Left, Behind: The Hidden Progressive Christian Community of Texas
More than one woman at the Capitol was dressed as a giant uterus. The red costumes punctuated the crowd assembled for the Unite Against the War on Women rally on a warm day in April 2012. To waves of applause, speakers on the south steps railed against cuts to the state’s family-planning budget and against the sonogram law. Someone behind the podium held a uterus-shaped sign, in the center of which was a cross with a line through it, presumably a statement against the Christian influence on reproductive rights. Then Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, stepped up to the mic.
In the shade of the Confederate Soldiers monument, a woman stopped midsentence and turned to her friend. “Did they just say he’s a minister?” Behind her someone muttered, “Why would a Christian be speaking here?”
Why was it so hard to believe? Rigby is one of the most outspoken progressive pastors in Texas, but he’s not the only one. Last fall more than 350 religious leaders, most of them Christian, signed a Texas Freedom Network (TFN) pledge supporting women’s access to contraception. Some of the same clergy, and their congregants, advocate policies supporting the poor, immigrants, and gays and lesbians; oppose the death penalty; and draw clear connections between their faith and protection for the environment.
“I think the religious Left unquestionably exists,” says TFN’s Ryan Valentine, who coordinated the pro-contraception pledge. “It’s just never been as well organized or as prominent in policy fights in Texas as the Right.”
Indeed, the Christian voice in Texas’ public square has become almost synonymous with conservatism. The state is ground zero for battles between creationism and evolution in science textbooks. It’s home to organizations like WallBuilders and Vision America that urge conservative Christians to exert influence in the political sphere. When reporters want to quote a Christian spokesperson, the leaders of these groups are easy to find.
It’s not as easy to find self-appointed spokespeople for progressive Christianity. And the very qualities that make them liberal—an emphasis on tolerance, pluralism and separation of church and state—make them hesitant to impose a religious vision on secular institutions.
If progressive Christians could develop a unified voice, they could transform political discourse in Texas. But before that can happen, progressive Christianity has to recognize itself as a movement. And Texans have to know that it exists. Texas has a Christian Left, but to secular progressives, it’s one of the state’s best-kept secrets.
Delia Gomez, a Catholic, has lived in El Paso for most of her six decades. She coordinates a religious ministries program at the county sheriff’s office and serves on the board of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice organization behind 2012’s Nuns on the Bus tour.
“What has come to be defined as Christianity is actually the goals of the Christian Right, whose issues are usually about gender roles and the so-called traditional family values,” Gomez says. “It’s frustrating that we get painted with one brush, because there are many Christians working on social justice movements toward changing systems that perpetuate poverty. If you listened to the rhetoric in the presidential campaign, you rarely heard about the poor. It was always about the middle class.”
The political dominance of the Christian Right marks a dramatic shift since the 1960s, when religious leaders manned the front lines of the anti-poverty, anti-war and civil rights movements. After that era’s social upheaval, conservatives sought a return to the nation’s supposed Christian values through groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. In Texas, conservative religious groups began mobilizing voters in the 1990s, electing increasing numbers of Republicans to statewide office.
Today, some younger Texans can’t remember a time before conservatives dominated Texas politics, and before Christianity became synonymous with conservatism.
That’s partly a numbers game. More Republicans than Democrats vote in Texas, and the state is home to more Christians than any other religious group. The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 84 percent of Texans identify as Christian, and just over a third of the state’s population subscribes to evangelical Protestantism. Sixty-seven percent of Texans say that religion is very important in their lives.
Synchronously large numbers of conservative voters and Christians don’t necessarily imply a causal connection: that Christian equals Republican. But they do suggest that religious motivations have an effect on politics. If most Texans view Christianity as important, there’s a good chance they’ll want to apply their faith to life outside church. That’s why a purely secular approach to social issues and policy doesn’t work here.
“In a place like Texas, opinions on a lot of important social issues facing the state are completely intertwined with religious convictions,” Valentine says. “It would be foolish to insist that abortion or gay rights have nothing to do with religion. It’s the language people speak here when we have political debates, and if you don’t engage folks at that level, you’re not going to win debates.”
If the Christian Left has become all but invisible, perhaps that’s because it declines to embrace the label.
“Faith communities need to be freed from this left/right dichotomy,” says Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a coalition of faith communities that advocates for disadvantaged Texans. “By nature the whole point of faith is that it’s not a secular construction. The real problem is not that there’s insufficient representation of the Christian Left, it’s that [Christians] are aspiring to a thing that is not right or left.”
Rigby, for his part, says his biggest fear is to see St. Andrew’s become a “liberal” church, populated with people who see their faith as a mandate to vote Democratic, rather than to challenge systems like capitalism.
“The prophetic message is radical, not liberal,” he says. “To me, that left/right continuum is a complete fabrication. The true axis is up and down—it’s about who has power.”
Rick Scarborough doesn’t like the term “Religious Right,” either. Scarborough is a Baptist pastor and founder of Lufkin-based Vision America, which mobilizes Christians to “be proactive in restoring Judeo-Christian values” and “reverse America’s moral decline.” The group is starting a network called the Tea Party Unity Project. If there’s a Religious Right, it includes Scarborough.
“I prefer to be called a lover of God and a follower of Jesus,” he says. “I don’t think anyone I know relishes the idea of being called the Religious Right, unless it means we’d like to think we’re right about it.”
“Left” and “Right” may be inappropriate applications of political language to essentially spiritual endeavors. But for those unfamiliar with the nuances of Christianity, the shorthand can be helpful. If the Christian Left disclaims the name, how will anyone recognize it?
In the sanctuary at Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, sunlight filters though stained-glass windows inscribed with the word “hope” on a rainbow background. As many as 1,200 people worship here each week. In the narthex, plates bearing symbols of different religions are enmbedded in the walls, representing the church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue. Next to the main church building an interfaith peace chapel designed by Philip Johnson hosts musical events and displays the traveling AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The Cathedral calls itself the world’s largest gay church. Its website says “Jesus was the ultimate liberal.”
“When I’m talking to people about LGBTQ issues, and [to] people who are coming out, I’m often surprised they’ve never heard the other side of the faith story,” says senior pastor Jo Hudson. “All they’ve heard is the really conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist message. I’m taken aback that people have no knowledge there’s a different strain of Christianity, one that is just as scholarly, just as passionate, just as committed to faith, yet sees that questions of faith are as important as answers.”
The Cathedral of Hope, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, is for many members a second chance at religion. Two-thirds come from Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist backgrounds, which many found inhospitable to their sexual orientation. At the Cathedral, they find an inclusive theology and a community active in anti-bullying programs and advocacy for a living wage. The church broadcasts its services online in hopes of reaching people who may feel isolated in less-welcoming communities.
“In rural places in Texas, Missouri, Iowa, and around the world,” Hudson says, “people need to know there’s a church where they are welcome, and that they can be Christian and gay, and that they are children of God just as legitimately as anybody else.”
Lubbock is one such place. When members of St. John’s United Methodist Church stand along busy University Avenue protesting the death penalty, they’re alternately rewarded with thumbs-up or middle fingers.
Fourteen years ago, St. John’s became a Reconciling congregation—a United Methodist church that’s deliberately and publicly inclusive of all sexual orientations. It’s the only Reconciling church in all of West Texas, and it was one of a handful of churches to host a booth at Lubbock’s second-ever Pride Festival last fall. Some participants reacted to senior pastor Kevin Young’s presence there with surprise.
“I had a lot of conversations with people who said, ‘I can’t believe you’re a preacher and you’re out here,’” he says. “It was just astonishing to them, because their experience of the church has been very negative for the most part.”
How can the Cathedral of Hope and St. John’s arrive at conclusions so different from, say, Rick Scarborough?
Part of it comes down to fundamentally different relationships with the Bible.
“Conservatives start with the presupposition that the Bible is true,” Scarborough says. “It doesn’t just contain the word of God, it is the word of God. The Left, theologically, has left the infallible word of God and said, ‘Hey, the Bible is a good guideline, but it’s not the only one.’”
According to the Pew Forum, 42 percent of Texans agree with Scarborough that scripture should be interpreted literally. Less-conservative Christians tend to acknowledge the Bible’s historical and literary contexts, as well as its translations, as impediments to literal interpretation.
“Particularly in the South, the Bible is viewed as making authoritative statements about science—specifically biology and creation—and so science that seems to be saying something different than the Bible is suspect,” Lubbock’s Young says. “A more progressive perspective would say that the scripture and our belief are in conversation with science, the social sciences, literary scholarship and archaeology. Information that comes from the wider fields of knowledge helps to inform and strengthen us, not threaten us.”
Progressives, like conservatives, have their favorite Bible verses, but progressives tend to emphasize scripture’s overall message. “How many times did Jesus talk about homosexuality?” Rigby asks. “Abortion? A flat tax? Zero. How many times did he talk about sharing everything and not judging? The great themes are about liberation and about love.”
Christian churches of all stripes respond to Jesus’ call to serve the poor, with food pantries and shelters for the homeless. Christian leaders on the left, though, draw distinctions between charity and justice.
Young quotes Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, on the difference between the two: “‘The church has been really good about jumping in the river and pulling drowning people out. What we have not been so good at is going up the river and finding out who’s throwing all those people in it in the first place.’ Charity is helping in the immediate need, and justice is trying to change unjust structures that continuously result in people’s harm.”
Working for justice outside of partisan contexts can be complicated. Take, for instance, the work of Texas Impact. Bee Moorhead co-chairs a task force on partnerships with nonprofits that’s part of the Faith- and Community-Based Initiatives project of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. State agencies participating in the initiatives—the Public Utility Commission, for example—have a mandate to assist low-income Texans, but their expertise doesn’t typically lie in local outreach. To get the assistance where it needs to go, Moorhead and members of the task force help agencies collaborate with community organizations that, particularly in small towns, are often religious.
“At some point the local faith people may conclude, ‘Hey, there’s just not enough money—maybe I should talk to my legislator,’” she says. “Okay, now they’re involved in the political process in a way that’s not holding a sign saying, ‘down with your thing, up with mine.’ In my opinion that’s a legislative success.”
If it wants to become a significant force in Texas politics, the Christian Left must contend with several challenges. Churches may have internal conflicts that prevent them from taking a public stand on issues. For instance, the Reconciling Ministries Network, to which St. John’s in Lubbock belongs, is a deliberately inclusive expression of Methodism. But while the United Methodist Church is officially anti-homophobia and anti-heterosexism, it doesn’t allow the ordination of “practicing homosexuals” or same-sex blessings. Rocking the boat can have consequences for pastors’ careers.
Rigby realized that to identify with the oppressed, as he says Jesus did, he would have to take a public stand with gays and lesbians at a time when his church’s governing body, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), would not ordain them or bless same-sex unions. (The PCUSA approved ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy in 2011.) When Rigby and the majority of St. Andrew’s decided to welcome all, the church lost members.
Still, it was important to take the risk, he says. “When you talk to a lot of the liberal clergy, privately they’re very much in favor of justice for all people. But if you’re not seen publicly saying that—if you’re not staking yourself on it—people use the word ‘Christian’ to mean the Christian Right.”
In fact, progressive Christianity’s ambivalence toward public proclamations of faith may limit its political influence. The word “evangelical” is often used interchangeably—and incorrectly so—with “fundamentalist”; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for instance, is a relatively progressive denomination. But, in general, liberal Christians don’t have much evangelical impulse—the desire to convert others. Most people interviewed for this story explicitly stated their respect for pluralism and for separation of church and state. Their distaste for imposing their own views on others leaves them hesitant to “evangelize” for liberal Christianity.
The Religious Right sees things differently. Conservative Christian groups are “very keen to win over converts to their theology or way of thinking,” Valentine says.
Finally, progressive Christianity is not particularly media-friendly. Texas Impact’s work with the state’s Faith- and Community-Based Initiatives office doesn’t translate easily to headlines. The movement is smaller and less unified than its conservative counterpart. And spokespeople are harder to find.
“Covering it as a journalist is a much more difficult proposition,” Valentine says. “You can find Religious Right poobahs who can tell you exactly what the Religious Right thinks, but the Left isn’t structured that way. It’s a lot of different groups and leaders with overlapping goals.”
During early voting in the November 2012 election, a Williamson County woman named Kay Hill wore a T-shirt that read “Vote the Bible” to a polling station. She was asked to cover the shirt because election workers considered it too political. County Elections Supervisor Rick Barron was later quoted in the Austin American-Statesman saying, “Nowadays, I think it’s politically naïve to say ‘vote the Bible’ doesn’t mean to vote Republican.”
The anecdote illustrates the daunting task before Texas’ Christian Left: to reclaim scripture, in which Jesus mingled with outcasts, blessed peacemakers, and admonished the rich; and to reclaim its legacy of activism on behalf of the disadvantaged.
A phrase often used by Christians to describe a countercultural stance is “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” The words first appeared in the book of Isaiah and are applied to John the Baptist in the New Testament. In contemporary contexts they refer to a minority opinion or unheeded warning.
In the conservative wilderness of Texas, the Christian Left’s voice is barely audible. Combined with the voices of secular activists, it might become impossible to ignore.
“I think it would be a good thing if we, and political organizations that are working on issues we also care about, were more aware of each other,” Kevin Young says. “There are more progressive people around Lubbock, Texas, than just those in my church, and we’ve got to figure out a way to make those connections.”