Religious Freedom For Me, But Not For Thee

At ThinkProgress Jack Jenkins informs us that even as conservative Christians whine about the alleged threat to “religious liberty” of marriage equality and other non-discrimination laws, some of them are aggressively going after liberal Christians who have no problem complying with the law and are in many cases joyously performing same-sex marriages and ending their ancient ambivalence toward (preceded by hostility to) homosexuality. Why would they so blatantly risk charges of hypocrisy? That’s not entirely clear, but it may be a matter of “protecting the brand” and/or realizing that liberal Christianity can no longer be dismissed as a dying and doomed phenomenon. To put it more simply, conservatives are no longer on a winning streak.

[T]he first hints of a growing front against liberal Christians came in May, when a coalition of conservative churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona publicly ganged up on a local progressive Methodist community. Unhappy with the church’s teachings, eight congregations launched a campaign entitled “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?,” a coordinated teaching and preaching series that included op-eds, a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper, and a massive banner with “progressive” written in jagged red letters and hemmed in quotation marks.

“The progressives are at it again, and for a small fee you can join the primary proponent of this apostate religious movement to get answers,” Tony Pierce, a pastor of First Baptist Church of Fountain Hills and one of the participants in the effort, wrote in a letter to the editor. “The good thing about the progressive movement is it gives people a clear choice. The ironic thing about progressive Christianity is that it is neither!”

The source of their outrage? Rev. David Felten, the left-leaning pastor of Fountains United Methodist Church. He reportedly stoked ire by preaching a variety of progressive concepts to his parishioners, such as theological support for interfaith dialogue, scientific discovery, and, of course, LGBT equality.

Felten, like many progressive Christians, was used to criticism for his views — he has even published a book about progressive Christianity. But the intensity of the local attack — which included churches from denominations that are generally more liberal than his own United Methodist Church — caught him off guard.

Jenkins also quotes Peter Leithart, a Reformed theologian writing in the pages of that powerful journal conservative Christian agitprop First Things, urging a new assault on the infidels:

[M]ost important is what happens in the churches. Even before Obergefell, some churches were making peace with same-sex marriage. Now that same-sex marriage is law, the tribe of “Good Churches” will increase, and the division in the churches over sexual morality will sharpen. Many leaders, churches, and denominations have condemned the Court’s decision, and more will; but others support it, and we have no trans-denominational mechanism to adjudicate between them. There is an opportunity here to forge or strengthen local coalitions of churches. In some cities, pastors’ associations have issued statements affirming biblical marriage. That’s good and needs to happen across the country. But those statements will be most effective if they have a prophetic edge. Saying what’s right is necessary, but it’s not enough. Pastors need to be willing to say that other churches are wrong, and dangerously so.

How easy will it be to square all the talk of conservative Christians just wanting to be left alone to worship God as they wish with renewed hostilities against nominal co-religionists who are in agreement with the Supreme Court and a growing majority of the American people? Not so easy. I mean, what’s next? A demand that liberal churches lose their tax exemptions because they are not actually Christian? Whoops! Better not go there!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.