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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Religious Progressives on God, Money, and Gay Marriage

(This essay looks at the findings of a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute on the attitudes of people in the USA on issues of religion, economics, and social issues. Please follow the link to read the report. Public Religion Research

The meta-narrative of "American Progress" has finally died. Almost no one under the age of 30, and less than half of those under age 50 believe that the USA is "getting better and better every day" as the  old progressive slogan has it. What's interesting, according to this research, is that it's only in terms of economics that the notion of progress has died. That is, most young people (and older generations too for that matter have a healthy percentage who also believe) will not be better of economically than their parents. In terms of money, if you're not already rich, most people believe you never will be. Economic progress--as an idea--is dead. According to this survey, most Americans believe that there is no correlation between whether you work hard or not to become wealthy. Hard work=wealth is a myth to most people.

What is curious to me is whether the younger generations, including my own, understand that to mean "wealth," or "just the basics?" For example, I do not believe that me working hard will make me a wealthy man. I do believe, however, that working will put food on my table and a roof over my head...but is food and a roof wealth? So, if you ask me will I be wealthier than my parents the answer is No. I don't believe I will be, but I also don't believe I am going to go hungry or homeless either. So remember, there are wide variations in how people understand the word "wealth." (In general, this is where I have a huge issue with the Brooking Institute that also sponsored this essay. It's basically an economically conservative understanding of words like wealth, money, and work, so that the goal always seems to be a banker from Wall Street who owns a home in the Hamptons. I live one mile from the wealthiest person in this country, and we aren't the Hamptons--heck, the road to his house has been under construction for so long, I think he has to take a helicopter to get to his driveway--now that's wealth!) So, if your understanding of wealth is having two homes, a couple million in the bank, and the leisure to do whatever you want know this: most people don't believe hard work will get you that. (What gets you that, at least according to most newspapers, is lying, cheating, and stealing...all the old-school ways.)

So if ideas of ECONOMIC progress are dead, does that mean all ideas of progress are dead? According to this survey, actually no. In fact, all other kinds of progress are alive and well and growing. Theological progress (non-literal view of scripture, adaptive view of tradition, etc.) is growing. And, if you include non-believers in God in the same generally category (sort of like how the Democratic Party operates when it schedules a prayer) fully 40% of Americans are progressive, and another 35% are moderate. That is, 3 out of 4 Americans do not believe any of the theological crap the religious right spews. So every time a Mark Driscoll talks about people going to hell, 75% of Americans go "Meh, he's full of shit." And what's even worse for the Mark Driscolls of the world is that the theologically conservatives are all in the higher age demographics. Unless theological conservatives start making more folks, their future is short.

(Now there is something interesting to note about theological progressives: it often does not include Black Americans. Black Americans are the most theologically conservative group we have in the USA. But as Robert Franklin argued for years, this is not too surprising. The church in the Black community has often been the conserving force both in the face of slavery, and then through reconstruction and segregation, and in the last 50 years of growing equality.This is THEOLOGICAL progressivism we are talking about, and if you think of all the black clergy who were disappointed in President Obama when he came out in support of gay marriage, you see what's going on here. Many Black clergy see gay marriage as theologically adaptive--that is progressive--and their theology does not permit than to adapt their religion because their religion is what has brought them here. So they disagree with President Obama on this issue, even if on other issues important to Black Americans they can still work with him.)

Social progressives are much harder to define, and the influence of the conservative questions on this category makes it so. In order to be a "pure" social progressive you would have to believe in the legality of both gay marriage and abortion. Since the two issues are not necessarily related (one is about creation and freedom, the other about death and freedom; and, as you can see, if the USA decides that freedom is its prime value, eventually under that value gays will be allowed to marry, and abortion will still be a "tragic option.") But even so with skewing of social to issues of gay marriage and abortion, social progressives are much younger and more numerous.

So, if you put all three of these issues together (economics, theology, and social issues) you get the 20-30 year-olds I meet all the time. Take my friend Elanor (not her real name). She is 24, works hard at her job as a secretary for a law firm, has a child out-of-wedlock (not a social issue the Brookings Institute wanted to include apparently), whose aunt is a lesbian. She does not dream of being wealthier than her parents. (Who are divorced--another social issue the Brookings folks ignored.) In fact, she tells me that she just wants to have a house someday for her son, but she's not sure how that's going to happen. Her aunt recently went to Iowa to get married, and Elanor read the scripture at the wedding. She figures God "cant' hate love."

She isn't "progressive" in any way that progressives in 1914 would have understood. But I think Jesus of Nazareth may have understood her. Jesus seemed to have this way of being able to sort through all the opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to get to the core identity of a person. Jesus seemed to know that what makes someone a "progressive" is not what they believe about God, money, or gay marriage. What makes a person progressive is how far they will go to create, trust, and love whomever or whatever God puts in their way. You see, you can never see progress while you are in it, you only see it when you look back...and the only thing behind each and every one of us is the people we've met along the way. So, do you look back in love or look back in anger? 

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

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