Defining 'Progressive'

By Diana Butler Bass 04-21-2009

"Progressive" has become the adjective of choice to describe faith communities with commitments to justice, serving the poor, and environmentalism. Yet, in the last couple of months, a number of faith leaders have pointed out that the term lacks clarity and that not all progressives believe the same things -- especially in regard to two important progressive issues: reproductive freedom and marriage equity -- not to mention significant theological differences among "progressive" groups.

Indeed, there appears to be a divide in the progressive community between what my friend Del Brown (a professor from the GTU in Berkeley and member of the Beatitudes Society board) calls "purists" and "accommodators," those who maintain a prophetic distance from power structures and those who form pragmatic coalitions in order to get things done. At the moment, the Obama administration seems to be favoring the pragmatic progressives over the purist progressives.

A few years ago, in a meeting at Sojourners, I publicly worried about the use of the word "progressive" to describe the emerging justice-based Christianity. I aruged that the term "progressive" had complex historical and theological origins -- and that, ultimately, "progressive" would prove confusing and perhaps even divisive. Well, that day appears to have arrived. For weeks, there's been a debate over at Religion Dispatches about "who counts" as a progressive -- and much of that debate has expressed anxiety about the use of the phrase "progressive evangelical," including some criticism directed specifically at Sojourners.

Yesterday, I jumped into the fray with a piece about "Post-Modern Progressives" to sort through the hazy terminology -- arguing for the "both-and" rather than the "either-or." You can read it here.

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass is pretty much a postmodern progressive. In addition to blogging here, she also blogs at Progressive Revival and is the author of the new book, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

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