At Last Evangelical Progressives Organize And Oppose The Alt-Right Evangelicals
Many progressive Evangelical leaders have become increasingly upset with the image (often unfairly) of all Evangelicals as being homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, anti-immigrant, and unabashed supporters of the Alt-Right Republican policies. Thirty of them responded to an invitation issued by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, to come together in Washington in order to consider adopting a new identity since the label “Evangelical” has taken on so much negative baggage. After much discussion, there emerged a consensus to henceforth designate themselves as Red Letter Christians. They came up with that name because in many Bibles the words of Jesus are highlighted with red letters.
These Red Letter Christians are ready to take the radical teachings of Jesus and endeavor to live them out. They contend that St. Paul, in his Epistles, gave Christians a theology, but in the red letters in many Bibles, Jesus prescribed a counter-cultural lifestyle, and the latter is what Red Letter Christians are all about. They by no means minimize the theology of Paul, but try to overcome the seaming neglect of the call to the radical countercultural lifestyle prescribed by Jesus.
Red Letter Christians generally hold to the orthodox Christian doctrines; believe the writers of scripture to have been led by God’s spirit in what they wrote, and call Christians to surrender to a transformative relationship with the spirit of the resurrected Jesus. While these beliefs could label them as religiously conservative by some, Red Letter Christians break from many fellow conservative Christians by embracing a progressive political agenda that includes environmentalism, an end to write privilege, Christian feminism, and justice for LGBT people. They certainly do not go along with those Evangelicals who declare Donald Trump as their “Dream President.”
81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and since his election, have continued to support him with enthusiasm. They have done so even though there are many who argue that his policies are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. For instance, Jesus said blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20) while Donald Trump blesses the rich with a tax bill that will make the rich even richer. Whereas Jesus was into a ministry of reconciliation, this president has been into nurturing divisiveness and polarization. The Jesus revealed in scripture called upon his followers to welcome aliens but President Trump has been closing the door to needy persecuted immigrants. While Jesus called his disciples to be meek there has seldom been anyone in American politics who can match Trump’s egoism. Jesus requires repentance from those who sin, but America’s President has declared that he has never seen the need for repentance. The list of contrasts between what followers of Jesus are expected to be and do and what we find in Donald Trump seem blatant and long. Yet several of America’s most prominent Evangelical leaders refer to to him as the kind of president for whom they had been hoping.
The support for President Trump that has been shared by most white Evangelicals is in stark contrast to who many African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, and leading progressive Evangelicals had hoped would occupy the White House. Not surprisingly, it was only a matter of time before these Trump opponents would find one another and coalesce into an emerging movement. That movement, which had been brewing for more than a half dozen years via the internet, became visible on April 6th and 7th in Lynchburg, Virginia. That is when and where the first Red Letter Revival meetings were held. Bringing together some 350 attendees these meetings featured an array of speakers who took turns challenging white privilege, “American exceptionalism,” sexism, excessive military spending, homophobia, the oppression of African-Americans, the treatment of Native-Americans, and the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Committed to gender diversity, men and women were equally represented as speakers. There was also diversity with speakers from a variety of ethnic groups.
Lynchburg was chosen as the site for these revival meetings because it is the location of the ministries of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, two of the most notable leaders of the political right-wing of Evangelicalism. Representing political positions at times diametrically opposed to the Falwells is Shane Claiborne, the president of the Red Letter Christians movement. There were plans for Shane to go onto the campus of Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and hold a prayer vigil there on the shooting range where Liberty students practice with guns that Jerry Falwell encouraged them to carry. Unfortunately, this leader of Red Letter Christians was barred from the campus by Falwell’s threats of arrest and a $2,500 fine.
The two days of meetings culminated with a call to discipleship wherein the attendees were asked to commit themselves to the radical teachings of Jesus in contrast to the “cultural religion” they believed was being propagated by too many politically alt-right Evangelicals. Up until these Red Letter Revival meetings in Lynchburg, which received wide media coverage, including a fall page article in The New York Times on May 29, 2018, the movement was largely propagated via the Red Letter Christians website. Now, however, the movement is picking up momentum and is planning additional RLC revival meetings.
It is likely that the next RLC revival in the United States will be held in Dallas, Texas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, with a special goal of challenging Rev. Robert Jeffress, the politically powerful pastor of the First Baptist Church, who has served as a primary promoter of Donald Trump’s presidency, even giving introductory speeches at many of Trump’s political rallies.
When asked how Jeffress and other “Family Values” Evangelicals could lend such unqualified support to Donald Trump in light of the alleged sexually immoral behavior of the president, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council answered, “We Evangelicals believe in God’s grace and forgiveness.” To this, Red Letter Christian and a New York Times best-selling author, Frank Schaeffer, retorted, “This president has never repented and forgiveness without repentance is what the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘cheap grace.’”
Red Letter Christians has a powerful ally who call themselves “The Elders.” These are Christian leaders who, from the 60’s up to the present, have been prominent activists, championing civil rights, speaking out against environmental degradation, opposing the war in Vietnam, standing up for the rights of women and gays, along with other hot button issues that have troubled the nation.
In May, Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, and Bishop Curry, made world famous from his homily at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “The Elders” – held a rally attended by more than 2,000 pastors and lay leaders at the National Christian Church in Washington to initiate their movement which they called “Reclaiming Jesus” (see www.reclaimingjesus.org). Following the rally there was a silent candlelight march to the White House where there were declarations of their calls for justice for the poor and oppressed.
Red Letter Christians is linked with The Elders and together we are becoming a formidable force for an alternative to the alt-right politics often propagated by segments of the Evangelical community. The movement has even gone international! In early May, Tony Campolo, a founder of RLC, and Shane Claiborne, the president of RLC, met with Steve Chalke and Ash Barker, two prominent progressive Christian leaders, in order to plan launching the movement in the United Kingdom, and even in Australia. Don Golden, the executive director of RLC, has been lying the groundwork for the movement in Peru. Don was able to use the Spanish translation of The Red Letter Revolution, written by Shane and Tony, to promote RLC among Peru’s Christian leaders.
Those who have been waiting for a countervailing movement among those progressive Christians and refuse to identify Jesus with either the Republican or Democratic parties should take heart and sign up with the Red Letter Christians at their web site and show up at their upcoming revival meetings. To do so, supporters should go to the RLC website, and then blog with them in the months that lie ahead (www.redletterchristians.org).