This article originally appeared on August 1, 2022 at Baptist News Global.
There is a popular trend among some evangelicals to criticize both sides of political and religious debates equally while proposing a third way that appears to be above the fray.
They might say, “While the right says this and the left says that, I say this!”
Or the more clever might propose, “Some follow a donkey, some follow an elephant. But I follow the Lamb!”
Third-way evangelicals operate along a spectrum of religious and political frameworks that may appear to them to be transcendent but in reality may not be as centrist as they think.
For example, the Baptist church I grew up in, as well as the university I attended, claimed to be part of a more moderate third way because we were not KJV only, even though we only used the KJV.
The church I helped start claimed to be part of a third way because we shed the Baptist label of our conservative financial supporters and were not part of the seeker-sensitive church movement. That didn’t make us any less conservative.
The Anglican church I eventually attended claimed to be part of a third way because we allowed women priests, even though we still were non-affirming of LGBTQ people.
Conservative vs. progressive centrists
In an excellent article for ABC Religion and Ethics, Adam Joyce provides an introduction to these Christian centrists. He distinguishes between conservative centrists, whom he identifies as “Tim Keller, Richard Mouw, Tish Harrison Warren, Skye Jethani, Jake Meador, the evangelical faith and work movement, organizations like the Trinity Forum, and magazines like Christianity Today,” and progressive centrists, whom he identifies as “Brian Zahnd, Eugene Cho, Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, the Jesus Collective, and the Wild Goose Festival.”
Of course, even within those two groups are varieties of perspectives on the nature of God, theories of the atonement, views of universal salvation or perspectives on hell, what women are allowed to do, standards for human sexuality, and political convictions.
Regarding what these conservative and progressive centrists have in common, Joyce says, “Even with their theological differences, conservative and progressive centrists end with a performative similarity: faithful politics concentrates on the ecclesial infrastructure of discipleship, personal sanctification, and advocating for church unity and mobilization. In politics as in life, Christians are foundationally called to unity in faithfulness, not victory or success.”
“Are both sides equally to blame for our nation’s lack of coming together to solve our common problems?”
Another characteristic they share is a tendency to blame both sides of the religious and political divides equally, proclaiming, “There are fundamentalists on both sides!”
But are both sides equally to blame for our nation’s lack of coming together to solve our common problems?
Cooperating to solve problems vs. overcoming your opponents
In March 2022, Samuel Perry — an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma — participated in a study fielded by YouGov, a UK-based market research and data analytics firm founded in 2000.
Their poll asked American respondents if it was “more important to overcome differences to solve problems or overcome opponents.” From a representative national sample of about 2,800, Perry observed, “Who prioritizes political cooperation to solve problems? Everyone except white evangelicals.”
“Those who lean ‘strong Republican’ believe it’s more important to overcome your opponent than to try to overcome your differences to address common problems.”
However, he was willing to reveal that those who lean “strong Republican” believe it’s more important to overcome your opponent than to try to overcome your differences to address common problems more than those who lean “strong Democrat” — by 63.5% to 28.3%.
Additionally, 72.1% of those who identify as “very liberal” believe in overcoming differences, while an almost polar opposite 64% of those who identify as “very conservative” believe in overcoming opponents.
Perry explained: “This largely reflects the fact that white evangelicals are VERY Republican & VERY conservative. When we look at answers to these questions across partisanship and ideology, clearly the more Republican and the more conservative, the more you prioritize conquering over cooperating.”
“White Christian nationalism is almost pure ‘us vs. them’ ideology,” Perry tweeted. “The more white Americans subscribe to Christian nationalism ideology, the more they prioritize overcoming opponents rather than overcoming differences to solve problems. No unity with rivals. In fact, it’s darker than that. The more whites affirm Christian nationalism, the more they say (the) USA would be better off if the Dems ceased to exist. And note, you don’t get as strong opposition to the GOP as whites reject Christian nationalism. Pattern is asymmetrical. Affirming Christian nationalism = quashing rivals; Rejecting Christian nationalism not as much. What this means is that white Christian nationalism IS NOT a unifying ideology broadly speaking, but rather Christian nationalism only promotes unity to war against political enemies. In other words, Christian nationalism is not a pathway forward for an increasingly diverse US. It’s an ideology bent on conquering ‘others.’”
“Christian nationalism is not a pathway forward for an increasingly diverse US. It’s an ideology bent on conquering ‘others.’”
Anthea Butler, 2022 recipient of the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion, added, “I’d say it more strongly: it’s a formula for radicalization.”
A license to proselytize vs. a mandate to love
If “everyone except white evangelicals” believes in cooperation rather than conquering, then it seems reasonable to ask what is unique about white evangelicals that might lead them to prefer conquering to cooperating.