For Conservative Christians, Is Engagement A One-Way Street?

09/19/2017 09:01 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2017

Conservative Christians frequently complain that progressives are intolerant of their views. We refuse to listen to them, they argue, and shut them down when they try to express their beliefs. Yet, in two recent incidents conservative Christians arguably did just that to other Christians.

This makes any attempt at intra-Christian dialogue frustrating, but also highlights a bigger issue. Conservative Christians often deny the legitimacy of progressive Christians’ views because of our stance on social issues. No matter how many Biblical passages we cite, we’re still accused of “co-opting” the faith or “giving in” to secularism. Conservative Christians don’t need to agree with progressive Christians, but I wish more of them would start taking our faith seriously.

First, I need to clear something up. One common critique of my last post on US faith issues involved questions about why a non-Christian would tell Christians about their faith. I thought it had been obvious from my post, but yes, I am a Christian. I was baptized in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and regularly attend an Episcopal Church. As to why I don’t telegraph that, I like to follow the guidelines in Matthew 6:5–8.

Also one more caveat: I know “progressive” and “conservative” are problematic words to use when discussing American Christianity. But other terms are either equally problematic or esoteric, so I thought I’d use ones that were widely recognized.

My concerns about conservative willingness to engage with progressive Christians come from two recent incidents.

Over the weekend, James Martin — a prominent Catholic priest — announced the Catholic University of America had cancelled a lecture he was to give. The stated reason was opposition from conservative Catholics over his call for compassion towards LGBT Catholics, as he discussed in his recent book.

The other incident was a column by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today. This evangelical magazine had admirably given space for Tim Kaine — Democratic US Senator and Roman Catholic — to make a Christian case for working to improve US healthcare. Stetzer responded by questioning the legitimacy of Kaine’s Scriptural arguments because Kaine is pro-choice. He says Kaine is “simply not the right person to explain how our faith and scripture inform our actions for the ‘least of these’” because of his views on abortion. That is, he says a progressive Christian cannot turn to Scripture in political debates because evangelicals disagree with him on social issues.

In both cases, conservative Christians refused to engage with other Christians with whom they disagreed on social issues. And in the case of Martin, they refused to give them a platform.

This is especially frustrating because conservative Christians have argued that progressives are not tolerant of their views. The argument claims that we refuse to even acknowledge them, and thus shut down debate on many important issues.

A prominent recent example of this involved Presbyterian Minister Tim Keller. Keller had been invited to give a lecture at the Princeton Theological Seminary and receive a distinguished award. Keller is part of the Presbyterian Church in America — which does not ordain women or LGBT individuals — and this led to protests by members of the seminary. Ultimately, Keller gave his lecture but did not receive his award. Many argued this was a case of intolerance from progressive Christians (although, to reiterate, he did get to speak).

Conservative Christians have raised similar claims on other issues. I had many conversations with conservative Christians when I ran the Pew Research Center’s project on religious freedom. Some told me their concerns about the legalization of same-sex marriage were over progressive unwillingness to accept the validity of their views. Additionally, conservatives claim that an increasingly secular society is intolerant of their religious beliefs, undermining their religious freedom.

So it is surprising, and concerning, to see conservative Christians demonstrate the same behavior they denounce in progressives. This can undermine the credibility of conservative calls for engagement on their views, and make intra-Christian dialogue more difficult.

But I think this demonstrates a bigger problem. Conservative Christians often don’t just refute progressive Christians’ Biblical arguments; they deny their legitimacy.

When progressive Christians use the Bible to explain our political views, we’re accused of “co-opting” the faith for political purposes. More frustratingly, we’re often accused of rejecting the validity of Scripture, and turning to “secular progressivism” or something along those lines.

The fact that I could write a piece citing the Bible and be accused of not being a Christian demonstrates this. How can we even begin to engage with conservative Christians if some of them refuse to accept our arguments as Christian?

What can they do?

First, I know that not all conservative Christians are responsible for these two incidents. They can demonstrate this by being as critical of these moves as if progressives did them.

Second, when progressive Christians make Scriptural arguments on political debates, conservatives can disagree. But they need to engage with the Scriptural basis of our arguments. They shouldn’t just reject them because we are pro-choice or claim we don’t take the Bible seriously.

Finally, they can acknowledge the diversity of Christian beliefs. “Christian” is not synonymous with “evangelical Christian.” A good positive example is Jonathan Merritt, who criticized progressive Christians for the Keller episode but also highlights the work of many of them.

Of course, conservative Christians could respond by asking why they should engage with us. I don’t have the space to make a positive argument for intra-faith engagement on areas of disagreement (although I’d start with Romans 14). But if that’s the case, then admit it, and stop using this line of attack against progressive Christians. If that’s not the case, then I would love to hear from conservative Christians on how to address this issue.

Please note — before I get more nasty emails — that I’m not even criticizing conservative views here (even though I do disagree with them). I’m just asking them to listen, and engage with, the other side.

Updated to correct a spelling mistake.

This piece originally appeared on Medium.

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