I didn’t know Christians could be Democrats until I got to college. Though affiliated with the relatively conservative Christian Reformed Church, my school had a small but vocal minority of leftist professors and students.
Growing up, I went to church with my family every Sunday. We attended predominantly White non-denominational or Assemblies of God churches. What I heard from the pulpit ranged from apocalyptic altar calls—scary enough that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior every damn time—to sermons that condoned heteronormative sex and gender roles and condemned premarital sex, abortion, and alcohol. My father, a Black Ph.D. from Washington D.C., and my mother, a second-generation Puerto Rican immigrant who grew up in Spanish Harlem, are statistical anomalies. Until recently—Mami voted for Hillary— they’ve voted Republican, a political ideology affirmed and assumed in our churches.
So, in school, when I met my then-friend-now-partner Sean, I would often have dinner at his family’s house. I was surprised that his parents, Peter and Peggy, who are overwhelmingly astute about politics and current events, were so outspoken in their disdain and distrust of the Republican party and President George W. Bush.
Twenty years later, they’re exactly the same—critical of the GOP and conservative leanings overall. But the most confounding thing about them to me—then and now— is their moral, value, and belief systems stem from a deep-rooted Christian faith.
This same Christian faith is upheld by evangelical Christians, most of whom oppose most of what progressive Christians like Peter and Peggy find support for in the Bible: marriage equity, open immigration, women’s reproductive rights, the notion of human-caused climate change. And though liberal Christians have long been engaged in social justice work, this may be the first time they’ve faced such a widely polarized political landscape. They are now fighting for their beliefs on multiple fronts: in politics, within their communities, and, even within their own congregations.
Driving The Right Wing
While conservative evangelicalism tends to focus on sin, repentance, and salvation, the Christian Left identify Christ’s radical love and inclusion for marginalized people as the locus of their faith.
White evangelical Christians are the driving force of America’s right wing. Nearly 80 percent voted for Trump and about 70 percent still approve of the job he’s doing, although, according to a recent poll, his overall rating at the time of this writing has declined to 39 percent since January.
Liberal theology has roots in Enlightenment philosophy, which suggested a rational and contextual reading of the Bible. The Liberation Theology of the 1960s cemented liberal Christians’ stance on active participation in social justice work. Postmodern, Black, and queer theologians have also provided new ways of understanding Christ’s life and work. Black theology, for example, contends that Black Americans have unique insight into Christ’s suffering because of the legacy of slavery.
Although some belong to historically conservative denominations, liberal Christians are helping to frame conversations around issues such as environmental action, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s reproductive health, immigration, racial equity, affordable housing, and wealth disparity.
And while the conservative agenda opposes all of the above, progressive and conservative Christians do have a few things in common. A Pew Research survey reveals that most liberal Christians pray daily and report feelings of “spiritual peace,” more than 40% read their Bibles regularly, and 36% attend church at least weekly. Both types of Christians are equally dogmatic about their interpretations of scripture.
For example, Jennifer Butler, founder and CEO of Faith in Public Life, an interfaith advocacy network based in Washington, D.C., expressed great concern when talking about the country’s treatment of migrants and refugees.
“The scripture calls, in over a hundred places, to welcome the stranger,” Butler explains. “In fact, all the rules, all the laws, all of the Ten Commandments… are rooted in the mandate to remember [that] we, too, were once slaves in Egypt, we were strangers in an unwelcome land.”
According to Butler, the church should advance social justice policies. “The kinds of policies that the scripture calls us to enact,” she says.
Though it’s illegal for pastors to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because of the Johnson Amendment (though Trump has promised to rescind this), faith-based organizations like hers are allowed to engage church leadership and parishioners in policy discussions and advocacy, in addition to nonreligious voters and potential voters.
“During election years, we hold these candidates accountable to the policies we believe are called for by our faith traditions,” Butler continues. And, so you’ll see us encouraging people to vote but also engaging candidates, asking them what their stance on immigration is going to be and what kinds of values inform their policy decision.”
Despite their political engagement, the Christian Left tends to exist under the media radar, with most stories covering the dogma and divisiveness of the Christian Right. Butler thinks this is partially because, unlike the Christian Right, they don’t have single-party affiliation—or related corporate dollars—that attract media coverage.
“We’re not as beholden to a single political party,” Butler says. “You’ll see us challenging Democratic lawmakers [as well], so we would never overlook the weaknesses or the discrepancies between a candidate or politician’s faith and their purported religious values. We are driven much more by faith rather than politics.”
At the local level, progressive Christians link marginalized groups to communities of faith. Many participate in social justice efforts through their churches or in partnerships with community organizations. Peggy, now my de facto mother-in-law, has participated in everything from protests of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to refugee resettlement—a founding priority for Church of the Servant, where she worships. She also recently joined a rapid response team that supports underdocumented residents with encounters related to ICE interventions.
Few Christian churches are homogenous politically. Data shows that most progressive Christians identify as Democrats, but about one-third report being Republican or centrist in their views. This pluralism presents opportunities for liberal and conservative members to contextualize and dialogue about hot-button political issues together within a trusting faith community.
Despite this bridge-building, liberal Christianity has a few areas where it lets itself down.
For people who are so into inclusion, they still struggle with it. Pew Research reports that 53 percent of people who identify as “liberal” and “Christian” are non-Hispanic White. Also, the Religious Landscape Study by the same group revealed that “Mainline Protestant” churches are 86 percent White—10 percent more White than regular “Evangelical Protestants.”
Challenges for POC and LGBTQ+ in White Liberal Christian Spaces
Aaron Villareal, a Chicano pastor-in-training at Park Community Church in San Antonio, Texas, is working toward inclusion as the only person of color in church leadership. The church leans toward liberalism, but the congregation is small, mostly White, and even has a few members who voted for Trump.
Being a person of color in any White space is always demanding, but pastoring a White-majority church presents its own unique challenges. Villareal models inclusion just by being there, and at the same time mobilizes support for social projects that benefit the surrounding Mexican-American community. Against the backdrop of violence against Latinos, he and his colleagues also factor in public perceptions when Villareal preaches outside of his home parish. In the past, this has led to suggestions that he share the pulpit with a White colleague.
“I’ve had to have a lot of really difficult conversations with my co-workers about race,” Villareal says. “I have a lot of days where I just wonder, like, why me? Why didn’t someone else come before me and do all this hard work, so that I could just be on staff, so that I wouldn’t have to be the one who answers these questions all the time?”
Despite the challenges, Villareal believes he has been “called” to his current position and plans to stick it out. Ultimately, he wants all churches to be more intentional in denouncing violence against people of color.
“I think the church has the opportunity … the moral obligation to address that, to face, to denounce this, to say that it’s evil,” he says. “No matter what, the threatening of someone’s life is anti-God. It is anti-Christ. God is always for life.”
Similarly, many churches struggle with meaningful LGBTQ+ equity, a contentious issue even for progressive congregations. Some denominations are gay-affirming, but not yet fully inclusive because they refuse to perform same-sex marriages or, more commonly, ordain LGBTQ+ members to ministry.
Beth Erickson is a member of United Methodist in Dallas. Her church visibly displays support for LGBTQ+ rights through participation in Pride Week events, as well as rainbow-colored banners and signs in and around their church, and the congregation has LGBTQ+ members. But the inclusivity only goes so far.
“You’ve got these passages that say things like homosexuality is a sin and gay, same-sex marriage is bad and those kinds of things,” Erickson says, referring to the Book of Discipline, a compendium of Methodist doctrine.
In recent years, the Methodist church has gone through a painful and intensive process of examining denominational writings and doctrine on homosexuality. Erickson’s local parish facilitated discussions with LGBTQ+ members, amplifying their voices and allowing more conservative members to unpack inclusion issues in a safe space. Eventually, same-sex marriage was rejected by a worldwide assembly of Methodist leaders. However, Erickson says, the ruling only affects U.S. churches.
Expect the Unexpected
Despite these shortcomings, we can still learn a lot from progressive Christians. Their focus on civic engagement, community organizing, and social justice requires empathy for the challenges faced by traditionally marginalized groups, but also demands intentional and meaningful interaction with people who are different from them. Empathizing with people who do not look, talk, think, or behave the way you do will always be difficult. Still, with religion and politics, I’ve come to expect the unexpected. My mom moved to an affluent, gated community in central Florida a few years ago—and ended up a die-hard Bernie Sanders supporter. Within her largely conservative family, she is vocally anti-Trump, and for the same reason as Peggy and Peter: because the Bible tells her so.
Ruth Terry is a freelance food, culture, and travel writer currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Her expat status remains undecided.