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.

Remind and Renew 2016: Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

This week I was blessed to attend Remind and Renew, a two-day symposium hosted by Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. One of the reasons I attended is that three of this year’s speakers were authors of recent Chalice Press books: William J. Barber II, Leah Gunning Francis, and Sharon Watkins. I’m always eager to see and hear our authors, especially in front of audiences topping 200 participants from coast to coast, but the unifying subject was particularly intriguing:

What is the conversation about race Christians in the U.S. should be having, and how might that conversation contribute to liberty and justice for all?

As a former journalist, I saw the first opportunity to live-tweet an event, and I’ll give credit where credit is due: It’s not easy. (Note that these are paraphrases unless quotation marks are used. I’m not as fast a typist as I used to be.) That said, I captured nuggets from Barber and Gunning Francis that describe succinctly yet poignantly where our country and our church have failed — and where there is hope for change.

Brad Lyons at Remind and Renew 2016, photo by Mindy McGarrah Sharp

Dr. Barber spoke first, reminding us of the original Reconstruction that half-heartedly attempted to rebuild society in the old Confederacy before Jim Crow undid that progress, followed by the Civil Rights Movement, whose progress has eroded through the end of the War on Poverty and trimming voting rights. Barber believes he is seeing the Third Reconstruction beginning in the Moral Monday Movement rooted in his home state of North Carolina and other states where the movement is gaining momentum. Here are the nuggets I captured from Dr. Barber’s talk at #RemindRenew:

  • The fact of the matter is, when you deal with racism and class, you are dealing with an old demon. We have not fully named the demon, so we cannot cast it out.
  • Of those deconstructing Reconstruction in the 1870s: “They said they will redeem America. They used moral messaging for immoral purposes. Sound familiar?”
  • “I believe the 14th Amendment (equal treatment under the law) is more important than the Second Amendment.”
  • Why was the War on Poverty stopped? Because it worked.
  • Visionaries transcend boundaries. “You never hear anybody say, ‘I have a dream for Democrats.'”
  • “If the church doesn’t have a political Pentecost and learn to speak in tongues, we will never get at this issue of race in America.”
  • “Helicopter [national] leadership will not sustain a local movement.”
  • “We need to use moral language to reframe the public policy of who’s in power.”
  • Let’s read in the Constitution that freedom isn’t, in fact, the Constitution’s priority — it’s securing our basic needs and safety.
  • On the Religious Right: “I’ve got a problem calling somebody right when they’re so wrong.”
  • Moral imagination has been the backbone of every prophetic movement.
  • “We need a grown-up conversation about race and class. An altar call. We need a revival. We need a Pentecost.”
  • (Sarcastically) Want a great America? Cut teachers. Hurt people because of their sexuality. Deny income to the working poor. Take labor more open to war than diplomacy. Distort the religious views of leaders for your own benefit. Make sure everybody can get a gun more easily than they can vote. “If we can’t preach against that … then something is wrong with us.”
  • At the beginning of the Moral Monday movement, about 40% of North Carolinians agreed with the movement’s ideas. Now, it’s almost 60%. The moral understanding of policy has changed.

Barber is the most charismatic, evangelical preacher I’ve had the honor of seeing. Each time, the audience has been mostly white and middle-class — age varies widely — but  he connects so keenly with the hopes and ambitions and frustrations that all seeking racial justice share. I can’t wait to hear him again.

In my next post, I’ll share what Leah Gunning Francis had to share about her experiences protesting Ferguson in the days and weeks after the killing of Michael Brown, of writing Ferguson and Faith, and what terrifies her in an era when just a few years ago we believed we might actually be moving into a post-racial world. Stay tuned …


Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.