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My liberal Christian friend is a good person. That’s not a theological statement, since no one is good but God alone. But by normal human standards, she is an ideal mainstream progressive. She firmly stands on the left side of history (to paraphrase her favorite president) in matters of same-sex marriage, reproductive laws, environmental concerns, and educational and poverty issues. She volunteers at local food kitchens and advocates for foster children. She writes reproving letters to her conservative governor and senator. And she registers Democratic voters before every general election.
One more thing: She can talk over disagreements rationally. That’s why we’re still friends.
During one of our back-and-forth email exchanges, she put “religious liberty” in scare quotes. When I called her on it, she saw my point: “Busted!” she wrote. But in spite of the admission, I’m not entirely convinced she believes there is such a thing as religious liberty. To her mind, Christianity has been privileged throughout American history, to the detriment of other faith traditions. Some course correction is in order.
Liberal Christianity is becoming as dogmatic as any medieval Catholic bishop.
The root of our disagreement is this: She sees the Bible as quite clear on the second greatest commandment but open to interpretation about the first. She is certain about how society should help the poor and relieve the oppressed, but uncertain—even suspicious—of core theology. For her, dogmatic doctrine leads to oppression every time. For me, the Bible brooks no uncertainty about who God is and what He requires. But there’s more than one way to love our neighbor, and some might be better than others.
Progressive certainties are on the rise. “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity”—so goes the title of a New York Times opinion column by Elizabeth Dias. She praises Biden for his piety, nods at faith references by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, notes the religious bona fides of Pastor Raphael Warnock (one of Georgia’s new senators) and Rep. Cori Bush. They all lean, at more or less acute angles, toward single solutions to social problems. In his homily at a pre-inaugural Mass for the Biden family, the Rev. Kevin O’Brien listed the priorities of progressive religion: “to help and protect people and to advance justice and reconciliation, especially for those who are too often looked over and left behind. … This is the divine summons for us all.”
That divine summons points an accusing finger at poverty, climate change, and racial inequality and demands a fix from Joe Biden himself. The imperative is so great that dissent is apostasy. That may be why the administration fired Sharon Gustafson from her post as general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Though an arm of the executive branch, the EEOC is supposed to be independent. To give an unceremonious boot to a key figure raises questions the administration declined to answer.
Maybe it has something to do with a series of listening sessions through November and December 2020, where Gustafson had given believers of all stripes (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) an equal opportunity to state their concerns about workplace discrimination due to faith. The report about intimidation and hostility that she posted online was scrubbed from the EEOC website, along with all references to religious liberty.
In a podcast last year, columnist Ross Douthat speculated on what progressives and conservatives might learn from each other. The former could acknowledge that they had underestimated the importance of stable two-parent families. The latter might admit that they could have been more proactive in constructively helping the poor. This is still true, though the two sides might have drifted too far apart for rapprochement.
For now, liberal Christianity is becoming as dogmatic as any medieval Catholic bishop or New England Puritan. I don’t think we can bridge this gap, or not in public. Privately, or one-on-one, perhaps—not by compromising on God’s commands, but by living them out. “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”