How did political progressives think they were Anabaptists?

May 15, 2017 by

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Let me tell you the story about how many politically progressive Christians came to think they were Anabaptists. (I’m mainly talking about post-evangelical progressives rather than traditional mainline progressives.)

To recap, I’ve made the argument that many progressive Christians believe they are Anabaptists when, in fact, they are Niebuhrians. This truth was exposed with the election of Donald Trump. The rise of Trump has politically energized progressive Christians in ways that are hard to reconcile with Anabaptist theology and practice. Again, this is no judgment of Anabaptist theology or of all the political activism of progressive Christians. Not at all. This is just a description of the disjoint between political theology and political praxis.

Most progressive Christians want to be politically engaged. Very much so. Especially with Donald Trump in office. But Anabaptist theology doesn’t provide great theological scaffolding for much of that political activism. Thus my advice: Seek out and embrace a political theology that provides better theological support. To my eye, I think that theology is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

But that raises a different question. Why did so many progressive Christians come to embrace Anabaptist theology in the first place?

That’s the story I want to tell you.

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time, social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with its criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren’t Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren’t progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there’s more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn’t sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, vacation Bible school and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church-vs.-world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

That negative view of the world has never sat well with progressives, who, being liberals, tend to have a very favorable view of the world, a view which sits behind their very open, inclusive, cosmopolitan, non-judgmental social ethic. Progressives want to embrace the world, they don’t want to create a community that highlights the darkness and depravity of the world. For many post-evangelical progressives, a negative view of the world smacks of the judgmentalism they are fleeing from.

In short: During the Bush years, progressives used parts of Anabaptist theology to great effect. Progressive Christians denounced the evils of war, empire, nationalism and Constantinian Christianity. Progressive Christians were so effective in this critique that they started to think they actually were Anabaptists. But progressive Christians never really were Anabaptists. They were post-evangelicals who became Democrats.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.


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