This is a curious story about civility – or the lack thereof – among the faithful. Apparently, in Fountain Hills, Arizona, eight area churches are collaborating this May on a campaign that they call “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction, which targets The Fountains United Methodist Church and its pastor, David Felton, who is the author of the bestselling book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.
According to the Fox affiliate in Phoenix, The Fountains is the only progressive church in the area. And it is geared, as Pastor Felton says, toward letting people know that there’s a choice out there, they don’t have to deny science, they don’t have to hate their gay neighbor, they don’t have to read and take the bible in a way that causes them to abandon their rational mind.
The pastors of the eight collaborating churches – Rick Ponzo, Don Lawrence, Rod Warembourg, Tony Pierce, Todd Forrest, Bill Good, Steve Bergeson, and Tom Daly – wrote in an op-ed piece in the Fountain Hills Times on May 13 that they will present a series of sermons, the objective of which is to answer three primary questions:
- What is the difference between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity?
- Does that difference really matter in a relativistic age?
- How can a Christian decipher what he or she should believe?
In the op-ed, they couch the sermon series as an exercise in promoting ecumenical cooperation and civility:
Unity among churches is a wonderful thing when the truths at stake are greater than the differences between us. By teaming up to stand for the essential truths that we embrace, eight pastors and their churches are making a key statement: Truth matters to us.
But as Daniel Schultz of the USC Annenberg School’s Religion Dispatches blog writes, the whole thing is fundamentally divisive. It airs the enmity between liberal and conservative Christians. It is a further sign of the same increasing polarization along ideological lines that infects American political culture. And the net effect, writes Schultz, is roughly analogous to when campaign ads go negative: the base is kept strong and in line, but the majority of people say “to hell with the both of you, I’m staying home.”
For our purposes, though, what’s even more interesting here is that it’s not just the “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction campaign itself that betrays this breakdown in civility. Though a group of eight conservative churches teaming up to discredit a lone progressive church has an odor of bullying about it, progressive pastor David Felton’s own words are hardly innocuous. In his response to Fox’s Phoenix affiliate, his characterization of other Christians as irrational science deniers and homophobes is essentializing, and demeaning, and certainly does no justice to the nuance of opinion of the folks who sit across the aisle from him.
What’s going on here seems to be a kind of breakdown of empathy that’s caused by a failure of imagination on both sides.
In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence is that it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. It helps us to see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and to know that those whom we call the opposition are in fact brothers and sisters in another guise.
And that is what’s missing here. In their public statements, the churches promoting “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction – and also the church being targeted being targeted by the campaign – seem unable to see themselves from their adversaries’ point of view. Adherence to ideology, and adherence to an essentializing understanding of who the other side is, have left them blind to the weaknesses in their own positions. And so they are able to claim and care for their own needs, but they are unable to do so while respecting the needs of others.
From the outside, this seems like a classic case of extreme measures cutting off lines of communications between parties just when a set of civil conversations is needed the most.