Happy Progressive Thanksgiving: How 'Gospel Progressives' Transformed American Culture

We have so many thanks to give! Without the Lord and the Spirit he breathed into us, we would have neither any reason to give thanks and nor any capacity to express it.

Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist.
Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Tragically, there is so little human attention to spiritual history! The Lord has awakened and empowered the positive passions of many people to help both America and the world become better places. We enjoy more liberty and justice, and less abuse and oppression, because humble, courageous men and women chose to do the right, often at great sacrifice. And yet the "politically correct" incorrect retelling of these stories has robbed the rising generation of the rich spiritual roots of so much that they and we all now so easily take for granted.

Our president famously repeats often that the United States of America is not a Christian country. Of course, being born again is not a requirement for citizenship, and people of any religious persuasion can utilize the full privileges of American citizenship. However, it should still be OK to teach that those precious privileges were not hatched out of minds and hearts shaped by the Muslim Koran, or Sharia Law, or Confucius' Analects, or the Hindu Veda scriptures, or the Tao Te Ching by China's Loa Tzu.

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No. The remarkable and transformative core human values in America came from the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The winds of true hope and uplifting change came from a source much more powerful than even the great minds of historic American leaders or the heroic actions of America's profoundest agents of transformation.

While we may be concerned also for their souls, our own Thanksgivings should not be shaped by whether George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were born again. What forever matters is whether in the most precious contributions of their extraordinary leaderships they were guided by the divine hand of the Lord and the discerning light of his Word, the Bible.

We can bear divine witness in some of the weirdest circumstances! A few months ago I was invited to a research event at a secular university where some scholars were examining contrasting cultural values. All of us who were invited were pre-categorized as either "Progressive leaders" or "Evangelical leaders," and it was assumed that no one could be both. The organizers clearly presumed that Evangelicals were conservative in personal character and religious right-wing Republican in political ideology.

That bias was stinking badly enough. But then the opening talk by a "Progressive leader" pushed me over the edge. In the middle of his prepared speech I raised my hand. Amazingly he stopped and called on me.

"I do not know who gave you secular 'progressives' the right to hijack the word 'progressive,' but your behavior creates a real communication problem. After all, the very concept of 'progress' came from the Bible first. No other ancient Scripture sees history moving forward. And besides, virtually all the progressive improvements in American culture were led by Gospel-believing people, not secularists. Consider these examples," I said. And then I very briefly alluded to the following ten transformative contributions:

1. The Evangelical First Great Awakening (1730-1755) provided the precious spiritual, social, and theological basis for the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the USA's Constitutional democracy – a model of liberation thinking in many other countries.
2. Evangelicals were the earliest prime movers for religious liberty, with Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island, early Dutch settlers and Anne Hutchinson in New York, John Leland in Virginia, and many others. These Evangelical heroes profoundly caught Thomas Jefferson's attention, and so he wrote and pushed for the adoption of Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1779, in the midst of the Revolutionary War. This Statute became the primary model for the first statement in the Bill of Rights – our "First Amendment."
3. One of the very most formative documents in American history, the Northwest Ordinance, predated the Constitution and established transformative principles of economic empowerment for all people – based primarily upon Evangelical teachings on the land-distribution principles in Biblical Leviticus. The principles of Northwest Ordinance shaped homesteading and other free land distribution for 90% of the present United States landmass. This Evangelical idea is the biggest and most successful economic empowerment program in all history, anywhere.
4. Most private colleges and universities in America were founded by Evangelical people.
5. The public school movement to educate all American children, regardless of economic class or race, was led from the beginning by Evangelicals.
6. The Movement to Abolish Slavery was led primarily by Evangelical people, black and white –
including Charles Finney (the central leader of the Second Great Awakening, 1820s-1840s), Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Richard Allen, Jonathan Blanchard, Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln himself, and many, many others.
7. Most of the leaders for women's vote in America were Evangelical people, including Susan B. Anthony.
8. Most private American hospitals were founded by Evangelical people.
9. The Civil Rights movement in America was rooted and empowered in Gospel-teaching churches. Many of the formative Civil Rights leaders were Evangelical in faith and action.
10. The most transformative international charities based in the USA – including Compassion International, Salvation Army, World Vision, and World Relief – are Evangelical institutions with broad financial support and effectual service.

Still having everyone's attention, I continued, "The more honest contrast today would be between 'Gospel Progressives' and 'Secular Progressives' – or between Progressives with a proven track record (we Evangelicals) and Progressives with not so much of a track record (the Secularists)."

To my surprise, that Secular Progressive speaker immediately changed the language of the rest of his talk. For his revised speech – and in all the discussion for the remainder of the conference – the contrast was between "Gospel Progressives" and "Secular Progressives." I was delighted! The Lord was honored.

What is the point of remembering the many Gospel influences that have transformed American culture? For those who believe the Gospel, "let your light shine before people so that they will see your good works and give honor to your Father in Heaven." For everyone else, at least thank God that we have often had such leaders who were neither enamored with their secular power nor devoted to Sharia Law.

This Thanksgiving, let us all joyfully thank the Lord God for his sovereign grace, shaping Gospel Progressive leadership at so many points throughout history. Also, let us thank the Lord God for his amazing grace empowering you and me to continue this precious progressive Gospel witness and work now.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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