Pearl River These days the phrase “progressive Christianity” sounds like a contradiction in terms, opposites attracting in the same sentence or something like that, or perhaps the last of a dying breed. Not so, says Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a religious activist, organizer, and author of Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, who I spoke to at length recently on Wade’s World. Graves-Fitzsimmons argues that there are more of this breed than many might have thought, and his big “ask” is that they stand up, be counted, and raise their voices.
In fact, he says he knows that’s the case, because partnering with a well-regarded survey group, he was able to have the data crunched and come up with a number. He found that there were some 35 million progressive Christians compared to only 18 million fundamentalist or conservative Christians. His measuring stick was based on expressed positions on abortion or choice, LGBTQ inclusion, peace, and immigration.
The problem, Graves-Fitzsimmons, argues is that the current group of more conservative Christians, even though a minority, has seized the narrative. Historically, he points to the early days of the 20th century when fundamentalism first became a theological project. The argument by fundamentalists was pitted against the advocates of the Social Gospel in a back-to-the-Bible push that to my reading sounded like the current originalism case in the Supreme Court hearings for Judge Amy Barret. Fundamentalists claimed the Bible was literal, so was the virgin birth, the naysaying on evolution, and the rest of the whole package. In the first round, the fundamentalists lost badly, as more progressive, modern spokespeople for Christianity turned them back. In Graves-Fitsimmons telling, the fundamentalists regrouped and rebranded with the same principles, added some new issues, and called themselves evangelicals. In recent years their voices have dominated and the silence of progressive Christians has allowed them to define the religion, pushing many progressives out of the church and splintering some groups like his own United Methodists.
It seems a quixotic battle for a young organizer, but Graves-Fitzsimmons says he was bred for this kind of fight no matter the odds, because in the words of the old Hank Williams, Jr song, “it’s the family tradition.” His grandmother, Frances Graves, was a progressive activist and Christian missionary, both in the US and Mexico, throughout her life. His parents, Judy Graves and Orell Fitzsimmons, were community and union organizers and continue to be political activists and social change advocates in Houston. I know his whole tribe as boon friends and comrades in struggle, so despite the long odds, I would never bet against any of them. As an example, I’ve never been a fan of weddings and see marriage as an unnecessary intrusion of the church and state, but I’ve been to his wedding, his sister’s wedding, and his parents wedding, and wouldn’t have missed any of them for the world.
It’s an uphill fight, but Guthrie isn’t waging it with just a hope and a prayer. He’s a twitter warrior for his cause. He mentioned several organizations that were uniting progressive Christians, including one that is an online version of MoveOn.org in his telling. He’s doing the work in the vineyards.
No matter anyone’s personal beliefs, politically we have to root for progressive Christians to grow and prosper in order to break the cultural and political hammerlock of conservatives on so many social issues that are dividing us all and preventing us from creating the kind of community of neighborly love that Graves-Fitzsimmons says is his goal. No question that would be a friendlier and better community for all of us, largely because it would in fact be a place where all of us could live.