How Progressive Christians are playing catch-up

Every once in a while, small publishers think about big media and how to overturn the tables in the temple.

A few weeks ago, Publishers Weekly’s Lynn Garrett asked for my thoughts on Progressive Christian publishing given the electoral insanity beginning to unveil itself on our national and state stages. (There is still sanity at the county and municipal levels, thank God. Let us unite around quality trash collection!) That article, “Justice a Hot Topic for Religion Publishers: Books on racism, immigration, and poverty are more relevant than ever,” was released on Inauguration Day, and it looks across the broad religious spectrum. It’s a good read about the state of the industry.

Here’s the quote Ms. Garrett used:

“Progressive Christians now have the sense of urgency that the Evangelical church has had for a long time. Conservative Christians built their movement through a variety of media, and book publishing has been a key part of that. Now it’s the progressives’ turn.”

Need evidence? Driving across southern Missouri last Sunday, I couldn’t find the Packers-Falcons game[1] – one of the NFL’s penultimate games, two teams playing for a Super Bowl berth – but I could find half a dozen evangelists trying to save souls through the AM dial. For at least 40 years, Evangelical Christians have learned how to organize and how to spread their message, and now they dominate the political stage, the airwaves, and the bookstore shelves. Progressive Christians haven’t had that multimedia ambition, and we’re paying the price.[2]

One would think the Republican Revolution of 1994 would have been enough to jumpstart the liberal/progressive multimedia boom. Or the 2000 election. Or the rising tide of resentment in the Tea Party eight years ago. But here we are, a quarter-century later, lagging far behind, with the highlights being Air America and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Both secular, and both just memories now.

But what good is a multimedia network if you have no clear message? Let’s not dwell on the Evangelical with-Jesus-or-against-Jesus mentality that can be wonderful or terrifying. Let’s think about the message of the Progressive Christian media. The Jesus of Progressive Christians welcomes the immigrant; shows mercy and tangible support for the downtrodden; and celebrates the iconic American belief – and Christian belief – that in our uniqueness, we are all beautiful in God’s eyes. Progressive Christians need to teach that Jesus[3], the scorned Jesus who weeps when 30 million Americans lose their health care, when refugees are sent away, when LGBT persons are treated as third-class citizens.

And what will the multimedia network empower us to do? It will train a new generation of Progressive Christians in the art of opposition and organization; teach the language of protest, conflict resolution and compromise; and reframe for the world the oft-ignored fact that Christian values come in many forms often the polar opposite of what the high-profile, media-darling Christian leaders assert.

There is room on the airways, in the bookstores, and in the places where power resides, for all points on the theological spectrum. But we can’t just hope that equal time will materialize out of thin air. It will take action, it will take money, it will take commitment, and it will take courage.

So far, we’re all set on courage. Saturday’s global Women’s March included all the issues dear to progressives; we may finally feel the urgency. The tide might actually be turning. The time is right for a Progressive Christian media explosion. Now it’s the Progressives’ turn to put in some grunt work and build our movement. Religious publishers can be a key part of that new movement, but that will require having those books more widely available and visible, and people will need to buy them. And, I think, people will buy them … AND put them to good use.

Let’s get to work.


[1] Thank goodness. I was wearing Green Bay green, and the afternoon did not go well. Not at all.

[2] And without mass media sharing the inclusive message of the mainline church, it shrinks rapidly as the Evangelical church grows. I can’t help but think there’s a connection.

[3] Have no doubt that our Islamic siblings would say the same of Muhammed, our Jewish siblings the same of their prophets, our Buddhist siblings the Buddha, and so on. Bar a few folks dealing with severe mental illness, we’re all on the same side — of peace and justice and freedom, despite what the fear mongers want you to believe.

 

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.