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If Only Right-Wing Christians Knew Where Their Ideas Came From

Progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century; it’s making a comeback.

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All this history should be more than mere curiosity to us. The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Bryanites were in many ways the forerunner of today's progressive left. Their fusion of evangelical Christianity and strong progressive government holds lessons for, and poses questions to, progressives today.

The Republican Party may or may not be cracking up. Cracks in the GOP alliance don’t necessarily mean any advantage for progressives, of course. But they are windows of opportunity, if the left knows how to take advantage of them. It’s all a question of strategy.

A smart first step for progressives is to do whatever we can to widen those cracks. It’s the religious right, long the progressive left’s favorite target, that is now the richest target of opportunity. Because politically progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century. It’s making a comeback.  

That presents left progressives with a challenge. In your struggle for justice, would you ally with people who share your commitment to greater economic equality but would like to see government ban abortion and gay marriage? Today the question may seem abstract and hypothetical. Soon enough it may become a very real issue of debate for progressive strategists, and there are bound to be good arguments on both sides.

However, everyone should be able to agree that at least progressives outside the evangelical community should begin talking to folks inside that circle who are open to hearing the progressive message. Evangelicals will have to filter the message through their own beliefs, which means phrasing it in a somewhat different language.

Smart progressives will start learning that language, figuring out how to communicate with evangelicals and discover common ground. Smart progressives will also learn how to remind evangelicals, gently but persuasively, of their own radical political history, which many may not know.    

The main goal here should be to make the progressive tent wide enough to make room for evangelicals. Though we are far from the 19th century, evangelicals can now, as then, bring a unique kind of energy into progressive movements that can pay off. As a side benefit, moving evangelicals to the left will also widen the cracks in the shaky conservative alliance and hasten the day when it can no longer hold itself together.    

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.