Ask a Christian Progressive...(Response)

Transient

Today we return to our interview series, which in light of election season, has been politically-focused for the last few weeks.

We’ve already interviewed Caryn Rivadeneira for “Ask a Christian Libertarian” and Matthew Lee Anderson for “Ask a Christian Conservative.” Today I’m pleased to feature the responses of Tim King for “Ask a Christian Progressive.” 

Tim King is the Director of Communications at Sojourners.  He is a graduate of North Park University in Chicago with degrees in both Theology and Philosophy. After graduation, he worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Tim ran campaigns around food access, school funding reform, ex-offender issues, and youth homelessness.  He also developed and implemented organizing curriculums for high school to graduate level classes. After a brief stint as a campaign consultant, Tim came on staff with Sojourners in 2008.

Tim has been a guest on many radio shows and podcasts and has been interviewed for various print and online publications including ABC News, TIME, CNN, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, and the Daily Beast. He blogs regularly about the intersection of faith and politics at www.sojo.net and you can follow him on twitter.

You sent in over 100 questions to Tim, and Tim certainly rose to the occasion! I hope you enjoy his response.

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From Tim: First off, many thanks to Rachel for facilitating such an engaging dialogue and allowing me to be a part of it.  Among the things I appreciate are the surprising confessions that come out of a conversation like this. I, for one, had no idea that Matthew Lee Anderson was born in Canada but realize that it explains a lot about him. 

From Ellen: As someone who also identifies as a Christian progressive, I often struggle to feel at home anywhere. I don't share political and social positions with more conservative Christian, and have even had some tell me I simply cannot be Christian and hold some of the positions I do. Yet more liberal folk don't share my adherence to traditional Christian doctrine  or my comfort with "Jesus talk." A fellow progressive has described it this way: We are both more conservative and more liberal than others expect us to be...I'm just wondering if you have also found this to be true, and if you have discovered any useful ways of dealing with stereotypes and assumptions so that you can have fruitful conversation with people from various points on the religious, political, and social spectrums.

Absolutely. The old molds don’t quite fit. And, I think it’s a good sign that there are quite a few of us out there, whether progressive or conservative, who feel uncomfortable with the old labels. The old guard of the “Religious Right” isn’t happy with the changing priorities of a younger generation and while some young people are leaving the Church entirely, that doesn’t mean we are all giving up on Jesus (and Jesus isn’t giving up on us). 

I have found in the past five years or so that my conversations with both secular progressives and conservative religious folks have been improving. Some of that is because I’ve become a better listener, but there are a few other pieces at play.

There are a lot more conservative Christians now talking about poverty, the environment, immigration and other broad justice issues. The conversation is shifting from if Christians should care about these things to how Christians should show their concern.  

In my conversations with secular progressives, I have found positive conversations about faith tends to come from introducing people to Jesus first as a teacher. When I was 16 I had the “Four Spiritual Laws” memorized cover to cover and unsurprisingly, it’s never come in handy. Most old evangelism tools have an almost exclusive focus on what Jesus did on the cross and never mentions what Jesus taught before he got there. 

I’m not much of an “evangelist” in the traditional sense but I love talking with people about what motivates me to do the work I do. If that’s the starting point, I’ve found there is a lot of room for conversation and surprising openness.

From Matthew: What myth about progressives would you like to debunk?

It’s on the role of government. Now, I believe that government can and should play a positive, active and limited role in society. But, sometimes I get the impression that others think I’m so in love with government that I spend my free time standing around in long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles or figuring out ways to pay more taxes.

For example, I think it is absolutely essential that the government play an active role in making sure our food is safe. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t also problems with the regulatory system. Here’s a storyabout a local farm that was hosting a “farm to fork” dinner when a state health inspector came by and shut the whole thing down for a series of ridiculous reasons. 

As someone who has grown up on a farm, situations like that really frustrate me. Why are they picking on the little guy? Especially when environmentally detrimental practices of large agri-business aren’t reigned in.

Our current regulatory system is weighted to benefit big businesses that have the resources and the staff to figure it all out and it leaves a lot of small businesses with unnecessary extra costs.

Now, most myths have some sort of truth to them. That’s why when I talk about my critique of progressives, it’s along the same lines. 

From Carissa: Could you say something about how you think about political labels? For example, I usually think of myself as a moderate since I am more conservative on some issues than many liberals (abortion, for example) but more liberal than most conservatives on many issues (social services, poverty alleviation, etc). I wouldn't normally call myself a progressive, since I tend to think of a progressive as being far left, but I am wondering what progressive means to you, and how you think of being a progressive as compared to other characterizations (moderate, left, far left, etc).  Also, are there any political positions you hold that put you at odds with the progressive majority? Has that been problematic, or an opportunity for good dialogue?

Similarly, Micah asked: What Democratic party platforms, policy initiatives, laws, etc., do you hesitate to support or have trouble reconciling with your faith?

Political labels are increasingly useless. They still matter a lot in DC but less and less to everyone outside the city. I must have driven Rachel crazy before agreeing to be a part of this project because I kept hemming and hawing about the label we would use. I’m not entirely comfortable with the progressive label and have an even lower identification with party labels.

I won’t give a full treatment of the party platform (I’m not sure how many Democrats even pay attention to it) but will go meta on one big area of disagreement. More accurately, on one great omission. Speaking broadly, I don’t think Democrats have a robust understanding of the importance of civil society. Matt Anderson has some important points about allowing for and encouraging a robust role for non-governmental organizations in meeting some of the greatest challenges our society faces.  

Christians shouldn’t necessarily look to the government first to solve problems. There are a variety of ways we can attack problems including individual behavior, families, communities, churches, schools and business. 

From Justin: Are you concerned about the emergence of a Religious Left? I ask because I've read progressive Christians who linked certain legislative agendas with "biblical" values, such as the 2010 health-care reform law or with a progressive tax system. To me, it seems that progressives are doing the very thing that conservative Christians have been criticized for: pulling verses out of context to say that supporting a political party's agenda is supporting God's agenda. What are your thoughts?

Right now I don’t think there is a strong likelihood that a “Religious Left” will emerge as a mirror image of the “Religious Right.” While young Christians have been trending towards Democrats, a lot are still conservative. 

That being said, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that a progressive tax system reflects Biblical values.Various structures and laws in the Old Testament required smaller sacrifices from “the poor” than they did from everyone else. But, I think it’s also important to be able to make the case from broader arguments that aren’t dependent on a particular religious tradition. Progressive taxation and policies that mitigate extreme wealth inequality are correlated with a lot of other positive benefits for society as a whole.  

Now, I would have a problem if someone said “you can’t be a Christian if you don’t support a progressive tax system” or to say God has given a special blessing or preference to a particular political party that supports the most progressive tax system. 
The “Religious Right” didn’t get it wrong by talking about values and public policy. I think what got them in trouble was an unwavering commitment to a party, a narrow definition of “values” and how they set up a narrative that inferred true Christians could only cast their ballot for the GOP. 

From Jessica: The Christian right has cornered the market on the abortion debate. As someone who self-identifies as pro-life and a Democrat, I find it really frustrating: by pro-life, I mean pro-poor, pro-environment, pro-capitalism-isn't-the-answer-to-everything, as well as pro-fetus and pro-woman. I am the mother of two daughters and birthing them made clear my feelings that life begins at conception. I also work with poor Burmese refugee women, many of whom are uneducated about reproduction issues. For them, an unplanned 6th pregnancy when their husband is working in a minimum wage job would be devastating. Groups like Planned Parenthood have been a godsend because they work to educate women on their bodies, provide medical care for women, and pass out free contraceptives to these married women who otherwise can't afford to prevent children. Like almost anything else in the real world, the issues are complicated...

I find the abortion debate extremely frustrating because we create so many straw men: the right claims the left hates babies and wants to kill them, the left claims the right wants to take over women's bodies and legislate their morality. Abortions under Bill Clinton were much lower than under [the first] George Bush because the social services that prevent abortions (education, contraception, etc.) were so much higher, and yet I only hear Christians talking about stopping abortions at abortion clinics or abstinence rather than multi-faceted, realistic solutions to prevent abortions from occurring. As someone who WANTS to reduce the number of abortions in this country, as do most people on either side of the debate, I think the myopic view that dominates our churches is really devastating. Can you articulate a Christian progressive position on abortion?

I think you do a pretty good job in beginning to articulate one. Another perspective I would like to highlight is Lisa Sharon Harper’s take in the book Left, Right and Christ. For a short version you can read a column she wrote here

This is an issue that I try to approach with a good deal of humility. I try to understand that from the many sides of the issue, people’s views and opinions are often deeply rooted in sometimes very painful and personal experiences. 

I won’t try to articulate here a prescriptive policy position, but a description of how I approach the issue more broadly.

My older sister is pregnant and this August, I’ll have a nephew. Really pumped to be an uncle. My sister told me that as a result of her pregnancy, she has never been so pro-life and pro-choice. This isn’t unusual. In fact, the Public Religion Research Institute has found that about two-thirds of all American’s identify as pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously. 

I think that is for good reason. Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child. You describe well some of the tensions that I think many people feel when they think about the issue.

In resolving a complex ethical issue, while taking into consideration multiple and often competing demands, we need to ask, what’s the role of government? At what point is the state the best arbiter? Currently, the state registers and logs a record of all births. Should they instead try and register and log all pregnancies? Monitor women of childbearing age? What is the state’s interest in the 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies that end in a miscarriage? What about the many more “chemical pregnancies”? What kind of interest does the state have in the health and habits of women of childbearing age as it effects their bodies’ ability to carry a child to term? What other practices and protections currently extended to those who have been born should be expanded by the state to include fertilized eggs?

I think most people recognized a gradation of responsibility. The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth. 

This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

From Kevin: The head of your organization coined the phrase "consistent ethic of life" to describe his position on abortion and other issues, such as the death penalty. However, your organization, and most Christian progressives, oppose the death penalty, but support legal abortion. How is that a consistent ethic? Isn't it just a different, equally inconsistent ethic? 

First, I don’t think the analogy comparing the death penalty to legal abortion access works. The death penalty question is concerned with what actions we should allow the state to perform while abortion is a question of what actions of individuals we allow the state to restrict. The better comparison would be the death penalty and a state mandated abortion policy like in China. That, I would oppose.

Second, my approach to the issue of armed conflict is a better, while still imperfect analogy. I’m not against all use of force but I do believe we should work to prevent the circumstances that give rise to wars and conflict. It’s that line of thinking that I see as consistent with my views on abortion.

From Arni: I live in one of the Nordic countries where the welfare state is arguably the most highly developed in the world. Our health care is universal, unemployment and disability benefits are high, most all schools are public, higher education is publicly funded too, etc. It works pretty well and people are happy (Norway actually IS the happiest country in the world, for example, and the other countries aren't far behind).  My question, or the thing I'd love to hear your thoughts about, is this: Something I've noticed is the when the state gets as big as it gets here and it does all these social services, it seems to have negative effects on the public moral imagination. If there's a problem in society, people first of all get angry at the state for failing to take care of it. What they don't tend to do is take personal initiative to love their neighbour who is in need. It really seems to me that the large state has more or less direct an adverse effect on the moral imagination.

When I look to the States, I do agree with a lot of what progressives say: That all people aren't guaranteed health care is a scandal, for example. But I do admire how charitable you guys are. And I suspect that that charitability to a significant degree comes from the state being relatively small and leaving, as it were, room for regular folk to love their neighbours. And I worry a little about the progressive agenda, if successful, eroding that neighbour love.  Does this make any sense? What are your thoughts on this? Is this something American progressives worry about or should worry about, do you think?

There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. I don’t doubt that some people use government activity as an excuse not do something themselves. But, we also see in the parable of the Good Samaritan that the lack of moral imagination is a problem inherent to the human condition and not isolated to any of the Nordic states. The religious leaders in that story were upholding their religious laws while failing to fulfill the deeper requirements of mercy and kindness.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that has given me some food for thought. Mormons are significantly more generous than the general population. If you want to be a member of a church in good standing, you need to pay up the 10 percent tithe. With those resources, they have built a complex and comprehensive social safety net and emergency response system. If every Christian was doing what the Mormons were doing I doubt our country would need the current levels of funding for programs we have likeTemporary Assistance for Need Families. If the Mormons aren’t doing it why aren’t other people of faith? 

The easy thing to do is blame government for “crowding out” private charity. It’s entirely possible this has some effect. But, the harder thing to do would be for pastors to start talking like Jesus talked about money and possessions.The challenge put to us as Christians is to “be not conformed” to this world. We should be able to have that spark of moral imagination no matter where we are planted. For those interested, my pastor just kicked off a great sermon series on giving you can check out here

From Dianna: As a Christian feminist and a progressive, I often feel like I'm straddling two worlds (progressives/feminists don't expect the Christian angle, and Christians don't expect the feminist angle). Additionally, as a feminist progressive, I sometimes feel slighted by the preponderance and prominence of progressive white men - especially in the recent birth control debate. There seems to still be a hierarchy, even within progressivism, where women's issues are not seen as important enough. We feminists are often told "we'll deal with your issue after we've finished dealing with this 'bigger' one" (usually something that affects them as white men - see the pay gap issues being shunted aside for defense spending debates, etc). Needless to say, a lot of us feminists become disillusioned with trying to have our voices heard in media.

In your role and life as a Christian progressive, how do you see women's and minority issues? What steps are you (and possibly Sojourners as an organization) taking to be inclusive of female and minority voices in the main discussion sphere? Basically: what role do you think your Christianity and progressivism play in upending the patriarchy and helping women toward equality?

One big lesson for me is that issues of racial, gender, cultural or class discrimination are not limited to my own personal beliefs. It’s not just about whether or not I use offensive phrases. It also extends to actions and practices that I might not be fully aware and need others to point out. And, it includes my relationships to systems and structures that have been historically biased. 

In progressive circles, people often know to say the right thing. The problem is often what I would call a “passive discrimination.” White males may not actively decide to exclude women, racial minorities or those from different cultural or class backgrounds, but they simply do what is easy and natural and surround themselves with those that look, think and relate like them.

This kind of passive discrimination is easy to overlook but hurts us all, even white males. All of us lose when our churches, organizations or politics are overly dominated by limited and often myopic perspectives. In the media, it’s pretty bad.

Theopedproject.org takes a look at how many columns in major publications are written by women versus men. In the New York Times it’s 81 percent men and 19 percent women. Wall Street Journal is 85 percent men and 15 percent women. Even the Huffington Post is 68 percent men. Clearly, your frustration is warranted. 

So, what do I do? What does Sojourners do?

First, we have a system of internal accountability. Sojourners has an internal “Diversity Task Force” that looks at our own organizational progress in ensuring that we have a broad array of perspective and backgrounds represented on our staff. We aren’t perfect but always working on it.

Second, as the Communications  Director, I know that every “sign-on” letter I put together or press conference I organize will be evaluated, in part, by whether or not it accurately reflected any of the diversity represented within the Christian community. If I organize something with all old white guys, which is easy to do, I’m going to hear about it. 

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Thanks, Tim. 

See the rest of the entries in our interview series here

Next we'll be hearing from a Pacifist, a Pentecostal, a Seventh Day Adventist, and more!

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