Progressive Christianity is getting back onstage

Jim Gertmenian
Courtesy of Plymouth Congregational Church
Jim Gertmenian

Jim Gertmenian has lived through the silent era of progressive Christianity.

He and others on the religious left, who for several decades of the mid-20th century had commanded widespread cultural influence, were in the thick of the political upheavals in the 1960s. But by the late ’70s, the religious right crowded the liberal movement out of the public spotlight.

“This is a totally subjective view on my part, but I think the religious left burned itself out on the civil rights era and Vietnam War,” Gertmenian said. “We got so exclusively involved in politics we forgot the spiritual base from which we were doing that work. Without that spiritual renewal, people got tired.”

Today, Gertmenian, 60, is pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. He says progressive Christians are celebrating a renaissance, in visibility if not in influence.

Weekend conference hopes to raise religious progressives’ visibility

This weekend’s “Voting Justice, Voting Hope” conference — hosted by the church-affiliated Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith — is hoping to spark more of the latter.

“This is not simply reactive to the religious right,” Gertmenian said. “It is not simply political. It is truly the coming together of a religious sensitivity and values with the communal issues of the day, the public issues of the day.”

That would be in contrast to issues that liberal Christians classify as “private morality,” such as abortion and homosexuality.

“That’s not to say those issues are unimportant,” Gertmenian said. “But the burden of scripture for Jews and Christians certainly is God’s intent for how we live together as a community. That is public morality: war, poverty, the environment, dignity for all human beings.”

Sojourners founder Wallis kicks off conference

The Twin Cities conference will bring in the protagonist of progressive Christianity: Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace

Jim Wallis
Courtesy of Sojourners
Jim Wallis

Wallis will kick off the three-day conference today with a 7:30 p.m. keynote address at the Depot Renaissance Hotel in Minneapolis. He is the author of such movement-defining books as “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”

“Jim is at the center of this for many people,” Gertmenian said. “He’s been saying for years: God is neither Democrat nor Republican.

“The interesting thing about Jim Wallis is that he’s coming to this from the evangelical Christian faith he grew up in. As a result, people of very different theological stripes, from very progressive to quite orthodox theologically, are coming together around a progressive ethic and set of values.”

The conference also features Ray Suarez of public radio and television, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun — like Sojourners magazine, a prominent journal of the progressive movement. Thirty conference sessions will be held through Sunday, most at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis.

The Plymouth Center, organized three years ago under a grant from Bill and Penny George of Medtronic, considers itself the Midwest hub of progressive Christianity. This weekend’s conference is the first of its kind in the region.

Gertmenian hopes progressive Christianity regains a visible place in the public square. 

“The media has reflected a very monochromatic view of what American Christianity and American religious life is about,” he said. “This is, it’s the religious right, anti-gay, anti-abortion. The media has burned in this image. Those of us on religious left have said, wait a minute, we’re here, too.”

“Voting Justice, Voting Hope: Progressive Faith Taking Action in 2008”
When: Friday, April 11, through Sunday, April 13
Where: Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, Depot Renaissance Hotel, Plymouth Congregational Church
Key events: 7:30 p.m. Friday — Jim Wallis at the Depot Renaissance ($40 at the door). 7:30 p.m. Saturday — Ray Suarez at Plymouth Congregational Church ($40 at the door). 1:30 p.m. Sunday — Rabbi Michael Lerner at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis ($40 at the door).

Three-day conference registration (including daylong sessions Saturday at Hyatt Regency): $75, or $50 for students. Register after 9 a.m. Saturday at Hyatt Regency.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 04/11/2008 - 02:24 pm.

    The difference between God and a politician (pick your favorite target) is that God doesn’t think he’s a politician.

    While it is politically correct and nonpartisan to say God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, perhaps the less Gnostic interpretation is, He is both – that part of the job description of “God” is ability to transcend Manichaean divisions of good and evil, not ignore them.

    Nonetheless, the left and the right take fundamentally different approaches to politics and religion.

    On the political right, the moral question is, “How does one reconcile one’s faith with politics?” The rise of the religious right has corresponded with the rise of the secular left. There was no clamor against same-sex couples, for example, until the religious right felt its beliefs demonized and threatened. The political activism of the right is in defense of its religious traditions.

    On the left, the question seems to be, “How does one incorporate religion into one’s ‘progressive’ politics?” By its nature, ‘progressive’ politics is aggressive politics seeking change — the kind of change that threatens the religious right. One can infer from this article that the religious left feels somewhat outside of the political debate and now seeks to inject its faith to support of its politics.

    Those represent two significantly different approaches to religion and politics.

    The right puts politics in service of faith. The left puts faith in service of politics. It’s ironic; the more noble sentiment is also the more destructive of both faith and politics.

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