Last month, the Seventh-day Adventist session of the General Conference concluded with the GC delegates voting “No” in rejecting ordination equality for women (1,381 “No” to 977 “Yes”). In response to this, the question that’s been asked countless of times by a significant number of disappointed (and hurt) Adventists in favor of ordination equality, in particular millennials, is the following: Should I stay or leave the Seventh-day Church?
On another level, what’s also being asked, in a profound fashion, is the following: Whether progressive Adventism—a socially conscious, prophetic Christian credo that embraces a fulsome “love ethic” that affirms equality, inclusivity, interfaith engagement, liberation, peace, environmental stewardship, and social justice that, at its best, rejects atomized, privatized spirituality in favor of robust religious social engagement—will have an equal and prominent place, alongside other Adventist currents, within the diverse SDA Church? Essentially, will the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as an institution, give expression to—rather than merely tolerate—the values of progressive Adventism? At this juncture, the regrettable answer is no.
In light of this, what should be the way going forward for progressive Adventists?1
PROGRESSIVE ADVENTISM: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
One option for progressive Adventists is to simply leave the Church. It is an option, on the surface, that is quite appealing. If a church body, as a whole, steadfastly refuses to give meaningful expression to progressive Adventist values, then, as some would argue, the only sound recourse is for liberal Adventists to walk away from a toxic spiritual environment rife with institutional rebuff toward religious progressives.
However, as appealing as that choice is—and it very much is—such an option is nonetheless an untenable path for others. Specifically, those who find that either post-Adventism or post-Christianity is as unappealing as fundamentalist or dogmatic, reactionary strains of Seventh-day Adventism.
As such, for a significant number of Adventist progressives—whether due to religious cultural reasons, theology, or a mixture of both—the only appealing and viable path is to stay within the Seventh-day Adventist fold. However, such a choice need not to be one marked by resignation or passive, silent acceptance of the status quo. It can be, rather, an empowering choice filled with robust, invigorating activism of spiritual renewal that can push progressive Adventism toward organizational and theological heft that gives the SDA Left an institutional saliency, within the Church, that serves as an appealing alternative to both the status-quo seeking strain of staid, ineffective and muddled Adventist centrism as well as the fiercely dogmatic, hard-line forms of reactionary/fundamentalist Adventism.
As such, the question that must be then asked is the following: Going forward, what will progressive Adventist activism entail?
WHAT ADVENTISTS PROGRESSIVES CAN LEARN FROM THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN POLITICAL RIGHT
Not too long ago there was a fragmented collection of individuals who were proudly part of a large institutional movement who, nonetheless, felt like outsiders ignored or ostracized by influential elements within their institution’s leadership. It was a leadership strata who—from the vantage point of these outsiders—displayed, at times, either a barely concealed contempt or patronizing disposition toward a sizable segment of the institution’s grassroots base. In the eyes of this segment of the base, they viewed the leadership class as one that steadfastly refused to give institutional recognition and support that would give expression to their values.
Is this article, here, talking about the historically complicated—and at times vexing—relationship between grassroots progressive Adventists and certain elements within Seventh-day Adventism’s leadership hierarchy? It would seem so. However, the dynamic that this essay is describing is actually the fraught and tense relationship between grassroots movement conservatives and significant, influential elements within the leadership class of the GOP that existed during the 1960s.
In light of what’s been recited, one may ask: Well, what does this political history of movement conservatives, within the Republican Party, have to do with the moribund state facing progressive Adventism today? Well, in short, a lot—in more ways than Adventist progressives care to realize.
But before this article explains the connection on what conservatism has do with the present state of Adventist progressivism, there needs to be a detailed explanation of the history of modern American movement conservatism, vis-à-vis the GOP. It is a history that needs to be discussed in order to better flesh out the semblance between the right-wing political movement and progressive Adventism, and to better understand the lessons that can be gleaned by the latter from the experiences of the former.
Like a Phoenix Rising from the Ashes of Political Defeat
Far too often, the rhythms of present-day politics can, at times, obscure the history and development of past political movements and ideas to the point that revisionist myths set in that can, over time, become calcified, falsely, as fact. One such myth, arising, in part, from the contemporary success of Tea Party conservatism during the Age of Obama, is the revisionist notion that the conservative impulse has always been institutionally dominant within the GOP. That assessment, historically, is wrong.
Modern movement conservatism (a uniquely American fusionist mix of unyielding anti-communism, laissez-faire libertarianism, anti-statist traditional conservatism, religious social conservatism, and, later, neoconservative muscular unilateralism) was not, in its early history, the political force that we know today either outside or within the Republican Party itself. Despite being a historically significant and sizable constituency, within the GOP, it was not preordained that movement conservatives would ultimately become the dominant and influential voice that would transform and move the Republican Party toward the right during the latter half of the 20th century. Conservatism’s manifest success derived as much from sound planning and organizing as well as to the favorable political landscape (i.e., the disarray and crack-up of liberal and moderate Republicanism) that arose, within the GOP, during the late-1960s that inured to the benefit of the party’s right-wing.
Before its political ascension during the latter half of the 1960s, the Right (during the early decades of the 20th-century’s post-war years) was only a marginally influential force within much of the establishment and leadership strata of the Republican Party. More specifically, to the unremitting frustration of the Republican Party’s more conservative “congressional” wing and right-wing base of grassroots supporters, the GOP’s “presidential” wing—comprised dominantly by the party’s East Coast liberal wing (“Rockefeller Republicans”) and moderate elements (“Modern Republicanism”)—possessed inordinate influence in selecting the party’s presidential standard-bearer every four years. The intensity of frustration, among conservatives, toward this asymmetrical intra-party dynamic was such that many leading lights, within the party’s Right, such as U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservatism”), once even derogatively quipped that the Republican presidential agenda of Dwight Eisenhower (the public embodiment of the centrist “Modern Republican” creed) was nothing more than a “dime-store New Deal” (a liberal New Deal agenda, but only scaled down).
And the antipathy of Republican movement conservatives toward their own party’s liberal and centrist wings remained unabated, in the background, when the latter grouping of GOP’ers continually selected a string of moderately liberal to moderately conservative presidential candidates from 1940 to 1960 (from the liberal internationalist and former Democrat Wendell Willkie to the Modern Republican candidacy of Richard M. Nixon).
Nonetheless, by 1964, the GOP’s movement conservatives began to assert themselves, in particular during the party’s presidential nominating process, when they successfully outmaneuvered liberal/moderate Republicans that resulted in the former finally electing one of their own—Senator Goldwater—to be the party’s nominee during that election year to face-off against incumbent Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. (The Right’s victory was made even more sweet when Goldwater, during the ’64 California GOP primary, dispatched the intra-party presidential ambitions of the Right’s bête noire: New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the standard-bearer of liberal Republicanism.)
However, despite Goldwater and the Right consolidating their presidential primary victory in a convincing (and fairly fought) fashion, a sizable number of influential elected Republican liberals and moderates eschewed party unity during the general election of 1964. Specifically, entrenched liberal and moderate Republicans, in their quest of battling for the soul of their party, either publicly condemned the GOP Right as a bunch of “extremists” (as what famously occurred when Governor Rockefeller called out conservatives at the party convention in San Francisco), or withheld active campaigning/support for Goldwater. Additionally, there were numerous “Republicans for LBJ” groups that actively campaign against their own nominee in favor of the Democratic presidential incumbent.
With that dynamic—and the impolitic litany of unforced political errors committed by the candidate himself—Goldwater opened himself, wide-open, in allowing others to paint him and his followers as “extremists” and “nuts.” So much so, that throughout the ’64 election cycle, many signs or buttons appeared at some Goldwater hustings with the moniker, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”—a satirical play on the GOP presidential campaign mantra, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”
Facing such an inhospitable political climate, Barry Goldwater, as would be reasonably expected, went down in humiliating defeat in 1964 with President Johnson crushing him in a presidential landslide. (The LBJ-Humphrey ticket cruised to a commanding victory of 486 electoral votes with 61.05% of the popular vote. In stark contrast, the Goldwater-Miller ticket won a paltry 52 electoral votes with a mere 38.47% of the popular vote.)
As what would be reasonably expected, after a particularly brutal electoral shellacking, there was tremendous bloodletting inside the GOP over the Goldwater presidential campaign debacle. GOP liberals and moderates led the hard charge to exorcise the conservative specter from the ranks of the Republican Party lest “Goldwaterism” became the anvil around its neck that would weigh down the party’s future attempts to win back the presidency for many decades to come.
Along with the GOP liberal and moderate establishment, the New York/Washington commentariat also chimed in by positing, in a castigating tenor, that Goldwater and the Republican Right doomed their cause for many years to come. In essence, much of the press penned the (premature) political obituary of conservatism.
In light of all this—the calamitous scale of Goldwater’s routing by LBJ and the subsequent cacophony of castigation against conservatism within and outside of the GOP—a present-day observer to this history would be forgiven if he or she reasonably thought that the Republican Right’s reaction toward its lowest political point would be either defeated resignation or passive acceptance to the dismal state of affairs that confronted right-wing activists during the mid-1960s. However, what happened, in actuality, was very much otherwise.
Despite being in a politically inhospitable environment dominated, to a certain extent, by the prevailing postwar (“vital center”) liberal consensus of the time, the Republican Right, despite being electorally shellacked in 1964, did not take defeat lying down. What conservatives did in the aftermath of the Goldwater debacle would lay the foundations 16 years later in ushering the conservative “Reagan Revolution” that inaugurated a new conservative settlement that all but completely pushed aside the remaining remnants of the New Deal consensus that dominated the American political landscape since 1933 with the inauguration of FDR. This settlement was—and remains—a conservative consensus that, to a certain extent, continues to shape politics today in the Age of Obama despite the passage of 26 years or so when President Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989.
Conservative Movement Building and the Singularity of an Overarching Creed Viscerally Understood by the Public
So, what was it did movement conservatives do after their lowest political point in 1964? Simply put, they organized! Ironically, the American Right followed the timeless grassroots adage of the IWW folk singer, labor organizer, and left-wing martyr, Joe Hill, who famously quipped: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
In particular, the Right organized a very fragmented constituency perceived, in some circles, as nothing more than a mere collection of individuals with their own individual pet political causes. What serious-minded right-wing activists astutely understood then—and what they continually understand now—is that for any group to possess effective political saliency it must build an organized, cohesive movement.
Specifically, for those on the Right, they understood that they had to be organized as a movement that could effectively encompass various diverse political currents that existed, at that time, within the broad, variegated right-wing community (that encompassed divergent strains that included, among others, Buckleyite conservatives, Hayekian libertarians, and Kirkian paleoconservatives), and transform them into a cohesive bloc under a singular overarching political credo that inspires the constitutive elements of their movement. Particularly, a rubric that both connects various strands of conservatism together and appeals to the broad public through the Aristotelian method of persuasion known as Pathos. (Aristotle posited that there are three major means to persuade the public: Logos [appeals to reason and facts], Ethos [appeals to character and credibility], and Pathos [appeals to values and emotions].)
For the Right, the singular rubric that conveyed an overarching political creed easily and viscerally understood to the public, was the notion of “liberty” or “freedom.” Specifically, what the British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, called “negative liberty,” i.e., freedom from external interference. And under this singular credo, it included the five, now-famous quintessential strands of political and policy values important to the Right: small government, (laissez faire) free markets, low taxes, family values, and strong defense.
The Efficacy of Pathos-centric Advocacy by the Right
Moreover, advocates and activists on the Right, rather than the political Left to a certain extent, were more shrewd in astutely understanding the efficacy of Pathos, more so than Logos, to make salient appeals to individuals that could successfully persuade them to not only join a movement, but also, upon joining, move them into action. (Scholarship from the diverse fields of cognitive science, communications, linguistics, and psychology, among others, from the past several years, shows that emotional appeals, i.e., Pathos, that speak to values, through techniques of symbolism, language, framing, and narrative, tend to move and connect with individuals, more effectively, than pure appeals to reason alone, i.e., Logos.)
All in all, by organizing a fragmented constituency and transforming it into a cohesive movement tied to a Pathos-centric articulation of an overarching value and singular vision, the Right was able to create an organized bloc that would serve—both numerically and organizationally—as an effective alternative to, if not a countervailing force against, the liberal and moderate elements within the institution of the Republican Party.
Phase Two of Conservative Movement Building: The Inside Strategy and the Cultivation of Leadership Capacity
After changing the political landscape of forces within the GOP, movement conservatives then implemented phase two of movement building: channeling the energy of the activist base toward getting involved within the institutional governing structure of the GOP from the bottom-up. In other words, they implemented an “inside” strategy.
By initially cultivating activists and channeling their energies toward active involvement within the lower structures of party governance—whether becoming a precinct captain at a local neighborhood Republican club or running in a GOP state party committee election—the Right understood that to capture the higher echelons of the GOP, in order to transform the party into a vehicle for conservatism, conservatives had to first start from below before moving up.
Now, there were four pragmatic reasons for this. First, because there was less public attention to these local offices, this circumstance would allow movement conservatives a better shot to win office without triggering formidable intra-party scrutiny from liberal to moderate opponents than would be the case for higher-level offices or positions. Second, by obtaining these positions, it would provide a crucial base of experience from which to build upon for activists when moving up within the machinery of party governance, i.e., the process of cultivating leadership skills and executive experience among an emerging class of up-and-coming leaders within the conservative movement. Third, it further bolstered the movement’s grassroots credibility (and authenticity), among right-wing activists at large, by being attuned to and engaged with the issues that are of importance to local activists as a result of obtaining local party positions. Fourth, by starting from below and working up, such process would, in effect, contribute in giving tremendous depth and breadth to the movement’s base of support—a crucial ingredient in order to out-mobilize and out-maneuver intra-party opponents that lead to crucial victories on any given contest or issue of importance to conservatives.
Phase Three of Conservative Movement Building: Creating an Infrastructure (the Outside Strategy, the Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and Shifting the Overton Window)
Despite implementing the inside strategy, the Right, nonetheless, understood that utilizing this technique, alone, while effective, was not sufficient in order to build a dynamic and successful movement. Movement conservatives realized that they also needed to wage an effective “outside” strategy as well. Simply put, the Right needed to create an outside, explicitly conservative infrastructure independent from the institutional prerogatives and goals of the Republican Party.
Essentially, activists on the Right were not merely content in shaping the GOP from within in order for the party to become a receptive vehicle to the agenda of movement conservatism. Rather, the Right also sought nothing less than creating “counter-establishment” institutions, independent from the Republican Party, to serve as an effective countervailing force to challenge (ideologically and politically) centrism and liberalism, both outside and within the GOP, in a contest of ideas, as well as to apply constructive pressure to the party to prod it toward the conservative direction.
The advocacy by the right-wing counter-establishment—a network infrastructure comprised of conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, academic centers, and legal organizations—in effect ironically followed, whether consciously or not, the “hegemonic” ideas of the celebrated Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci posited the notion that an ideology that could successfully dominate a society’s intellectual and cultural landscape that defines the parameters of public debate, in a contest of ideas (the Gramscian “War of Position”), would influentially gain the upper-hand in advantageously setting the terms of national political and policy debate toward the particular persuasion.
In other words, for conservative counter-establishment institutions who appropriated Gramsci’s insights, it meant shifting the Overton Window toward parameters set by their ideology and political worldview. (The Overton Window is an analytical public policy model originated by Joseph P. Overton, the late senior vice president of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, that refers to the range of policies acceptable to the public that can shift when there is a change of public opinion that arises when proponents of ideas, once deemed publicly unacceptable, are now able to convince the people to broaden the window to make such ideas acceptable, i.e., “shifting the Overton Window.”) Essentially, the Right, via its counter-establishment, was as able to shift the Overton Window toward the conservative direction through the constancy of advocacy, education, litigation, and policy-building since the late 1960s.
By shifting the Overton Window, the conservative counter-establishment pushed the political and policy center toward the right and made right-wing ideas that were previously marginalized not only acceptable but also dominant to the point of marginalizing progressive alternatives. In essence, creating a new national consensus favorable to conservatism and unfavorable to liberalism.
At the end of the day, movement building, for conservatives, meant giving organized, cohesive expression to their values within the institution of the GOP. And it also meant laying the foundation from which to build counter-establishment institutions that could pressure the Republican Party, from the outside, and push the center of popular debate toward the right.
When the Movement Met the Moment
Now, taking all the myriad of factors, as discussed earlier, that contributed to reinvigorating the conservative cause in the Republican Party, it is critical to note that such factors, in tandem, were not the catalysts, alone, in making conservatism the dominant public philosophy in America’s body politic starting in the 1980s. What made conservatism so dominant was the vital dynamic of having a favorable national political landscape that would be open to give conservative arguments a serious hearing and, as such, provide a critical opening for the Right to make its case to the public.
(The national political landscape, once favorable to progressive reform since 1933, began to tilt toward the right, starting in the late-1960s, because of a myriad of unfavorable factors that discredited liberalism in the eyes of the general public. These factors included, among others, four key historical developments. First, the morass of the Vietnam War—the architects of which were Kennedy-Johnson Cold War “action liberals”—that quickly became identified as “liberalism’s war” in the minds of many Americans as public opinion began to swing against the conflict after 1965. Second, the disorientation felt by a sizable number of middle-class Americans, i.e., the so-called “Silent Majority,” toward the pace of socio-economic changes that were perceived, fairly or unfairly, as arising out of the progressive reforms of Great Society liberalism. Third, liberalism’s ham-handed response to the issues of rising crime and social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. Fourth, stagflation of the 1970s—a combination of high inflation and high unemployment—that discredited liberal Keynesian economic prescriptions and opened the door to the rise of conservative economic alternatives such as Friedmanite monetarism.
In light of this, it is essential to reiterate how the existence of a favorable political environment that gave conservatism a serious consideration was crucial for the Right’s ascendancy in the American body politic. Nonetheless, it is also critical to point out how vitally important conservative movement building was in preparing the Right to take advantage of the opportunities that arose from the shifting political climate. Without the existence of an organized movement on the ground, in place, that would be in position to influence and push public debate to the right, the opportunities afforded to conservatives because, again, of the changed political environment would have been missed. In essence, the ascendancy of conservatism occurred when the movement met the moment.
THE WAY FORWARD FOR PROGRESSIVE ADVENTISM
In light of the myriad of practical lessons that movement conservatives can teach Adventist progressives in mapping out a credible, pragmatic path toward pushing the Seventh-day Adventist Church to give institutional expression to the values of progressive Adventism, the question that needs to be answered is the following: What then are the specific ways forward for Adventist progressivism?
Building Movement Capacity for Progressive Adventism
Like frustrated Republican conservatives during the 1960s, progressive Adventist must start the process of movement building to transform a vocal constituency into a viable, cohesive, influential, and unified bloc within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For far too long, Adventist progressivism has remained relatively disorganized—or rather unorganized.
As some would argue, today Adventist progressives are merely a fragmented collection of like-minded individuals with narrow concerns and focus areas (peace activism, ordination equality, LGBTQ equality, social justice, racial reconciliation, etc.) unconnected to a singular, overarching set of values or vision that the various diverse constitutive elements, that make up progressive Adventism, can largely agree upon. This fragmented nature of the Adventist Left has been one of its Achilles’ heels that has, to a certain extent, stunted its development insofar in its attempts to become an influential institutional voice within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Now, one possible starting path is to build upon the popular responses to the #MyChurchToo movement on Twitter that began as a reaction to the disappointing vote, at the General Conference 2015 session, regarding the issue of ordination equality. As mentioned in some progressive Adventist circles, there are those who sensibly suggest creating an online hub channeling the energy behind the #MyChurchToo Twitter movement. This essay, here, would only add that this potential project needs to go much further and deeper.
The suggested website channeling the energy behind the #MyChurchToo movement should not only be an Internet hub that connects progressive Adventists together in building a community, but it should also be a robust organizing online portal with movement-building tools—action alerts, Meetup resources, blogging tools that focus on user-generated content, crowd-funding campaign tools, etc.—that can channel the energy of progressive Adventists toward becoming a physical movement focused on engaged, proactive and sustainable activism. Basically, cultivating activism that goes beyond passive, reactive “clicktivism” that fails to go beyond signing online petitions.
(Now, this is not to dismissively say clicktivism has no role in movement building. It does. And, at its best—as the pro-democracy Green Movement in Iran showed several years ago during its nascent stage—clicktivism has much promise for both raising the profile of critical issues, in real-time, where such concerns have been marginalized too often by the powerful, and being a connective conduit in galvanizing proactive activism with others. This article’s argument, here, is that clicktivism, though a critical supplement to actual activism, should not serve as a replacement for the efficacy of the latter. For there is no equivalent substitute to actual activism’s ability to establish critical face-to-face relationships with other activists and the public in struggles for change. Creative Time Reports stated it best in making the following point: “No amount of clicking can ever substitute for showing up at a place like Zuccotti Park and taking over — or at least demonstrating to the world that taking over is thinkable.”)
Another way of looking at it is creating a movement-building Internet hub for progressive Adventism that’s analogous to the myriad of global digital platforms that give online expression to grassroots, citizen-driven participatory movements such as MoveOn.org in the U.S., 38 Degrees in the U.K., Lead Now in Canada, and Get Up! in Australia (just to name a few).2
Furthermore, beyond the nuts-and-bolts practical considerations related to movement building, another question that needs to be addressed is the following: What should be the character of the progressive Adventist movement? Or to put it in another way, as alluded to earlier, what should be the driving animating set of values or vision for the Adventist Left that (1) inspires Adventists and the public at large, and (2) unites the variegated strands of progressive Adventism together in order to become a cohesive force?
One of the most problematic failures of progressive Adventism is the inability of far too many of its adherents to articulate their creed in a fashion easily grasped and viscerally persuasive to the wider Adventist public. When asked what progressive Adventism stands for, too many of its adherents answer by giving an extensive, technical laundry list of theological issue preferences and policies backed up by overly elaborate arguments. Rather what Adventist progressives must do is to articulate an animating set of values or vision easily grasped by non-progressive Adventists that’s able to connect with people, at a visceral level, in part, through various Pathos techniques of persuasion. In sharp contrast, when people ask libertarians, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, or social religious conservatives what the political right stands for, they answer with single-minded clarity: “Liberty!” It’s simple, easily understood, and distills their right-wing credo in a singular fashion that’s viscerally grasped by many.
As such, one needs to ask what is the animating vision that all progressive Adventists can agree on that speaks to their values (whether they come from, for example, movements for ordination equality, social justice, peace, etc.)? Perhaps, it’s “Equality” or “Justice.” Regardless, whatever it is, progressive Adventist must articulate, in an adept manner, what the shared animating vision or set of values should be. Without it, progressive Adventists risk being perceived as merely a fragmented (and marginalized) special interest group made up of disparate elements rather than a cohesively effective, unified force, within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, that can be taken seriously by church leadership and who can articulate the concerns of the large, diverse constituency who feels that institutional Adventism, for far too long, has failed to express and represent their values.
Leadership Capacity and Progressive Adventism: Progressive Adventists Must Move Beyond the Sidelines of Constructive Criticism and Jump into the Arena of Institutional Adventism’s Governing Affairs (Cultivating and Building Up Leadership)
Another area that progressive Adventists should focus on is cultivating and building up effective, experienced leaders who can be successful advocates for the SDA Left within the governing and administrative machinery of institutional Adventism. One of the critical areas needed in order to help cement the successful viability of a progressive Adventism that’s an influential force that can pressure, prod, or push the SDA Church toward embracing areas of concern to the Adventist Left is building a pool of talented leadership cadre, with governing and administrative experience, who can deftly navigate the Church’s myriad governing structures.
To do this does not require anything more profound than simply encouraging talented and ambitious progressive Adventists to participate in the governance and administration of the Church by running for officer/delegate or church board positions from the local church level all the way up to the local conference, union conference, Division, and General Conference levels.
As progressive Adventists, we’re quite good in offering constructive criticism from the sidelines, but quite, arguably, relatively feckless in being experienced leaders within Adventism’s governing structures where we can be advocates with tremendous institutional influence in promoting the SDA Left agenda within the corridors of power.
Now, this is not to say there are no effective progressive Adventist leaders, with governing and/or administrative experience, within institutional Adventism. There are. And they’ve provided outstanding leadership that contributed in moving the climate of opinion, on some issues (like ordination equality), in some local and union conferences toward the progressive Adventist direction.
However, progressive Adventism, comparatively, is not as influential as Adventist conservatism is within the myriad of administrative and governing institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What is needed are concerted, focused, and sustained efforts to rectify this asymmetrical dynamic between the Adventist Left and the Adventist Right. And there is no substitute to such efforts than simply being active in the governing and administrative affairs of institutional Adventism that requires running as candidates in church board and officer elections.
Of course, in order to be active in the governing and administrative affairs of institutional Adventism, progressive Adventists must seriously strategize, plan, and invest resources to build up leadership capacity within our movement. Progressive Adventism must create leadership training resources for Adventists professionals (in particular creative and activist-minded ministers) who currently work at, or are interested in working for, Adventist institutions in some capacity. There needs to be a professional and training organization on the Adventist Left that can recruit, train, and promote progressive Adventist leaders of tomorrow. In essence, creating a leadership pipeline—through a mix of mentorships, fellowships, community-building networking, and seminars—for progressive Adventist professionals
Now, an excellent example that progressive Adventists can learn from is the New Leaders Council (NLC)—one of the most prominent leadership training institutes for political progressives in America. NLC’s mission is to:
NLC recruits Fellows from outside traditional power structures and equips them with the skills necessary to be civic leaders in their communities and workplaces. Our mission is realized primarily through the NLC Institute; the nation’s premiere political entrepreneurship training program.
NLC graduates are an ever-expanding corps of diverse, new progressive leaders who are rising to the top of their respective fields.
NLC is creating an exciting network of individuals, highly-skilled in working together across sectors to improve the progressive infrastructure and ensure strong democracy, social justice, and equal opportunity.
Essentially, following the example of NLC, the Adventist Left must create a leadership infrastructure to cultivate talented and diverse individuals within progressive Adventism to become the future civic and church leaders in the Adventist community, both institutionally and beyond.
Without making the critical investments that can spot, train, and cultivate future progressive Adventist leaders—ministers, social justice activists, community organizers, teachers, writers, scholars, journalists, health care workers, theologians, lawyers, doctors, etc.—the ability to sustain the Adventist Left, as an influential force within institutional Adventism, will prove to be needlessly daunting. The extent of any movement’s success is based, in part, by the sustained engagement of its grassroots and the quality of its leadership to effectively advocate to the public the values and vision that inspire the movement itself.
Building Up a Progressive Adventist Infrastructure of Counter-Establishment Networks in Order to Expand and Push the SDA Church’s Theological Overton Window
Now, the other glaring area of inadequacy of progressive Adventism is its lack of an institutional infrastructure independent from the SDA Church (i.e., a counter-establishment network). Right now, there is a tremendous dearth of advocacy organizations, campus chapters, idea factories/think tanks, journals of thought, and academic centers that can ably advocate for progressive Adventism as well as deepening it by transforming it to become more of a public theology with more rigorous substantive heft that speaks to the broader concerns of Adventists and Christians, at large, that moves people to action. In other words, where is the equivalent of the right-wing Christian Institute on Religion and Public Life on the Adventist Left?
(The Institute on Religious and Public Life has been for many decades an influential and effective voice for advocating an ecumenical traditionalist conservatism—or known in some circles as “theoconservativism”—as a public theology of the Right. It publishes the equally influential journal of thought, First Things, that serves an intellectual incubator of theoconservative ideas.)
Progressive Adventism can also learn much from the broader progressive Christian and religious infrastructure that includes, among others, The Beatitudes Society, Progressive Christians Uniting, Commonweal, Sojourners, American Values Network, The Christian Century, Faith in Public Life, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Center for American Progress’ Faith and Progressive Policy project, Union Theological Seminary, and Faithful America. These institutions, journals, and organizations have—by deepening the religious Left’s prophetic vision (through, among other things, vibrant, intellectual interfaith dialogue and debate) and activism (through dynamic praxis that eschews narrow, privatized religiosity and embraces faith-based public engagement)—positively contributed to broadening the religious Overton Window, in public debate, insofar of what it means to be an American Christian in the 21st century. Their sustained public intellectual engagement and social activism have also contributed in expanding the national conversation about religion in public life by pushing much of the media, as well as influential policy think tanks, to both take notice and take serious the religious progressive community (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
As such, expressions of faith, in the American context, are no longer portrayed in an one-dimensional manner by the national media that far too often, previously, covered matters on religion as being exclusively synonymous with religious conservatism. There hasn’t been a public landscape—in terms of positive coverage—that’s been as favorable today to the Christian Left since, perhaps, when religious progressives were at the forefront of the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s, and, before that, the social gospel movement during the Progressive Era. Hence, the critical role that a robust progressive Christian infrastructure—intellectually engaged and socially active—has played in expanding the religious Overton Window cannot be overemphasized enough.
In light of all this, this is why it is of critical importance that the Adventist Left begin the process of building up their own infrastructure, independent from the Seventh-day Church, in order to influence public debate within (and outside) of the Church. The SDA Church cannot be meaningfully reformed from within when the scope and contours of the debate of what it means to be an Adventist in the 21st century is skewed toward conservatism that either ignores, or is, at times, hostile toward the alternative Christian vision offered by progressive Adventism.
With all that said, however, it must be noted that progressive Adventism will not get an effective hearing—nor become an influential force within institutional Seventh-day Adventism—without also having a favorable theological climate that bolsters its perspective and position arising from the substantive and moral force of its vision. Nonetheless, it must be also noted too that without the existence of an engaged Adventist Left infrastructure that can influentially shape the scope and contours of theological debate within the SDA Church, progressive Adventism will be unable to take advantage of new opportunities that exist when a favorable theological climate arises that can broaden what it means to be an Adventist in the 21st century. As such, so long as the battle of ideas is dominated by SDA conservatism (with the Overton Window, inside the Church, still remaining on the theological right)—without the existence of a theological countervailing force provided by a vibrant institutional SDA Left that can offer a meaningful alternative to Adventists—any realistic hope that institutional Adventism will give a robust, serious hearing (as well as giving moral expression) to the values of progressive Adventism is nothing short of delusional fantasy.
WILL THERE BE A PROGRESSIVE ADVENTIST MOVEMENT THAT MEETS THE MOMENT?
Despite numerous setbacks for progressive Adventism, and the understandable despair and cynicism that engulf much of the Adventist Left community, liberal Adventists should not lose sight that on some issues, like ordination equality, there has been a growing, noticeable shift, in some conferences, toward the values embraced by progressive Adventism.
Now, granted, it has taken much time for a critical mass to build up a momentum for change on some issues of concerns for progressive Adventism. However, like the debate on ordination equality, change and reform, within the Church, will ultimately march forward in the steady drumbeat of progress. Although the General Conference voted against ordination equality, the fact that 41% of the total votes casted on the issue of ordination equality were in favor of ministerial gender equality, such affirmation is a healthy—and promising—indication that the tide of change cannot be reversed despite the efforts to contain it by some conservative elements within the Church. Like most changes in history, the march forward toward progress, despite suffering setbacks, can neither be fully contained nor defeated.
Going forward, it’s going to require the patience of progressive Adventists to take a long view approach toward progress if they hope to see that their Church is reformed from within and becomes the vehicle for progressive change. Surely, the historical laws of progress dictate that positive change, however challenged by the forces of retrenchment, will nonetheless ultimately succeed.
As such, the “moment” of change will surely arrive—the only question will be this: Will progressive Adventists meet the moment or will they be incapable, regrettably, of meeting it? Now, the precise answer to that question depends, in part, on whether progressive Adventists will mobilize to build movement, leadership, and infrastructure capacity, as outlined in this article, that pushes the Adventist Left from the institutional margins to prominence.
1. The label, “progressive Adventists,” used in this article refers to those who embrace the faith-based values (as articulated in the second paragraph of this piece) and are decidedly oriented, spiritually, toward the center-left or left-of-center theological spectrum that informs their progressive activism in engaging with the world. This is not to say that those who embrace Adventist progressivism are entirely both theologically and politically center-left or left-wing. There are progressive Adventists who are theologically left-wing or center-left, but are nonetheless center-right or right-wing on political and public policy matters. However, for the purposes of this article—which is meant to be directed to an Adventist Left audience—the label, progressive Adventists, refers to individuals who stand on the side of a center-left or left-wing spiritual, prophetic credo that informs their values on a host of political and public policy matters in making this world more humane, inclusive, peaceful, socially just, and environmentally sustainable.
2. A particular organization that progressive Adventists would do well to learn from is Auburn Seminary‘s multifaith social justice online community, Groundswell, that combines the best of actual activism and clicktivism as a digital hub that connects with other faith-grounded social justice activists and movements. Also, there are two excellent resources that this article, here, recommends to would-be progressive Adventist activists interested in building a hybrid movement network that characterizes much of what constitutes 21st-century grassroots movement building today, i.e., combining the best features of actual and digital activism. The resources are two books published by the Oxford Studies in Digital Politics: (1) The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy by David Karpf and (2) Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama by Daniel Kreiss.
(Photo: A Seventh-day Adventist church sign. Photo by Bertknot on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Photo used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)