All Protestants Are Progressives

Since everything in Protestantism reduces to the individual's personal interpretation, even conservative Protestants end up advancing progressivism.


July 10, 2024

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Conservative Protestant intellectuals are concerned about their future in the American regime. “Roman Catholics have rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of cultural, intellectual, and political leadership,” write Brad Littlejohn and Chris Castaldo in their recent book Why Do Protestants Convert? When Americans today think of conservative Protestantism, the authors bemoan, they think not of luminaries such as Carl Trueman or Joshua Mitchell but of heavily politicized (and often embarrassing) MAGA evangelicals. Thus, Littlejohn and Castaldo admit: “Any honest evaluation of conservative political and intellectual over the last twenty-five years would compel us to admit that Roman Catholics have been far more effective than Protestants.”

Such hand-wringing explains recent attempts by those same conservative Protestant intellectuals to create new institutions to bring to bear their tradition not only on Protestant churches but also the public square. The South Carolina-based Davenant Institute, which “retrieves the riches of classical Protestantism to renew and build up the contemporary Church,” publishes not only theological literature but many politically-oriented titles, such as Religion & Republic, The Two Kingdoms, and A Protestant Christendom? The journal American Reformer, in turn, aims to “promote a vigorous Christian approach to the cultural challenges of our day, rooted in the rich tradition of Protestant social and political thought,” with articles on a “biblical understanding of decentralization” and defending a confessional Baptist state.

There’s an admirable quality to all of this, if, like me, you believe that the answer to many of America’s problems lies in a restoration of what are often called “traditional” religious values and a return to the republican constitutional order articulated by the Framers. Moreover, there’s no reason to downplay the significant overlap that Catholics share with conservative Protestants when it comes to contemporary politics—you’ll be hard-pressed to find many others outside certain Catholic circles singing the paeans of natural law or offering coherent and compelling arguments against the sexual revolution, as does Protestant thinker Scott Yenor. That said, as much as we Catholics share with our Protestant co-laborers in the good fight, the attempt to reinvigorate a conservative Protestant politics elides the unfortunate reality that its most basic premises engineered the progressivist political project under which we now all suffer.

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The attempt to reinvigorate a conservative Protestant politics elides the unfortunate reality that its most basic premises engineered the progressivist political project under which we now all suffer.Tweet This

American progressivism, as Hillsdale politics professor Ronald J. Pestritto recounts in his excellent recent book America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism, was a political movement that began after the Civil War and gained significant momentum under the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In its repudiation of such political doctrines as separation of powers and property rights, it represented a radical break from American constitutional principles. Yet what makes progressivism so interesting from a theological perspective is its cloaking of its political principles in Christian teaching.

As Pestritto explains, it was once progressives whose political language was pregnant with religious imagery. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” declared William Jennings Bryan, one of the most influential of Progressive Era politicians, at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Or, similarly, consider former president Theodore Roosevelt’s address before the National Convention of the Progressive Party in 1912: 

Our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness; and even though we who now lead may for the time fail, in the end the cause itself shall triumph.… We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord! 

Certainly, America at the turn of the twentieth century was a much more religious society than our own, one in which the vast majority of its citizens identified themselves as Christians. The theo-political Social Gospel movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries leveraged that widespread piety in support of progressive politics. Social Gospel proponents such as Richard T. Ely, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch urged Protestant churches to apply Christian ethics to social action, addressing such issues as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, the environment, and child labor. They also embraced new intellectual ideas such as evolutionary science—which influenced their belief in human liberation and advancement—while rejecting widely-accepted Protestant doctrines such as the infallibility and inspiration of the Bible, and even original sin. 

In doing this, so the narrative among conservative American Protestants goes, the Social Gospel movement abandoned true biblical Christianity. Pestritto, for example, writes that while something he calls “Orthodox Christianity” labored and prayed for the salvation of souls, the Social Gospel argued that righteousness was related to this-worldly efforts to pursue political and socio-economic justice. Yet herein lies the problem: who decides what constitutes “orthodox” American Protestantism? On what grounds does Pestritto or anyone else decide whether Ely and Rauschenbusch, or, say, J. Gresham Machen and Billy Graham, represent authentic biblical Christianity? 

The answer is that there is no person nor any mechanism within Protestantism to determine what is orthodox and what is heretical. Everything reduces to the personal interpretation of the individual Protestant. Thus, Rauschenbusch decides the Bible isn’t infallible or doesn’t even teach original sin; Machen and Graham assert the opposite. Yet no Protestant magisterium exists to adjudicate their disputes. Hence, the theological (and, by extension, political) debates within Protestantism—even over what constitutes legitimate Protestant faith—are interminable. 

This is also why so many of the American political causes whose energy originated within Protestantism—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, temperance—in time became indistinguishable from Protestantism. The raison d’être for the Protestant mainline churches increasingly served simply to offer a patina of spirituality or ethics to otherwise entirely secular movements. Some Protestants, of course, have sought to combat this, prioritizing their confessional creeds and traditional doctrines over political or socio-economic agendas that minimize theological doctrine. Yet this tension remains, evidenced by such recent trends as evangelical debates over racial reparations and in vitro fertilization.

That’s not to say such tensions don’t exist within Catholicism—obviously they do. But the Church retains a means of defining and controlling such causes, which is why Catholicism views its social teaching as an expression of its evangelical witness, not the totality of it. Thus, for example, the Church first affirms the dignity of women by virtue of its theological understanding of creation. But it is not beholden to feminist ideology, which is at odds with that same understanding of humanity—hence its condemnation of abortion. This is contrasted with the Protestant mainline, who are, by and large, the inheritors of the Social Gospel and thus promote what we might call a liberal integralism

But it is also at odds with conservative Protestants at such places as the Davenant Institute or American Reformer, whose appeal to doctrinal orthodoxy—whether it be on the Bible or sexual ethics—is inevitably subjective and ad hoc, even when they appeal to “authoritative” sources within their own Reformation tradition. For, as I argue in my book The Obscurity of Scripture, Protestants pick and choose which teachings from their own arbitrary definition of tradition they assess to be authoritative, based ultimately on their own individual interpretation of Holy Scripture. Calvin and Hooker perhaps, but also Aquinas and Augustine…when they are assessed to agree with their own Protestant premises and biblical exegesis, of course.

Today’s conservative Protestants largely, if not entirely, eschew the Social Gospel movement as an aberration from the authentic, confessional-based traditions they seek to revive and inform contemporary political discourse. Instead, they argue that they are the children of an older Reformation (and even Scholastic) tradition that is more easily reconcilable with the ideals of our republican regime as first conceived by the Framers. Yet in truth, these conservatives are also the brothers of their mainline (or unchurched) progressive opponents who are actively destroying our constitutional regime. Demonstrating there is any principled difference between the two—especially given that both are grounded in an arbitrary method of embracing traditions and authorities—remains conservative Protestants’ most difficult challenge.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


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1 thought on “All Protestants Are Progressives”

  1. One can only wonder what Catholic denomination the author is addressing given the progressive Catholics are more than welcome in the Church, while Traditional Catholics are being mocked, dismissed now excommunicated. Certainly, the Catholic Church I attend (only one within 40-miles) is somewhat liberal, leaning towards Liberation Theology. The convert to Catholicism must be careful given the teachings of the local Catholic Church may vary somewhat. I must listen for what the homily does not say as much as what it does say.

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