Who among us can be considered a true Christian? Though always a fraught question, sociologists George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk argue that even the category of “Christian” is now unintelligible in America. Provocatively yet predictably, they argue in One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America that the gulf between progressive and conservative Christianity is so great they are no longer the same faith. Anyone interested in religion and politics will appreciate Quosigk and Yancey, yet the book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is a thoroughly academic work of sociology.
The authors neatly summarize their core findings from the beginning:
We highlight here that progressive Christians emphasize political values relating to social justice issues as they determine who is part of their in-group; they tend to be less concerned about theological agreement. Conservative Christians, however, do not put strong emphasis on political agreement in order to determine if you are one of them—their major concern is whether you agree with them theologically. The bottom line… is that progressive and conservative Christians use entirely different factors in determining their social identity and moral values.
They therefore argue it would be better to consider progressive and conservative Christianity as different religions, despite some obvious similarities. The comparison Yancey and Quosigk opt for is between Buddhism and Hinduism, which despite sharing the idea of Nirvana and reverence for Gautama Buddha are still clearly different theologically. The criteria for this determination hinges on two related factors: the moral framing utilized by different groups and the process of determining in-group versus out-group status. Individuals should be considered members of the same socioreligious classification if their ethical framing and in/out grouping match, and progressive and conservative Christians do not match.
It may seem strange to highlight distinctions among American Christians today when in the past there have been “divisions between Protestants and Catholics, between Calvinists and Methodists, between Baptists and non-Methodists, between Pentecostals and everybody else, or the Holiness movement and everybody else.” Yet, despite the real history of American Christians being part of different social groups, their sense of theological ethics has been basically the same. While on Sundays different Christians had different rituals, for the rest of the week their worldview was quite similar. This contrasts with today’s progressive Christians who neither share the theo-ethical framing of conservative Christians nor think of themselves as part of the same group.
The authors begin with a historiography of the progressive-conservative split, which they describe as originating in the fundamentalist-modernist split of the early twentieth century. Though not all conservative Christians are fundamentalists, all progressive Christians can trace an ideological lineage back to the Social Gospel and other modern reforms. Despite good intentions, within a few generations the emphasis shifted entirely from personal salvation to societal transformation primarily justified in secular terms. The attitude of conservative Christians, in contrast, focused on individual and communal piety while also maintaining a general distrust of broad government-enacted social reform.
The statistical analysis is primarily in the second chapter while the rest of the book consists of interviews that vindicate but nuance the authors’ quantitative findings. The numbers come from the 2012 American National Election Survey (ANES). While the numbers did indicate real differences in the socio-political outlook of Christians, some of these differences seemed small.
For example, Christian-Islamic relations make up a significant part of the substantiating interviews, and the takeaway is that progressive Christians are very friendly to Muslims and conservative Christians aren’t. Yet, Table 2.3 reveals that only 22 percent and 31.5 percent of progressive and conservative Christians respectively are “Anti-Muslim,” and merely 1.6 percent and 0.9 percent of progressive and conservative Christians respectively are “Pro-Muslim.” Not much difference in either case.
Another chart (2.2) that purportedly shows the gulf between progressive and conservative Christians using a “thermometer” scale, where zero is absolute hatred and 100 pure love indicated moderation: progressive Christians’ disdain for political conservatives was 53.78 while conservative Christian dislike for political liberals was 43.8 (compare to 26.8 for their low opinion of atheists). However, I speculate that since ANES 2012 things have become more polarized, so future data will better support their conclusion.
Following the second chapter, the rest of the book is qualitative, drawing on blog posts and interviews. Chapter three offers an interesting analysis of the rhetoric conservative and progressive Christians use within their respective political groupings. While conservative Christians will challenge Republican orthodoxy on issues like immigration, race, environmentalism, and poverty in explicitly theological terms, this was not true for progressive Christians. Progressive Christians and Democrats primarily clash over abortion, yet when appealing to other liberals “their disagreement… is presented as a contrasting way to apply their shared progressive values, and not as disagreement with the overarching values themselves.”
Unsurprisingly, the interviews with conservative Christians reveal a fixation on historic doctrine and continuity with a two-millennia old tradition to determine their ingroup. Political dissent was significantly less important than orthodox faith, and in fact “conservative Christians [are] becoming increasingly unhappy with the Republican party.” Yet, despite clear theological differences with progressive Christians, conservative Christians still consider them part of their ingroup.
But the most interesting section by far was the progressive Christian interviews. Several elements stood out: for one, the ethical paradigm the interviewees expressed was “a humanistic ethic of social justice.” This entails the promotion of societally transformative movements, especially through state action, but also “put[ting] a great deal of stress on finding one’s identity and then giving it out… emphasiz[ing] the worthlessness of finding one’s identity in one’s religious label.” They also reject proselytization as close-minded at best and colonialist at worst, at least when directed at Muslims or oppressed minorities. This is unsurprisingly reflective of the modern therapeutic approach to spirituality that prioritizes self-actualization above all else.
The way these beliefs played out with questions of Islam and conservative Christians was fascinating. The progressive Christians showed an extraordinary amount of praise for Muslims and Islam in general; one called Muhammed “a really, really remarkable reformer.” Others described Muslims as “exhibiting warmth and hospitality [and] having a more inclusive orientation,” and others praised the Qu’ran for its wisdom. Despite their expressed admiration of Muslims, however, progressive Christians exhibited deep antipathy for conservative Christians. As the authors describe, when pressed on questions of Muhammed as God’s true prophet “progressive Christians often shifted seamlessly into critiques of Evangelicalism.”
This is the paradox of modern progressivism: it promotes tolerance and open-mindedness, especially for groups with oppressed status, to such a degree that ostensibly all should be welcome. Yet, this unlimited love is predicated upon first sharing the same universalism as the progressive Christians. In their pursuit of equality and freedom, every religion and culture must be flattened and homogenized into being substantively identical to their utilitarian therapeutic spirituality. They then claim to be “tolerant” because of their delight in accepting superficial differences like a hijab.
Appreciating Muslims and admiring facets of Islam is uncontroversial. But the double standard applied to conservative Christians is so jarring that only essential differences could explain it. Progressive and conservative Christians are undeniably contrasting. But instead of two different kinds of Christian, it’s more like orthodox Christians and “Christians” who have spent generations remaking their religion substantively indistinguishable from bourgeois therapeutic progressive religion. Ironically, it seems that orthodox Muslims and Christians should have a deeper appreciation for one another as two great salients against unavailing modernism. Only time will tell where the reordering of religious alliances will end up.
Quosigk and Yancey have made a valuable contribution to American socioreligious discourse. Despite reservations about some of their statistical evidence, I believe their hypothesis is correct. But as a work of academic sociology, there was no room for a serious philosophical and theological interrogation of progressive religion. Hopefully, with our sociologists’ data in hand, someone will soon begin writing that book.