Not polar opposites: The similarities between fundamentalist and progressive Christians

This post might go over a few people’s heads, mostly because I tend to overestimate my ability to articulate my points. Before going into detail, let’s get some vocabulary out of the way:

In the categories set forward I am defining the terms according to their connotations rather than their denotations. For example, a fundamentalist literally could represent anyone who feels they are following the essential doctrines (ie: fundamentals) of the faith. However fundamentalism tends to implicate a radical, haughty and judgmental attitude.

For the sake of this post, fundamentalist Christians are going to be defined through the lens of critical theory: racist, sexist, homophobic, and “stuck in the past”. Their bigotry is reportedly justified through scripture. Their sins are largely justified self-righteously or swept under the rug. Just to be clear, I would also distinguish radical Christians from fundamentalists. Though there is arguably some ideological continuity between the radical and the fundamentalist, the latter should not be presumed to be as violent as the former.

Progressive Christians are going to be defined specifically through these issues (ie: things concerning the LGBT community, contraception, abortion, and sexual liberation). The role of scripture in their justification varies heavily. Their sins are always justified or redefined as not sinful.

Also I am defining a “true” Christian with descriptor “Essentialist”, mostly to contrast from the fundamentalist. This person actually follows the essential doctrines of the faith, EVEN AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE. They can identify their own actions as sinful when they come in conflict with the will of God.

As St. Augustine said, “On essentials unity, on nonessentials liberty, and on all things charity [Love]”.

I’ll set the stage with an anecdote:

On labor day, I came back to my home town for a church picnic. An itinerant minister was one of the invitees from outside of the “church family”. He was one of the street preachers you tend to see on college campuses etc. Complete with a backpack full of his gospel tracts criticizing those outside of protestant Christian orthodoxy. I’m not formally trained in the world of theology, but the knowledge I did have impressed him so he stayed around me and my immediate family. Another person in my church family came up to me after a while. Whenever he’s around we discuss politics, something I enjoy doing. Eventually the itinerant minister came into the conversation when Hilary Clinton was brought up. Long story short, the conversation escalated onto the topic of same sex marriage.

My church family member took on the progressive argument (full disclosure: I wouldn’t necessarily accuse him of being a progressive Christian, but that’s the argument he used). He first mentioned that he does understand that the Bible condemns homosexuality (really homoeroticism), period. However he questions how the Bible was compiled, and feels that by denying these rights to the LGBT community you are limiting the power and grace of God. The itinerant minister took on the fundamentalist argument; citing the passages in Corinthians and Leviticus (ignoring the fact that my church family member understood the Bible’s condemnation). He pretty much remained steadfast on his argument. He broke down the Corinthians passage identifying “abusers of themselves with mankind” as “the queers”. He assured that his words were spoken in love when he saw my expression.

When I finally had a chance to speak I brought up Matthew 16:24, where Jesus instructs all those who wish to follow him to deny themselves first. My point being, that the issue with same sex marriage was a lack of self-denial (best made evident in Romans 1: 20-27). The minister immediately gave a caveat to my point defending heterosexual acts in the realm of marriage. This led to a discussion of how the topic of marriage had changed from God’s design (from their perspectives). Interestingly, they both believe that polygamy is God’s design. The idea of monogamy is man’s perversion. For the progressive argument this meant that Christians have an ideological precedent to change, and for the fundamentalist argument it meant there’s an ideological point from which Christians must return.

I tried to argue that monogamy is God’s ideal, citing Matthew 4-6 and the fact that polygamy is always presented as problematic in scripture. Both the minister and the family member disagreed. The minister at least believed I had a good point, but still said I was wrong. Citing the fact that God “gave” King David his wives, yet it also states in Deuteronomy that men cannot have multiple wives in places of authority or if they are Deacons in the New Testament. Interesting that he would use David as an example and then address the Deuteronomy condemnation; they both became literalists at this point to justify polygamy for men.

Progressive Christians often will tell stories about how they used to be “super conservative” before they became more progressive. They describe this transition as being very difficult, but a part of their growing up process in the faith. This only makes sense if we define their conservatism as fundamentalism. For both the fundamentalist and the progressive, Christianity comes in tandem with their own perception of reality. This perspective is really predicated through their personal sense of liberty. The fundamentalist believes they alone have the freedom to do what they want (and sins are defined by what bothers them personally). On the issue of homosexuality in the church, they prefer passages like Leviticus and Corinthians. This preference is because, unlike Romans 1, they don’t analyze the symptoms and causes of the issue, the scripture just presents a condemnation. For the fundamentalist, they believe they are closer to God by sharing in his disgust. As the world becomes less homophobic, the fundamentalist remains in denial of this social change.

Progressive Christians, by contrast, extends individual liberty to everyone; believing that they’re taking the reasonable pathway by reducing the definition of sin. Arguably it does seem as if the progressive is taking the more reasonable path. Instead of believing God’s grace and mercy only extends to the hypothetical fundamentalist, it would extend to all of God’s creation. The progressive’s argument only works if the “other” Christian is a fundamentalist. The progressive will speak of “fairness”, but not when it means sharing a responsibility to give up the things we want.

Another similarity between these groups is their emphasis on extraneous doctrine. Issues that tackle church history, the power and thought process of God, and church organization. The Episcopalian church brags about being super progressive in their doctrine and practice, however the church has a very strict schedule and organization. The candles must be lit in a certain order, the priest comes in at a certain point in the service wherein the congregation recites specific liturgical rites. During my undergrad the progressive Christian students generally were in agreement that a person must be Baptized in moving, rather than stagnant or artificially moving water. One isn’t truly baptized unless it’s in a natural body of water. Yet ordaining LGBT priests isn’t a problem for them. Fundamentalists will get into conflict about predestination, evolution, other religions and the age of the Earth. I’ve spoken to Armianists and Calvanists who, despite agreeing on most issues, parted ways and condemned each other for being “incorrect” about the nature of God. On these doctrines I look to James 2:19, which states that belief in God is “good” but the devils also believe and tremble. This was in context of faith and works (faith without works is dead), meaning Christians ought to put more priority on their individual actions within their faith.

I’ve also noticed a fire and brimstone type of rhetoric from the mouths of some progressives. Like the fundamentalist, these progressives take their ideology as gospel and condemn people to hell for disagreeing. This is despite the fact that their ideology is knowingly based on a deconstruction and uncertainty towards church doctrine. On this point I usually say that the progressives take the “easier” side than both the essentialist and the fundamentalist. By human nature, I would argue that people tend to lean towards fewer restrictions over more restrictions. The fundamentalist will be convinced once their hypocrisy in only granting liberty towards themselves is confronted. As the fundamentalists naturally convert to the progressive side, genuine believers are going to be accused of being false converts. This is why these distinctions must be made.

TL;DR

Progressives and Fundamentalists both define Christianity through the lens of their own self-righteousness. A fundamentalist will become a progressive when they are convinced to change the way they individually perceive Christianity. The progressive side is the easier side. Essential “True” Christianity is not about want the adherents want to be true, but what “is” true within the context of the faith.

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