3 Surprises from New Research on “Progressive” and “Conservative” Christians

3 Surprises from New Research on “Progressive” and “Conservative” Christians

It’s progressives who rarely defy political orthodoxy and who harbor disdain for conservatives. And the hardening lines between these two groups add weight to the thesis of J. Gresham Machen a century ago: when it comes to Christianity and theological liberalism, we really are talking about two different religions.

Are conservative Christians prone to politicizing their faith, conflating Republican Party politics with biblical fidelity?

Some are, and we could point to plenty of examples. But the bigger, underreported story is that conservative Christians are not uniquely prone to such errors, and in fact, “progressive” Christians outpace their conservative counterparts in succumbing to politicization.

One Faith No Longer

George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk’s new book, One Faith No Longer: the Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, published by NYU Press earlier this year, has a provocative thesis. Based on new research and extensive interviews, the authors claim current progressive-conservative divisions among Christians in the U.S. (descending from the modernist-fundamentalist battles a century ago) are manifestations of fundamentally different belief systems.

Yancey and Quosigk believe we are not dealing with minor alterations in doctrine and values, but belief systems that have grown so drastically different that each side’s “goals” become oppositional, thereby “interfering with one another’s ability to accomplish their desired purposes” (209).

In defining conservative and progressive Christians, the authors use theological rather than political criteria. Individuals who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and say Jesus is the only path to salvation are conservative Christians. Those who do not believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and do not see Jesus as the only path to salvation are progressive Christians.

The decision to define these groups by theological rather than political criteria is itself one of the areas where the differences between progressives and conservatives are most starkly represented. Everywhere we turn, we hear that conservative evangelicalism has become overly politicized and partisan, unable to speak to power prophetically. And we can certainly point to people and places where this has been the case. But we’re wrong to assume that the answer to this politicization will be found by turning to the Christian left. On the contrary, progressive Christians who fit this description are more, not less, politically minded than the conservative Christians.

Here are three surprises from Yancey and Quosigk’s research.

1. Progressive Christians are more likely to establish their identity through politics, while conservative Christians find their identity in theology.

Put simply, progressive Christians see the world through a political lens; conservative Christians, through a religious lens (155). This doesn’t mean that progressives are atheological and conservatives apolitical, but only that the emphasis is wildly disparate between the groups.

For example, 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 on core theological points…(4)

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