Paige Patterson and Michael Curry could not be any different. But they are both leaders of the two largest Protestant denominations in the United States. They are in the news for very different reasons.
Patterson, who is the head of a Southern Baptist seminary, drew widespread scorn for his comments about how abused women should not seek divorces. (He also described a teenage girl’s body as “nice,” and later apologized for his remarks.) Curry, who is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, received a wave of support after headlining the royal wedding this weekend.
The Patterson debacle represents Christianity in the media as usual. Secular liberals gawked while more mainstream evangelicals distanced themselves from the worst of their tradition. Other examples? The great big bear hug between the religious right and evangelicals. The bastardization of “religious freedom” to mean granting religious bigots a pass on anti-discrimination laws. Doubting evolution.
We’ve grown accustomed to an instinctual reaction directed at evangelicals. This rinse-and-repeat outrage has sadly consumed our public understanding of Christianity and left it synonymous with fundamentalism.
I’ve experienced this first-hand. As a gay Christian attending New York’s Union Theological Seminary, the Christian part of my identity was definitely the most shocking to people outside our walls at 121st and Broadway. Now, don’t misunderstand me. Christianity should be offensive. It should offend our culture’s rampant materialism, militarism, and racism.
But the reactions I most often receive as a Christian are driven by stereotypes of Christians as anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-science.
I occasionally ask aghast friends and strangers what they mean by not liking “Christianity.” Their definition of Christianity is almost always the fundamentalist variety peddled by these far-right reactionaries. Their definition rarely sounds like Bishop Michael Curry.
The world’s surprise at the royal wedding sermon wasn’t just about Curry’s lack of a stiff upper lip, or the delivery. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop delivered a message from the deep well of progressive Christianity. He opened by calling on “the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” By naming God as liberator, I immediately knew the world was in for something new.
Curry quoted the go-to Scripture passage for progressive Christians: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the essential teaching for how Christians should live, and the reaction to much of what we criticize about fundamentalists stems out of the hypocrisy of not living this out.
I worked at Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Washington Heights during seminary. The Collegiate Churches march in Pride every year under the theme of “Love. Period.” If we’re not marching for love, progressive Christians are singing the popular hymn “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
I’d guess that outside the Bible, the most quoted saying in progressive churches is a version of Cornel West’s famous line “justice is what love looks like in public.” Curry made love about social justice as well. He called on Meghan, Harry, the queen, their guests, and the entire world to imagine what love looks like in public.
He specifically called on governments and businesses to embrace a vision of love too many sorely lack. This is textbook progressive Christianity, concerned with both social and personal holiness.
Curry quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the sermon, but he also brought King’s often forgotten radical vision to life. Curry asked us to imagine a world where “no child will go to bed hungry,” “the earth will be a sanctuary,” and where we “study war no more.”
Curry echoed the fiery but often glossed over words of MLK from his speech against the War in Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Curry’s style may have sounded like the fire and brimstone of fundamentalists, but it’s firmly in the social justice tradition of progressive Christianity like King.
Beyond Curry’s sermon, he’s a leader in the progressive Christian movement in the United States. The Episcopal Church he leads endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to revive King’s last campaign 50 years later. The leaders of the campaign are Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, two other fiery preachers and organizers who are reigniting a love and justice Christianity in our culture.
I stood outside the U.S. Capitol last week with Barber, Theoharis, and hundreds of other faith leaders who demanded Congress act on policies affecting the poor. Similar actions in 35 states took place the same day, and more than 1,000 religious leaders were arrested in total.
Curry, Barber, Theoharis and a host of other leaders are waking up progressives to reclaim what it means to be Christian in our culture. Their version of Christianity is a stark departure from the fundamentalist-dominated narrative we see play out over and over again in the news.
Criticizing and drawing attention to the religious right remains important, especially during a Trump-Pence administration. But that’s not the entire story of American Christianity.
Surprise! An LGBT-affirming and social justice-minded Christianity rooted in love for God and neighbor exists in America. While we rightly denigrate folks like Patterson who display the worst of what Christianity has to offer, let’s also cheer Curry for giving us something to celebrate.