In a series of short essays for EthicsDaily.com, Dr. Bruce Prescott, of the Mainstream Baptists Network, who hosts the radio show “Religious Talk” in Oklahoma, shares the events that became steps leading him away from the shackles of fundamentalism.
Unlike the last entry in this series, I do not know Dr. Snarr personally: We’ve missed each other at meetings of the Society of Christian Ethics and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion. We’ve never met, though we have mutual friends. But my encounter with her work leads me to believe she will soon be a very important voice in baptist life and thought.
Dr. Snarr’s areas of scholarship and teaching include: Christian political thought; Christian theological ethics; Feminist theological ethics; Contemporary Islamic political thought; Ethics pedagogy; Sociology of Morality; Social Movement Theory; and Sociology of Religion. She is an activist-scholar in the contemporary U.S. Living Wage struggle and in struggles for gender justice and equal justice for all sexual orientations.
A 1992 graduate (B.A., Religious Studies and Philosophy, magna cum laude) of Furman University (a historic, very selective, private university in Greenville, SC, rooted in the non-creedal, Free Church/Baptist tradition), Snarr was a scholar-athlete who won numerous awards and honors. She earned her Master of Divinity degree at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (magna cum laude) in 1995. After spending time working in church-related social work and social movement struggles, Snarr finished her Ph.D. from Emory University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Graduate Program in Religion (Ethics and Society) in 2004. After working for Emory’s Servant Leadership School and Emory’s Center for Ethics, Dr. Snarr became Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, TN. She also serves as core faculty in Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion and is affiliate faculty in the undergraduate School of Arts and Sciences where she teaches Women and Gender Studies and Community Research and Action.
Dr. Snarr is an active member of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville–a progressive congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship , and American Baptist Churches, USA and is a partner congregation with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. It’s a great congregation, co-pastored by Dr. Amy Mears and Rev. April Baker.
Snarr’s doctoral work focused on differing Christian views of moral formation how that effects their political participation. This has been recently published as Social Reforms and Political Selves: Five Visions in Contemporary Christian Ethics. London: T & T Clark/Continuum International, 2007. Focusing on the differing views of social selves held by Christian social ethicists Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Beverly Harrison, and Emily Townes, she identifies strengths and risks in their views and considers their adequacy for producing social reforms. She concludes the book by arguing for six core convictions about the social self that might form a Christian social ethic capable of responding to our current crises.
Snarr’s sec0nd book(forthcoming), like the majority of her social activism, focuses on the role(s) religion and gender play in the U.S. movement for a living wage. I look forward to All You Who Labor: Religion and Ethics in the U.S. Living Wage Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2010). She is teaching courses on religion and war in an age of terror (comparing Christian and Islamic views) that I hope will issue in another book.
It’s easy to see that Melissa Snarr is a figure to watch in baptist life and thought.
Progressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, it is after having wrestled with it; it’s affirmations are post-critical, not pre-critical and never with unquestioning acceptance. Progressive Christian faith embraces doubt and ambiguity. It accepts human diversity: intentionally building racial/ethnic and economic diversity into its congregations. It also embraces diversity of sexual orientation. Progressive Christians firmly defend religious liberty and church-state separation and they are committed to social acceptance and partnership with persons of other faiths. (Progressive Christians differ among themselves as to evangelism, the possibility of salvation in other faiths, and related questions, but they are united in working for social equality and tolerance among differing religions. In other words, whatever the make-up of any heavenly city, the peace of the earthly cities demands respect for alien belief systems–or, at least, for the persons who hold those belief systems.)
Progressive Christians have a strong emphasis on social and economic justice and care for the poor and oppressed and marginalized. They also have a strong ecological emphasis: a focus on care for the Creation. For Progressive Christians, the life of Jesus as a model for discipleship, and the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount) are at least as central salvifically as his death and resurrection. This leads them to an ethic that emphasizes love, compassion, promoting justice and mercy and to social action to end poverty, discrimination, and heal the earth of human-caused environmental degradation. It also leads to work for peace in the world and many progressive Christians are complete pacifists.
The majority of Progressive Christians today fully accept biological evolution as completely compatible with their faith. Many are deeply influenced by process philosophies and theologies.
Progressive Christianity is largely a movement within Protestantism, but it also embraces a significant minority of Catholics who have been shaped by the emphases of the Second Vatican Council. (As such, progressive Catholics have found themselves on the defensive as first Pope John Paul II and now, even more, Pope Benedict XIII, have rolled back the progressive changes that sprang from Vatican II and are reaffirming a traditional, authoritarian Catholicism.) It is a diverse movement: Many of its most prominent leaders come from the liberal strands of mainline (now oldline) Protestantism, but it also has roots in 19th C. evangelicalism (which led the movements to abolish slavery and child labor, the first modern feminist movement, peace and anti-imperialism). Other roots for contemporary Progressive Christianity include the Social Gospel (late 19th/early 20th C.), mid-20th C. Neo-Orthodoxy, various liberation theologies. It includes the rediscovery of the vibrant dimensions of 16th C. Anabaptists and overlaps the “emergent church” movement within contemporary evangelicalism.
Regular readers of this blog will quickly realize that I consider myself a progressive Christian. I am a Baptist who draws more from the Anabaptist side of my tradition than from the Puritan side or the later Revivalist strain. I come from within American evangelicalism and still embrace the best of evangelical Christianity: deep biblical literacy (increasingly absent in Christians of all stripes, sadly) and a reverence for the Bible’s position as Scripture and Canon–though rejecting “inerrancy” theories. I also celebrate the traditional evangelical emphasis on conversion (personal, communal, societal) and the need for new birth, but reject the common idea that this makes discipleship optional. My own doctrinal convictions are more traditional than many other progressive Christians: I can affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers and my mental footnotes are few. (However, I share the traditional Baptist aversions to creeds as tests of orthodoxy, much less as infallible statements. All statements of faith, or confessions of faith, are human and limited and flawed and must be open to revision.) I have been far more influenced by Neo-Orthodox and Liberation theologies than by theological liberalism–though I have dialogue partners among the liberals. More than most white Christians in the Anglo-American world, I have been deeply influenced by the Black Church and African-American and Latin American liberation theologies. (African and Asian liberation theologies have played a much smaller role, though I continue to try to broaden my exposure to them, as well as Afro-Caribbean liberation theologies.) I was raised by a feminist mother and married a woman Baptist minister and one of my favorite theology teachers is a feminist theologian–and all this has had an impact on me, too.
Progressive Christians are not all liberal or progressive in politics, but most are. I am a democratic socialist in political philosophy–and find the idea that Barack Obama is a socialist to be laughable. (In fact, I think that Obama’s economics are not much more progressive than Bill Clinton’s–except on financial regulation and certainly not as progressive as FDR, LBJ, Bobby or Ted Kennedy. His foreign policy is also very Clintonian, not even as progressive as Jimmy Carter’s– a LONG way from anything a democratic socialist would embrace. As with FDR and LBJ, contextual matters and people movements may push Obama into a more progressive stance than his cautious self would otherwise embrace–on a range of issues. And the rightwing fearmongers who use “socialism” as a swear word may push him and the country into a more progressive stance than if they had cooperated with his initial modest reforms. But no one who has any notion of what socialism, even in democratic form, is could ever label Obama as a “socialist.” It’s laughable.)
For those who would like to explore Progressive Christianity further, here are some links:
For the most part, these days debates between conservative, traditionalist forms of Christianity and progressive ones go on WITHIN denominations rather than between them. Most denominations have conservative and progressive wings. There are exceptions: The Southern Baptist Convention managed to expel its progressives and most of its centrists or “moderates” during its internal feud in the 1980s and early ’90s. The Missouri Synod Lutherans did the same in the 1970s. Other examples could be multiplied. The following U.S. denominations are ones where at least 70% of leadership and membership is progressive.
- The Alliance of Baptists. This is a small network of progressive Baptist Christians (individuals and congregations) seeking to respond to the call of God in a rapidly changing world. It began in 1984 as “The Southern Baptist Alliance,” the first organized resistance movement to takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists. (I was a charter member of the student branch of the SBA at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1986.) Originally, it was dominated by centrists, but as the SBC purge began in earnest most self-described “moderates” ( a term which always struck me as a synonym for “lukewarm”) formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1994. Many Alliance congregations are also CBF churches, and other Alliance churches are also aligned with the American Baptist Churches, USA (contemporary form of the old Nothern Baptist Convention). The Alliance of Baptists is the newest member body of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA, the mainline ecumenical body. We were sponsored by two other progressive denominations, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with whom we often partner in mission work.
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In the 19th C., the American frontier experience gave birth to a renewal movement led by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone that hoped to Restore New Testament Christianity in pristine condition. It also hoped to heal denominational divisions by rejecting creeds and holding only to the final authority of the New Testament (never realizing that it was reading the NT through a particular lense shaped by Scottish Common Sense philosophy and the American frontier experience). These Restorationists broke into several groups and the Disciples became the progressive denomination of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement.
- Church of the Brethren. Originating in 18th C. Germany and originally called the “Dunkers,” the Church of the Brethren was formed by the creative merging of Anabaptist (German Mennonite) and Pietist theologies. Despite the name, the CoB have long ordained women. They retain the pacifism of their Anabaptist roots and an orientation toward service.
- Episcopal Church, U.S.A. This is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican communion and, of course, it has its traditionalist side. But in recent years, the progressives have led the Episcopal Church. It was the first Anglican communion to ordain women and has become the first one to consecrate an openly gay priest as bishop. (Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.)
- Friends United Meeting. This is the largest of Quaker denominations in the U.S. and includes both progressives and traditionalists, but even most traditional Quakers are progressive Christians.
- Metropolitan Community Churches. This denomination was founded by Rev. Troy Perry in the 1970s as the first denomination to be fully inclusive of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender persons. The MCC’s members are mostly GLBT folk, but also friends and families that do not feel accepted in other denominations.
- Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. This is the most progressive branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
- United Church of Christ. The UCC comes from the liberal end of the Reformed tradition. It is a 1957 merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the Congregationalist Christian Churches. Both those were the result of earlier mergers: The Evangelical and Reformed Church was the combination of two immigrant (ethnic German) denominations which had used the Heidelberg Catechism as a mediating stance between Lutherans and Calvinists: The German Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Church in the United States. The Congregational Christian Churches was a merger of Congregationalists (descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims) with a minority of independent Christian (Stone-Campbell) congregations.
Denominations with Strong Progressive Wings: These denominations are not as fully progressive as are the ones listed above. But in each of these denominations, the progressive wing at least approaches 50% of the denomination.
- African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. African Methodist Episcopal Church-Zion. Both these Methodist/Wesleyan denominations were formed by African-Americans during the days when slavery was legal in the United States because they refused to be treated as second class Christians in the white Methodist congregations. Both the AME and AME Zion denominations have always been strong social progressives and rich sources of Black liberation theology.
- American Baptist Churches in the USA. The contemporary form of the old Northern Baptist Convention, the American Baptists have always had strong leaders in progressive theology, but have always also had a strong traditional, evangelical wing. The mix has often been unstable and various conservative groups have split off of the ABC through the years while others have remained within the ABC and formed their own seminaries.
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Formed in 1988 by a merger of three Lutheran denominations which had previously been divided mostly by immigrant/ethnic history: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA has strong traditionalist features, but also many progressive leaders and congregations.
- International Council of Community Churches (ICCC). The Community Church movement has always represented Christians who are ecumenical and freedom-minded. In 1950, two networks of such community churches, one predominantly white and the other African-American, united to form the ICCC. The ICCC stresses racial reconciliation, equality of the sexes in all aspects of church life, ecumenical Christian witness, and unity within diversity in the Body of Christ. Publishes the Inclusive Pulpit. The ICCC is a member communion of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and Churches Uniting in Christ.
- Presbyterian Church (USA). This is the mainline branch of Presbyterianism in the U.S. (There are more conservative branches.) Rooted in the 16th C. Reformed tradition (Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) as mediated through the Scottish Reformation of John Knox, and the English Westminster divines, Presbyterianism in the U.S. has played a major part in the nation’s history. The PCUSA is about evenly divided between progressives and traditionalists.
- The Reformed Church in America. Originating as an immigrant denomination of mostly Dutch and Swiss Calvinists, the RCA is increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic and represents the more progressive of the non-Presbyterian Reformed denominations in the U.S. (The Christian Reformed Church has a similar Dutch Calvinist background, but is much more conservative.) The RCA is more progressive on social and political matters than on theological ones in which it is fairly traditional, bound by the historic ecumenical creeds of early Christendom (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian) and by several 16th C. Reformed Confessions of Faith.
- The United Methodist Church was formed by the reuniting of the Methodist Church with the United Evangelical Brethren. This followed a previous (1939) merger of Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had been severed by the U.S. Civil War. Today, the UMC is a global denomination in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition. Since the early 20th C., it has rotated between periods when its progressive wing was strongest and others when its conservative evangelical wing was strongest. Today these seem balanced, but also in very uneasy tension. As my friend, UMC minister Jonathan Marlowe, points out, today’s UMC also contains severe criticisms of progressive Christianity by “postliberals,” something that is also true in other denominations.
In future posts, I will link to some major organizations and representative individuals in the Progressive Christian movement in the U.S. However, this is not just a U.S. or North American phenomenon. I invite readers from other nations to email me with their impressions of the shape of progressive Christianity in their respective nations. I think that is better than an American (me) outlining my perspective on progressive Christianity elsewhere, don’t you?
It is worth repeating at the conclusion: Many Christians who are quite traditional or conservative in matters of doctrine or church practice are liberal or progressive (or socialist or revolutionary, etc.) in matters of politics. Likewise, many Christians who are theologically progressive or liberal are centrist or conservative in politics or economics, etc. The idea that these line up in a neatly predictable fashion is wrong. I am centrist in doctrinal matters, but progressive in social and political matters. (In my progressive congregation, among those with theological training, I am considered “square” doctrinally, but few are to the left of me politically–as just one example.)
Former conservative Lutheran minister turned conservative Catholic priest, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, has died. Neuhaus’ book, The Naked Public Square, was the major ammunition of the Religious Right’s claim that church-state separation amounts to the marginalization (or even “persecution”) of Christians. Not surprisingly, Bruce Prescott, champion of religious liberty and church-state separation, has a different reaction to this news than the conservative Catholic journal First Things.
I am somewhere in the middle. While I share Bruce’s opinions about both the Theocons (theocratic conservatives) and Christian Nationalists (Neuhaus was more in this group) and the way they used Neuhaus’ book to claim that all attempts to defend religious pluralism and to prevent creeping religious establishmentarianism (de jure or de facto) were, instead, attempts to silence religious voices in public affairs, I did appreciate the tone and nuance of Neuhaus. You could debate him and dialogue with him. He was of a different character than the shrill voices of intolerance who used his book to advance their extremism–and he actually became more reasonable after his conversion to Catholicism. Nonetheless, I hope that Fr. Neuhaus’ passing is also the passing of an era–and one I won’t miss.
I hope that even in U.S. Catholicism we see a return to defense of religious liberty for all and church-state separation–Catholic voices like that of the late Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul:
A National Summit on Torture
On September 11-12, 2008, Evangelicals for Human Rights, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Mercer University, will host a national summit on torture in Atlanta, GA, on the campus of Mercer University. Featuring some of the nation’s top thinkers and leaders in the anti-torture community, this conference is co-sponsored by an unprecedented group of organizations.
Obviously, for people of faith, the journey does not end here. Speakers and participants will also explore the path of return to once again becoming a nation that leads the world in the protection of human rights.
Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul is organized and co-sponsored by individuals and groups who have sought to mobilize Americans and people of faith to oppose human rights violations in the struggle against terrorism. There will be moments of prayer and biblical reflection that embody the convictions of the sponsoring organizations, and the entire event will be infused with moral conviction drawn from religious tradition.
Conference speakers will reflect a variety of faith perspectives. The conference is open to all who will come. Our vision is that the conference will be a template for the kind of discourse, both faith-based and otherwise, that opens wide the doors for dialogue rather than closing them.
We invite you to be a part of this important conference. Register before June 1 for an early registration discount. Early registration fee is $99. Beginning June 1, registration fee will increase to $150.
Deadline for registration is August 1, 2008. Seating is limited.
Current Co-Sponsors include:
Key Speakers include:
Another exciting event that is happening this summer is Envision, a conference which will be held at Princeton University, June 8-10. Sixty leading scholars, artists, activists, and pastors will represent a broad array of theological perspectives, all focused on one thing: Christian Engagement in the Public Square. EHR is co-sponsoring this event, and as part of EHR’s network, you can attend this conference for a discounted fee of $149 by entering “EHR” or “David Gushee.” The regular registration $249. For more information on Envision 08 and to register, go to www.ev08.org.
We hope you can join us.
David P. Gushee
Because of my mental health break from blogging, I have yet to comment on the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Marty on the Homefront has the full context of the snippets played out of context of his sermons here. I have been furious about this. I would never have said, “God damn America,” (or any place else), but the prophet Jeremiah (Wright’s namesake) said much the same thing about Israel/Judah. As Frank Schaeffer pointed out, his father, Francis A. Schaeffer, who helped to launch the Religious Right in the late ’70s, repeatedly called for armed revolution against the U.S. by Christians if the government refused to outlaw abortion–but no conservative Republican politician was ever demonized for friendship with Schaeffer. In fact, at his funeral, Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives were in attendance. John McCain’s endorsements by Hagee, who has called for Palestinian genocide and demonized both Jews and Catholics (but is uncritically supportive of the Israeli govt.), or by the late Jerry Falwell (who blamed 9/11 on feminists and gays and liberals–everyone but the terrorists), or Pat Robertson (who regularly urges the assassination of foreign leaders with whom he disagrees) have not been much questioned. (In fact, the press have long sugar coated the real John McCain, but that’s a subject for another time).
The demonizing of Rev. Wright, and Obama by extension, strikes me as racist. I DON’T mean that black ministers are not subject to criticism, nor that Wright’s remarks weren’t rightly repudiated by Obama. As I said above, I would never ask God to damn anyone or any place. But I have heard Wright preach at the 2003 meeting of the Alliance of Baptists, which celebrated our ecumenical ties with the Disciples of Christ and with the United Church of Christ (Wright’s denomination and Obama’s). I know the good his church does. I know that a man who was once a U.S. Marine has more patriotism than any of these chickenhawks who demonize him. I also know that, while I have preached far fewer sermons and written far less than Rev. Wright, one could easily take minute snippets out of my stuff and make me sound like an idiot or worse. (Someone once overheard me quoting someone with whom I disagreed and claimed I was making physical threats on the president!) I could do the same with almost any public speaker–but it wouldn’t be either right or honest and it wouldn’t help in any public discussion of major issues.
What strikes me as racist about this is that no one even inquires who the pastors are of white candidates, no matter what they say. Ronald Reagan seldom even went to church. The only time we knew who Bob Dole’s pastor was came when the press leaked that both the Clintons and Doles went to Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. (during the time that Rev. Dr. Philip J. Wogaman, whom I know slightly, was pastor). Shortly after that the Doles moved their membership, but no one asked where. We knew nothing about Bill Clinton’s Baptist congregation in Arkansas until they refused to kick him out during the Lewinsky scandal. Do we know Hillary Clinton’s current pastor? McCain we know can’t decide whether he is Episcopalian or Southern Baptist. So, the extreme focus on Obama’s pastor by mostly white reporters and politicians, most of whom have never been in a black church and don’t know anything about African-American Christianity, strikes me as having, at least, racist overtones.
I have been twice a member of a black Baptist congregation and I know that members expect the pastor to be bold and confrontational–but don’t expect to follow his every word. I remember when visiting a black church in which the pastor described the “war on young black boys” in the ’90s that the members came up to me afterword to make CERTAIN that I knew their pastor was not demonizing all whites–but I knew that already. (In fact, nothing was said that day with which I particularly disagreed.) I also know that Black sermons take you to the depths of pain and anger before giving you the hope and joy of the Good News. But the ignorant media never showed that these snippets from Wright were NOT the conclusion of his sermons.
Nothing approaching real journalism was attempted. When confronted with the free ride given to McCain despite his endorsements by controversial rightwing preachers, reporters said they might cover that if those sermons were playing on Youtube! So, today’s reporters are too lazy to investigate, but have have YouTube users do it for them. No wonder we are in such sad shape!
(Hey, if we can’t smear Obama as a closet Muslim, let’s smear his pastor and make them both sound anti-white and anti-American.)
Obama may or may not become the next U.S. president. Either way, he will recover. I grieve because Rev. Wright, a brother in Christ, may not recover his reputation as a sincere servant of God. The false witness borne against him is a great and lasting sin. Conservatives would be outraged if “the liberal media” quoted race-baiting statements from Rev. Jerry Falwell in the days when he still supported segregation, without ever mentioning his later repentance on this issue. But I have heard ZERO conservatives standing up for Rev. Wright. (Even Mike Huckabee, who DID say that Obama should not be held accountable for Wright’s statements unless he agreed with them, did not make any attempt to stand up for Wright. And, as a former preacher, Huckabee knows that no preacher wants to have his or her whole preaching career judged by fragments of one or two sermons. We all have sermons we regret. ) What context can be given for that omission, I wonder?
P.S. Frank Schaeffer also rightly notes that Clinton is wrong about Obama being “out of touch” with religious America. As Schaeffer notes, candidate responses to controversies can be dismissed, so we learn more by what they say BEFORE it was an issue. Schaeffer quotes from Obama’s remarks in 2006 at a Sojourners event, an evangelical event. The full speech is on the Obama campaign website and has been since it went up. But the speech itself was given nearly a year before Obama began campaigning for president. His accounts of his conversion all pre-date this, too.
I am not sure Schaeffer is right to dismiss Clinton’s own faith as genuine, and I don’t know about McCain’s faith (he seems to hold the nation itself as his god, but I could be wrong), but I agree that Obama is certainly most “in touch” with Christian America. I never thought I would agree as much with one of the founders of the Religious Right, a self-declared 55 year old father of a Marine, who is gun owning, flag waving, military loving lifelong conservative. But as Schaeffer says, if Obama can reach him, he can reach anyone in America.