‘Progressive’ Christianity — Trading Treasure for Straw

By Peter Wolfgang Published on July 6, 2022

Bob is a man forever shaped by the religious trends of the Vietnam era. He believes the progressive Christianity of 50 years ago a true imitation of Christ and its decline a disaster for Christianity in America.

He was my youth group leader at a Catholic church in Connecticut in the late 1980s. And I was all in with him. We were both eager modern Catholics, pro-life liberals but serious liberals.

Bob’s influence on me was brief but significant. From him I imbibed a Christian faith that was outward-oriented and relevant. He empowered us kids by putting us in charge of the group while guiding us. I’ll always be grateful.

What strikes me most in Bob’s worldview is how what is good and bad, right and wrong, is defined by the world, not by the church.

Now, I see the progressivism Bob loves as itself the disaster that destroyed Christian witness in America. The decline of Christianity these past 50 years is the natural consequence of our failure to free ourselves from it.

What happened? Why did we turn out so different?

Bob’s Catholic Story

I recently reconnected with Bob after more than 30 years and read the two books he just published. He tells his story in Crossing the Street (now in a second edition) and I Love the Church, I Hate the Church. The story inadvertently reveals the limits of progressive Christianity. It shows how those limitations are rooted not just in being left-liberal, but in other things as well.

Crossing the Street gives advice to Catholics and Protestants on how to achieve greater unity, based on Bob’s decades-long experience as both a Catholic and a Protestant. It’s essentially his autobiography.

Bob was born into the thick 1950s Catholic subculture of Putnam, Connecticut. His family was deeply connected to an order of nuns, the Daughters of the Holy Ghost, who had their mother house in Putnam. He attended the local Catholic school and was an altar boy at the mother house. He speaks of this upbringing with much gratitude.

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But the times, they were ‘a changing. Nuns shed their habits and, in some cases, their vocations. His high school teachers switched out the traditional Baltimore Catechism for modern, new agey theologians like Teilhard de Chardin. While he was still in high school, Fr. James Kavanaugh’s A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church became the foundation of his worldview.

Then in the early 1970s, he went to the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. The college emphasized social justice and theological experimentation. He explored other denominations. He also did some pro-life work. But even then, his greatest passion was in opposing what he believed to be the excesses of his fellow pro-lifers, who didn’t share his idea of social justice.

Bob’s Protestant Story

Bob returned to Connecticut to take various religious education positions within the Archdiocese of Hartford (the period during which I knew him). He left the Catholic Church in 1998 and was ordained a minister in the liberal United Church of Christ.

I should note here Bob’s irenicism. He disagrees with, but bears no hostility toward, the Catholic Church. His wife and kids, with his encouragement and blessing, are still Catholic.

I Love the Church, I Hate the Church is the fruit of his 2 1/2 decades as a mainline Protestant minister. Now retired, he reflects on institutional practices that encumber the ability of the UCC and ELCA churches in which he has served to fully witness Christ to their communities.

This book and the epilogue to the second edition of Crossing the Street, give the impression that the last decade has caused Bob to lose hope for the progressive change he’s always wanted. Even Pope Francis is not progressive enough, because he will not ordain women. He seems to have lost the hope for Protestant-Catholic unity he expressed in the first edition of Crossing the Street.

Bob’s Misplaced Hopes

I think Bob’s hopes were misplaced, for three reasons. Not too long into my adult life, I began to see how unrealistic they were, as I saw them failing.

First, Bob’s hopes were sixties Boomer hopes. Bob’s vision of the good owes less to truths that transcend time than to the particular time and place that formed him. It was a time of unrealistic optimism and carelessness about the world the Boomers inherited. “It is forbidden to forbid” was a popular slogan.

Freedom from all the old restrictions and rules would allow the new world to be born. People enjoyed smashing things that had taken centuries of faithfulness and sacrifice to create.

Bob cherished the mid-20th-century Catholic world of his upbringing. But like so many of his generation, he thought he could make something better by dismantling it. It didn’t work. It was never going to work.

Less than 20 years Bob’s junior, I am of the generation right behind Bob, “Generation X.” By the time he was our youth minister, the thick Catholic subculture of his childhood was gone, replaced by an empty desert.

All the traditions that had formed him, and that keep communities together, were gone. (Every tradition has such things.) Things like May Crownings and Corpus Christi processions. Not until my 30s, when we joined with other Catholic homeschooling parents, did I experience these traditions for the first time.

Bob expresses satisfaction that these things disappeared and regrets their return. But his generation could afford to take such things for granted, because those things had already formed them. My generation never experienced them in the first place.

Clericalist Hopes

The second reason Bob’s hopes were misplaced was that they were clericalist hopes. For much of his adult life, first as a Catholic and then as a Protestant, Bob was an ordained clergyman. Bob’s suggestions in both his books revolve around the institutional church itself. Much of his advice is clericalist.

In Crossing the Street, Bob focuses on greater unity between Catholics and Protestants. A worthy hope, which I share. But for Bob, this means having Catholic and Protestant youth groups do joint projects together. It means doing Sunday worship together. Even taking communion together. For Bob, all of this runs through the church itself.

He says he is against bland indifferentism. But that is exactly what we would have with intercommunion and other of his proposals. Our differences do make a difference. Removing these differences would create a kind of institutional unity, but not real friendship, not the real brotherhood we seek.

I know this from my own experience. I have been working on greater Catholic/Protestant unity for years. Just not Bob’s kind. Bob wants an alliance between Catholics and mainline Protestants. We don’t need a liberal mainline/liberal Catholic unity. What good would it do to be united in stripping down the Christian faith?

We need something better. Evangelical/Catholic unity has been part of my professional work these last 20 years. We’ve started creating unity through a common love of Jesus and shared work to protect the least of these, especially the unborn.

And I do it as a layman. It is clericalist to think that greater unity between Catholics and Protestants must run through our Sunday worship. That is ecumenism as churchy stuff, which is inevitably liberal and inevitably excludes Catholicism’s greatest allies among our Protestant brethren.

The common ground shared by orthodox Catholics and Evangelical Protestants is where our friends really are. That’s where the truest, deepest, and most fruitful friendships are to be made.

Progressivist Hopes

Finally, Bob’s hopes are misplaced because they’re progressivist hopes. Christianity in general is declining right now. But progressive Christianity is declining a lot faster. And with good reason.

What strikes me most in Bob’s worldview is how what is good and bad, right and wrong, is defined by the world, not by the church. In the mainline Protestant vision, The New York Times defines the agenda and the Christian churches declare that agenda to be the working of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t begin to get my mind around it. And not simply because my politics are different than Bob’s.

It has to be the church’s role to stand outside politics, to hold it to a higher standard. Christianity claims to know something of what God wants that the world does not know. And usually opposes.

Not the other way around. The church gets politically involved. But on the church’s terms, addressing the issues the church knows are important and pushing the policies that will accomplish what the church sees should be accomplished.

Four years-worth of Stream columns will show you what my politics are. I’m a political conservative. But I have never doubted that it is to the Christian faith and God’s revelation to us that I must be held accountable and not the other way around.

I don’t see that with the liberal mainline or with liberal Catholicism. They’re on board with whatever the secular left decides. Even foisting transgenderism on minors. They’re not leading to a renewal of Christianity, but to its disappearance.

Both Doubled Down

Abortion remains the most obvious example of the political differences between Bob and me. As I say above, Bob and I started off as pro-life liberals. I dropped the liberal and doubled down on the pro-life. I explained why here. Bob dropped the pro-life and doubled down on the liberal.

As I’ve gotten older, gotten married and started raising children, running a pro-family agency, and discovered the depths of the Christian faith, I’ve only seen how many good things boomer, clericalist progressive Christianity gives up. And for nothing. It trades treasure for straw.

I thank God that I began to discover the treasures. My friend Bob, a genuinely good and well-intentioned man, knew them once. I pray he’ll rediscover them.

 

Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed on The Stream are solely his own.

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