Three Marks of Progressive-Lite Evangelicals

By

We live in contentious times. With virtually every major event or story comes a flood of news reports from both major news outlets and a seemingly endless array of bloggers and podcasters, and these reports demonstrate the sharp ideological differences between various segments of our Western population. It can be difficult for Christians to find trustworthy voices that both report the facts and give sound, biblical insight into current events.

In the midst of this clamor, one group of evangelical cultural commentators has branded itself as the most “nuanced” and “balanced” segment of the Church when it comes to hot-button issues. They continually decry partisanship, calling for both sides of the political aisle to work together and for Christians to be a winsome presence to their surrounding culture. On the surface, this sounds quite laudable. Over time, however, it has become apparent that their version of “balanced” and “nuanced” reporting is consistently slanted in one direction—that is, to the political and cultural Left.

What makes this group difficult to identify is that they often don’t explicitly affirm many of the standard “progressive” or “liberal” dogmas. Because of this, they don’t completely fit within the parameters of what is traditionally labeled “progressive evangelicalism.” Some of them even have a reputation for being “moderate conservatives.” However, I contend that the label of “progressive-lite” is appropriate for this group. Rather than openly subscribing to a full-blown progressive ideology, their public output is characterized by a pattern or disposition that consistently marches to the drumbeat of the Left to the detriment of Christians on the Right.

This leftward slant is evidenced in at least three ways:

1. Presenting “Niceness” as the Solution to Society’s Problems

Individuals in this group downplay any kind of conflict between Christians and those who hold to opposing worldviews. The term “culture war” is always either discouraged or radically redefined. For example, in an article with the tagline “Our ideological opponents are not the enemy,” Russell Moore argues that Christians should never consider themselves engaged in spiritual warfare against other human beings, no matter how hostile they are to the gospel. He writes “there are indeed malevolent spiritual beings in the universe, usually imperceptible to us. These beings mean us harm. They are not our fellow image bearers.” This then “frees us to rage against the old reptile of Eden but constrains us to be gentle toward his prey (2 Tim. 2:23–26).”

Moore and others continually give the impression that what is really causing all of our cultural and political woes is not an irreconcilable clash of truth claims but rather an inability to talk things out and work through our differences in a civilized manner. Their takeaways can frequently be boiled down to, “We should just be nicer to each other.”[1]

1. See, for example, Kaitlyn Schiess, “Oh, Boycotts! & What Happened to Humility? with Richard Foster & Brenda Quinn,” June 7, 2023, The Holy Post, where from 17:53 to 20:13, she criticizes Christians who engage in boycotts (including the boycott of Target earlier in 2023) for “bypassing the important conversations we need to have where we work out our differences with our real neighbors.” It is also worth noting that throughout the discussion, the hosts only cite examples concerning causes important to the political Left to illustrate what they would deem to be valid boycotts. See below for further discussion of this double standard.

While Christians should certainly strive to be kind and gracious towards others as much as possible (Col. 4:5–6; 1 Peter 3:13–17), the idea that our societal problems can be solved with sweet words, listening ears, and thoughtful conversations is problematic for at least two reasons. This solution is, at best, a hollow shell of the actual content of the gospel. The Christian message to society is not “let’s be nice” but rather “repent and believe.” If our solution to a society plagued with open rebellion against our Maker is nothing more substantial than what can be heard on a secular children’s show, then we need to stop and reevaluate just how “Christian” our message really is.

Beyond this, there will inevitably be some form of conflict in a society between those who strive to live according to God’s truth and those who openly and actively set themselves in opposition to such truth. This does not mean that Christians will rise up in arms to do physical battle against their opponents (2 Cor. 10:3–6), but it does at times call for something other than “niceness.” We see this repeatedly in Scripture: Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, and even Jesus himself would engage in sharp invectives against those who would either oppress or lead astray God’s people (e.g., Ps. 137; Obadiah; Matt. 23; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 18). In fact, Jesus’s command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; cf. Phil. 3:18–19) presupposes that we will, in fact, have human enemies, and we fail to love both our enemies and our fellow Christians by pretending otherwise. As Rosaria Butterfield puts it, “We love our enemies, defining both love and enemy as the Bible teaches.”[2]

2. Rosaria Butterfield, Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023), 308.

Doing so, however, requires us to distinguish between the tax collectors and prostitutes who are genuinely seeking Christ on the one hand, and the Pharisaical elites who are actively opposing him on the other. When it comes to cultural influencers and political activists on the Left, progressive-lite evangelicals erroneously tend to treat them like good-faith seekers instead of dangerous wolves.

2. Applying a Double Standard between the Left and the Right

Progressive-lite evangelicals pride themselves on striving for balance and nuance in political and cultural discussions. They regularly exhort Christians not to outright reject those who disagree with them on the Left but instead to see those on that side as ultimately sharing the same end-goals, even if they differ in the methods to achieve them.[3] Instead of actively opposing them, we should give them grace and strive to come to a mutual understanding, or so they say.

3. One of the key figures who spearheaded this approach (which is now popularly termed “winsomeness” or the “Third Way”) is the late Tim Keller. See, for example, his much-debated thread on X (formerly Twitter) in which he characterizes the issue of abortion as one (among others) in which Christians on the Right and Left can agree to disagree regarding how to politically address it. I still have a tremendous gratitude for much of Keller’s teaching ministry, even while acknowledging my sharp divergence from his teaching on matters of politics and culture.

However, there is a major discrepancy between the principles that progressive-lite evangelicals promote and their actual application of them. One eventually notices that these principles of understanding and listening are almost exclusively applied to the political/cultural Left. When it comes to those on the political/cultural Right, these rules are dropped entirely. Progressive-lite evangelicals are quick to ascribe some of the worst motives to politically conservative Christians, assuming that they are motivated by fear, power, or both. The idea that conservatives could be driven by a love for God’s Word and a genuine desire to see their neighbors flourish according to God’s good design is almost never even suggested.

This inconsistency shows up clearly when it comes to discussions of Christian engagement with politics and culture. For example, in a video for The Holy Post, Kaitlyn Schiess distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate applications of Scripture in the political sphere. Noteworthy is the fact that all of her negative examples (e.g., misuse of verses like 2 Chron. 7:14 and Matt. 5:14, or “Christian Nationalism” as defined exclusively by the events of Jan. 6, 2021) are those typically associated with conservatives, while any positive examples (e.g., abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement, the Social Gospel movement) address concerns traditionally associated with the political Left. Both hosts and guests on The Holy Post have claimed that conservative efforts to push back against the promotion of homosexuality and transgenderism are motivated solely by political partisanship, even going so far as to liken them to those who resisted racial integration by creating “segregation academies,” or attributing to them a Pharisee-like attitude that causes them to “pick up [their] stones and get self-righteous about it.”[4] Other progressive-lite outlets apply this double standard to the realm of entertainment as well, going the extra mile to find spiritual truth in pop-culture phenomena like The Barbie Movie and Taylor Swift concerts while issuing strong critiques of songs like “Rich Men North of Richmond” that strike a chord (literally and figuratively) with many on the Right.

4. See the comments made by Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani, “‘Don’t Say Gay’ & Latino Evangelicals with Gabriel Salguero,” March 23, 2022, The Holy Post, 28:24 to 30:12, 35:30 to 38:03; ibid., “The Overlooked Heroes of American Christianity with Jasmine Holmes,” October 4, 2023, The Holy Post,14:27 to 23:54; and David French and Skye Jethani, “French Friday: Liberty U., Israel, & Social Identity Theory,” October 27, 2023, The Holy Post, 46:55 to 49:41.

For all their talk of evenhandedness, winsomeness, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, these ideals are tossed out the window the minute the discussion turns to matters that conservatives deeply care about and are willing to advocate for at the political level. As Christians, we should call out this double standard for what it is: hypocrisy.

3. Constantly Berating White Evangelicals

The term “white evangelical” has become purely pejorative in both secular and professedly-Christian news outlets. Progressive-lites continually harp on the sins of white evangelicalism, some even going so far as to paint them as a “Christian subculture that is full of terrible religious purpose,” resulting in a “corrupted” faith and a “fractured” nation.[5] Of course, what I said above about the double standard applies here as well. Progressive-lites are quick to ascribe the worst kinds of motivations to anything they find distasteful among white evangelicals (such as voting for Donald Trump); and by using the moniker “white evangelicals,” they connect moral failings with the race/skin color of this particular group. This would almost certainly be considered sinfully discriminatory if applied to other racial demographics of evangelicalism. There is also something spiritually detrimental about making the critique of large swaths of fellow believers a regular part of one’s public presence.

5. See, for example, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020); David French, “The Seeds of Political Violence Are Being Sown in Church,” The Dispatch, February 13, 2022.

Some may defend this practice by pointing to previous wide-sweeping critiques from Reformed groups concerning the pragmatism and shallowness of American Christianity; what makes these modern jeremiads against white evangelicalism any different? Furthermore, both Jesus and Paul at times engaged in severe criticisms against various churches (e.g., Galatians, 1–2 Corinthians, Revelation chapters 2–3); don’t we have a duty to call believers to repentance, especially since judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17)?

However, two things can be said in response. First, many prior critiques from Reformed writers towards American Christianity were primarily exegetical and theological, grounded in their understanding of Scripture and their view of God. By contrast, the kinds of severe critiques being put forth by progressive-lite evangelicals are typically historical and sociological in nature. In addition to the fact that these historical/sociological studies often engage in one-sidedness and groundless motive-assigning (see, for example, the critiques of Jesus and John Wayne by Neil Shenvi and Michael Long that expose this practice), they also inherently give greater weight to human analysis than to the teachings of Scripture, implicitly denying the role of God’s written Word as our sufficient and final authority (2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 4:12).[6]

6. For more on this point, see Jonathan Leeman, “Defending Sound Doctrine Against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism,9Marks, November 16, 2021.

Second, the current jeremiads are not simply critiquing specific churches/individuals (as we see in the New Testament) or false ideologies that have infected the Western church (as with past critiques of American Christianity). Instead, these criticisms are directed at an entire people group, a whole demographic of the Church’s population—a demographic that is being defined at least partly by their race, not just their beliefs or practices. As Kevin DeYoung writes, “It’s one thing to object to an idea or to a set of propositions. It’s another to object to a class of people.”

This would be the equivalent of Paul writing lengthy diatribes against “Jewish Christians” in general (not just specific bad actors), complaining about how obsessed they are with circumcision and law-keeping (ascribing such tendencies to weird obsessions and power plays). It would be akin to Paul lamenting about how society would be better off if they would just get their act together, while exonerating himself from being lumped together with the rest of his Jewish-Christian kinsmen. Such rants would only serve to exasperate the division between Jewish and Gentile Christians that Paul sought to overcome (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11–22).[7] The impression given by the progressive-lite camp is that the only thing white evangelicals deserve is a condescending sneer, while the progressive-lites themselves enjoy a self-congratulatory pat on the back. And why? Because they don’t fall into the same delusions as those other Christians (cf. Luke 18:11). While issuing calls for greater unity, they are at the same time fostering deeper and deeper division between whole segments of the Church.

7. In the rare instance where the Apostle Paul does speak about sins of a people group with a broad brush stroke (the Cretans in Titus 1:12–14), he identifies specific sins that the individuals in question have committed and need to repent of. Additionally, Paul critiques the whole people group (and not a certain generalized substrata defined by skin color) based on categories of sin that are drawn directly from God’s Word while also laying out a clear, biblical path of repentance. The critiques of white evangelicals from progressive-lites often lack one or all of these characteristics, especially the third category (as Kevin DeYoung has aptly pointed out in “Reparations: A Critical Theological Review”).

Conclusion

I now want to offer a few clarifications on what I am not saying.

I am not saying that the Christian Right has no blind spots or weak areas worth critiquing.

I am not saying that all of the above individuals and outlets should be censored, or that they never contribute any helpful insights on a given topic.

I am not saying that all of these figures are being intentionally duplicitous rather than self-deceived.

What I am saying is that we should at least have eyes wide open regarding what exactly these progressive-lite evangelicals are doing, to look beyond the smokescreen of “nuance” and “winsomeness” and pay attention to the larger pattern of their teachings. In the name of “niceness,” they are dulling the sharp edge of the call for repentance that our world desperately needs to hear. In the name of “balance,” they are moving the cultural conversation among Christians further and further to the Left—not on one or two issues, but the entire conversation. And in the name of “unity” and “nonpartisanship,” they are turning Christians against each other and cultivating attitudes of embarrassment and condescension towards the Church rather than love for her as Christ’s bride.

For Christians, these are not the hallmarks of those we should consider trustworthy guides in turbulent times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Drake Isabell

    Drake Isabell is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He earned both his M.Div. and B.A. at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. He currently lives in Louisville with his wife and two boys, where they are members of Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial.

Drake Isabell

Drake Isabell

Drake Isabell is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He earned both his M.Div. and B.A. at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. He currently lives in Louisville with his wife and two boys, where they are members of Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial.