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How Conservatives, Liberals Produced Two Christianities

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Can differences of degree become so great they become differences of kind?

I recall that issue being discussed long ago when I was in graduate school. But what about it?

For example, can different expressions of Christianity become so great they actually become different in kind, producing two Christianities?

In 1923, the eminent conservative Presbyterian scholar J. Graham Machen published a book titled “Christianity and Liberalism.”

Among other things, Machen asserts in that book it is “perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity” – and it was theological liberalism he was writing about.

For a succinct summary of Machen and his position, see my book, “Fed Up with Fundamentalism.”

Machen’s rejection of liberalism was nearly 100 years ago, but that same mentality is still around.

In the 1920s, the attack on liberalism was regarding Christian doctrines. Now, however, progressive Christians are more likely to be castigated because of their position on social issues, such as abortion, gay rights or both.

In recent weeks, I have seen on Facebook scathing attacks by conservative evangelicals on one of my most esteemed “Thinking Friends” and also on President Carter.

Both were attacked because of their position on abortion and LGTBQ rights.

This is the Christianity being espoused by many of President Trump’s supporters, and their tendency to think “we are right, they are wrong” often morphs into the position of “we are (true) Christians, and they are not.”

There are other Christians, however, who are as critical of fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals as the latter are of progressives/liberals.

One good example of the progressive rejection of conservatism is that of Chris Kratzer as seen in his book about which I wrote (here) on Dec. 10.

Even though he was once a part of it, Kratzer’s stringent criticism of conservative evangelicalism is so strong it is hard to see how the expression of Christianity he now embraces is a form of the same Christianity.

Much of the “liberal” criticism or rejection of conservative evangelicalism is because of the latter’s support of Trump. This is seen, for example, in the writings of blogger John Pavlovitz; click here to see his Dec. 5, 2018, article, “Is Christianity Helpful Anymore?”

Even more explicit is William Saletan in his Nov. 25 article in Slate: “Trump’s Christian Apologists are Unchristian.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “unchristian” can mean “not of the Christian faith” or “contrary to the Christian spirit or character.” I am not sure which Saletan, who is Jewish, meant; maybe both.

In reading some of the diatribes against the very large percentage of white evangelical Protestants who support Trump and seeing some of the demeaning memes and derogatory statements about such people, it is hard not to conclude that there are, indeed, two quite different Christianities now.

Can there be what I’ve called a “radiant Christian center”?

The last subsection of my book, “The Limits of Liberalism,” is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.”

There, I call for a radiant center “composed of both progressive evangelicals and conservative liberals” – and I still think such a center is highly desirable and deserves the best efforts of all serious Christians, regardless of their theological beliefs or stance on social issues.

But since that book was published in 2010, I have become much less hopeful that such a center will become reality – at least in my lifetime.

Rather than any noticeable movement toward a radiant center, the apparent movement has been mostly toward greater polarization.

Thus, it seems that differences in degree have become a difference in kind with the result that now, sadly, it is only too accurate to speak of two Christianities.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Seat’s blog, The View from This Seat. It is used with permission.

Leroy Seat

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.