Don't Be Afraid of the 'Christian Left'

After spending 30 years in the wilderness the "Christian left" is making its voice heard.  From Washington, D.C., to Dallas, large conferences have been held in an attempt to politically mobilize these "progressive" Christians.  Much can be said about this burgeoning movement, and much will be said in the coming months.  

For now, let’s start with this: as fellow believers, we should not be afraid to engage the evangelical left’s ideas in a spirit of love.  It would be a mistake, as we begin this dialogue, to view these men and women as "political enemies" rather than fellow members of the body of Christ.  From the outset, we should insist that our discussions be grounded in our mutual love of Christ rather than our differing political commitments.  Let Christ be the foundation upon which we all stand.

Many liberal evangelicals claim that the church, in its political thinking, has neglected a major aspect of Christ’s concern: the poor and vulnerable.  Their most cherished phrase is "social justice," and they say we conservatives have neglected it.  Again, let’s not dismiss this criticism out of hand.  As I have written in the past, the Bible is unequivocal about our responsibility toward the poor.  As Christians, we should not be shy about discussing our responsibility toward the "least of these," and we should think creatively about different ways in which we can serve them.

On the other hand, we are not simply talking about the responsibility of the church, but we are debating the role of government in crafting public policy solutions.  As conservatives and liberals, we doubtless will find that our solutions to problems differ.  When those substantial differences arise, it is the perfect opportunity to practice Christian charity as we calmly and thoughtfully explain the reasons for our differences.  In the partisan and divisive political atmosphere of Washington, D.C., let the whole world see how the Christians love each other despite their differences.  Let the whole world see how we reason together, mutually striving to know the Truth in all things.

Perhaps liberal evangelicals will help remind the body of Christ that our greatest obligation is not to be financially successful or politically triumphant, but to love our Lord and our neighbor, even in public life.  Perhaps they will also encourage us to develop new political solutions to the timeless problem of material poverty.  As conservatives, our policy proposals probably won’t include lots of major federal programs because our experience shows that solutions rooted in the expansion of governmental bureaucracy often do more harm than good.  However, we must not fall prey to the rhetoric of secular conservatives who put worldly financial concerns above all else.  As Christians, we have a duty to address the needs of the poor, and it would be wrong for us to fall prey to a radically individualistic mentality. "Dog eat dog" is not a biblical phrase and "the survival of the fittest" is not a Christian concept. Our priority is the common good, with a special concern for those who have the least.

At the same time, perhaps there are ways in which we can help progressives look at things differently.  For example, there was recently a meeting in Dallas called the National Conference and Revival for Social Justice in the Black Church.  Speakers included Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  While these pastors actually said some things with which we agree, they also made some unhelpful remarks.

Al Sharpton’s speech is a perfect example.  He criticized the black church for being too worried about what he called "bedroom issues"—marriage and abortion.  He thinks they should mobilize on social justice issues rather than be distracted by abortion.  On something like this, we have an obligation to vigorously defend the unborn.  Perhaps we can help progressive Christians like Al Sharpton understand that abortion is the greatest social justice issue of our time.  Unborn babies really are the least among us—undeniably alive, undeniably human, and tragically exploited.  When innocent children are dying, we cannot close the bedroom door and pretend that it does not concern us, that it is a private matter.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  As Christians, we have an obligation to protect the weak and defenseless—born and unborn.

The emergence of a progressive evangelical movement affords a wonderful opportunity to foster a public discussion about the role of faith in civic life.  Sometimes, it must be admitted, we get lazy in our political thinking.  We know that at some point we thought through the reasons behind our positions, but maybe that was years ago.  It is always helpful to remember why we believe what we believe, reviewing our old arguments to see if they are still strong.  Even worse, sometimes we allow others in the "conservative coalition" to do our political thinking for us, even when they come from very secular starting points.

Liberal evangelicals help us because they share our foundational commitment to Christ, yet they see political questions in a different light.  As we actively dialogue with them about our political positions, hopefully both sides will benefit.  Most importantly, let us pray that Christ will be glorified in the way we conduct our conversation.