal Christianity is religion without content. McLaren goes on to describe how the polarization of liberals and conservatives occurred and to detail the problem with this polarization. The problem, McLaren says, is that each side, upon encountering the kind of critiques articulated above, responded not by fixing its own problems, but by denigrating its opposition. The polarization of American Protestantism occurred because each side “compared their own best to their counterpart’s worst,” valorizing themselves by looking at the worst aspects of the other side. However, McLaren sees the central ideas of each side as both valuable and reconcilable. A “generous orthodoxy,” he says, will take the best from both sides; he points specifically to liberal Christianity’s social conscience and to conservative Christianity’s achievements in evangelism.
McLaren’s argument suggests that attempts to resolve the polarization of American Protestantism must articulate a clear critique of this polarization. Because a baseline assumption of the dominant discourse around American Protestantism is that there are two ways of being Protestant, McLaren must begin by arguing that neither of these options is satisfactory. He is then able to articulate a way to deal with this split. If his response is to reject the existing categories, he has little choice but to critique them, regardless of the generosity of his orthodoxy. Thus, McLaren needs to engage with (and, to some degree, endorse) the critiques of conservative Christianity as harsh and unyielding and liberal Christianity as “a wrapper with no contents.” Having done this, he has justified his refusal to identify with either category, and he is then able to construct a generous orthodoxy which draws on both liberal and conservative Christianity.
Just as McLaren critiques both theological viewpoints before attempting to construct a way to transcend theological divides, Wallis does the same for political polarization among Christians. Wallis critiques aspects of both political sides, urging American Christians to adopt a third option – voting on a set of “moral values” that go beyond the media’s construction of moral values, homosexuality and abortion, to issues such as poverty and peace. Like McLaren, Wallis adopts certain aspects of each side while critiquing other aspects. Discussing the construction of religion as politically conservative, Wallis says:
I actually happen to be conservative on issues of personal responsibility, the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in our world, and the critical importance of individual character, parenting, and strong “family values.” But the popular presentations of religion in our time (especially in the media) almost completely ignore the biblical vision of social justice and, even worse, dismiss such concerns as merely “left wing.”
Here, Wallis explicitly identifies with some core ideas of conservative Christianity, while extolling the importance of “social justice,” which he suggests conservative Christianity has neglected. Speaking to liberal Christianity, Wallis critiques the loss of emphasis on a personal, relational God, saying “Much of liberal religion has lost the experience of a personal God, and that is the primary reason why liberal Christianity is not growing. And without a personal God, liberal faith will never grow.” Wallis also offers this critique, in the hope of inspiring secular liberals to understand how some Christians are put off from liberal politics by the issue of reproductive rights:
Political liberals generally fail to comprehend how deep and fundamental the conviction on “the sacredness of human life” is for millions of Christians, especially Catholics and evangelicals, in forming their view of abortion. They include those who are quite committed and even radical on other issues of justice and peace. Christians who are economic populists, peacemaking internationalists, and committed feminists can also be pro-life on the issue of abortion, especially if they are also Catholics or evangelicals.
Wallis sees the American political system as flawed, not offering an option for Christians who care about both the “social justice” of the left and the “family values” of the right. He further argues that conservative Christians have lost sight of the social justice aspects of Christianity (the “public” nature of God) while liberal Christianity has come to see God as public but not personal and is therefore losing momentum and membership.
Wallis’s solution, like McLaren’s, is to take the best from both sides in formulating a third option. This option is “God’s politics,” articulated in Wallis’s document, “God Is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” It urges Christians to “measure candidates by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights; whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national, and special interests.” Here, Wallis takes elements of conservative and liberal Christian political views, but employs language which defies categorization in the conservative/liberal dichotomy. For instance, his phrase “human life, human dignity, and human rights” gestures toward both conservative politics (reading “human life” as pro-life) and liberal politics (reading “human rights” as civil liberties, social and economic rights, etc.). However, the phrase is not just a combination of liberal and conservative politics. Rather, it is a move towards a new rhetoric of God’s politics, as Wallis implies that “human life, human dignity, and human rights” are a consistent set of priorities based on the Bible, not a synthesis of liberal and conservative ideals. Thus, both Wallis and McLaren attempt to transcend the culture-war dichotomy in framing a new kind of Christianity; Wallis does this by trying to articulate a set of political priorities based on biblical priorities rather than liberal or conservative ideas; McLaren does it by synthesizing theological elements from over a dozen different Christian movements. Both must work to articulate the reasons for their refusal to identify along the lines of the dichotomy between liberal and conservative Christianity.
Like many thinkers today, all four writers (and others not mentioned here) are deeply dissatisfied with the existing categories of Protestantism in America, but encounter challenges in their attempts to question the discourse of Christian identity. They are troubled by the fact that the dominant discourse fails to describe their experiences, views and identities. Rejecting or redefining these categories, as the authors try to do, is a difficult project – even the language customarily used to discuss Christian identity has political and social connotations. However, the future seems bright for Christians who are dissatisfied with popular images of conservative and liberal Christianity. Writers like Wallis and McLaren are gaining popularity and credibility in their assertion that there are ways of being Christian that do not fit into the polarized and problematic stereotypes of conservative and liberal Christianity. Perhaps, then, Wallis and McLaren’s attempt to craft a new discourse around Christian identity is the only strategy for renegotiating categories of Christian identity which effectively overcomes the discursive and linguistic obstacles that the bridge-builders encounter in their efforts to articulate their religious identities.
1. Wuthnow, “Old Fissures and New Fractures,” 362.
2. Christian Smith, Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 15.
3. Charles F. Hall, “The Christian Left: Who Are They and How Are They Different from the Christian Right?” Review of Religious Research 39, (September 1997): 27-45.
4. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies : Some Thoughts on Faith, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 5.; Debra Bendis, “Anne Lamott’s Divine Comedy,” Christian Century, July 1999, 742.
5. This is clear to the writer who interviewed Lamott for a profile in conservative Christian publication Christianity Today: “To be sure, Lamott is a hard-core liberal. I disagree with her on many fronts, for example with her belief that personhood doesn’t start at conception.” (Agnieszka Tennant, “‘Jesusy’ Anne Lamott,” Christianity Today 47 (January 2003), 56.)
6. Wuthnow, “Old Fissures and New Fractures in American Religious Life.”
7. Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2004), 22.
8. In the context of Wallis’s work, “politics” is broadly defined. For Wallis, it involves not only political candidates, elections, and policy, but also service work and so on. In short, it is one of the tools at Christians’ disposal for dealing with all of the issues from the previous chapter and many others: war and peace, foreign relations, and so on.
Emily M. Mott ’07 is a Religion concentrator in Leverett House.