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The Reverend Franklin Graham’s recent declaration that “’progressive’ is just another word for ‘godless’” is certainly an insult, and I ask readers and the Rev. Graham to consider whether it is also an absurdity. Whereas calling it an insult needs no explanation, use of the word absurdity may be unclear to some readers.
It strikes me as absurd in the most direct way in that almost all the people I know in Bryan County who I consider to be progressive are professed Christians and active members of one of the County’s forty-plus churches. They accept Jesus Christ as their savior, attend services on Sunday, and take part in other church activities. They certainly are not “godless,” as the Reverend Graham claims.
Part of the problem may derive from a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of what a progressive is. To be a progressive is to be active in reforming aspects of our society that harm human beings and their world. It is about as far from being godless as you can get.
It is, in fact, a straightforward way of putting into practice God’s will as it is found in the basic teachings of Jesus Christ. The question of belief in God will be addressed further along. Here the focus is on the social side of Christianity. The overriding social principle of New-Testament Christianity is to do unto others as we would want others to do to us. The two specific implications of this principle are that we should not judge others and that we should help them when they need help.
Although there are numerous specific applications of these two goals—helping and not judging—I’ll take up only a couple of the most controversial positions that political progressives take: their positions on abortion and gays. Personally approving of abortion and gays is not in and of itself a progressive requirement. People can, in fact, personally disapprove of both and still be whole and healthy progressives. The requirement for people to be progressive in regard to abortion and gays is that they do not judge and disrespect other people on these issues, and progressives do not refuse to interact with them based on such differences.
In the context of the preceding explanation, the issue of belief in the Christian God is easier to understand. Both in the nation as a whole and here at home in Bryan County, most progressives are professed Christians. At the same time, there are progressives who are non-believers. In this instance, the overriding factor is that other progressives do not judge them. That judgment is left to God. If they fight the progressive fight, they are still behaving in a Christian way on social issues. Being a progressive is a political matter, not a religious matter.
Progressives are people who want to change the parts of our society that leave millions of their fellow human beings without decent lives. Progressivism is not socialism, as some opponents like to claim. It does not advocate equal distribution of wealth. It’s fine for people to get rich through smart, honest, hard work. At the same time, progressives believe all human beings should have decent places to live, healthcare, enough to eat, and transportation to work and school.
That’s all progressives want. And it is not godless.
Joe Littlejohn is Co-Director of the Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger. He writes two newsletters, one for people who depend on the County’s free food sources and the other for the Bryan County Democratic Party. He is retired from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he worked 27 years as Professor, Chair of the Department of English, Humanities, and Languages, and Dean of the School of Arts and Letters.