At a crossroads of faith and politics

Plymouth Congregational Church hosting national conference for progressive faith leaders

STEVENS SQUARE — Faith and politics — personal conviction and public action — have been intertwined at Plymouth Congregational Church since its founding, said head pastor the Rev. James
Gertmenian.

“There’s a great story that the first pastor here was actually dismissed because he refused to use the pulpit to speak against slavery,” Gertmenian said.

He said the man was an abolitionist, but would not take an anti-slavery stance in his sermons. The congregation wouldn’t stand for it.

Gertmenian said that same spirit flows through the church today, more than 150 years later. It was Plymouth’s commitment to social justice causes, in addition to its investment in the arts and liberal theology, which drew him to Minneapolis from the East Coast more than 10 years ago.

“Plymouth is rooted in the idea that the burden of faith is played out in public life and in public policy,” he said.

This month, faith leaders and lay people from across the country gather for Voting Justice Voting Hope, a national conference sponsored by The Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith. Several hundred people were expected to attend the event, which is open to the public (see accompanying sidebar).

The center, an outgrowth of the church, is just three years old. But church leaders hoped the conference would propel Plymouth Center onto the national stage and establish a Midwestern outpost in a burgeoning progressive faith
movement.

Kendra Brodin, the center’s administrative director, said conservative Christian voices dominated the national discussion in recent years, both in faith and politics. The Plymouth Center seeks to join that conversation, Brodin said.

“The megaphone no longer belongs only to those in the conservative branch of Christianity,” she said.

‘Greening’ progressive faith

It was no coincidence Voting Justice Voting Faith was scheduled during the lead-up to what might be a pivotal national election. It was precisely because the concerns of people of faith were so narrowly defined in recent elections around divisive issues like gay marriage and abortion, Gertmenian said.

“I think a lot of people in the country today think … to be a person of faith means you have to fit this narrow niche that the religious right has described,” he said.

Gertmenian traced the influence of progressive people of faith through a number of American social justice movements, from abolition and the labor movement up through the fight for civil rights and opposition to war in Vietnam.

“That’s a long tradition,” he said, “and that voice … has been quieter over the last 30 years for a number of reasons.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, said the secular leaders of the progressive political movement told their followers, “Leave your spiritual and religious ideas at the door.”

“And too many of the spiritual progressives agreed to do that,” Lerner added. “For that reason, they weren’t able to see that what the country really needed was precisely an alternative spiritual vision.”

Instead, he argued, where religion intersected with politics, conservative views dominated. He urged political progressives to be more open and honest about their religious beliefs as a way to bring balance.

“Spiritual people have to come out of the closet as spiritual people,” he said.

In Gertmenian’s view, that was already happening.

“There is a kind of greening of American progressive religion across the country,” he said.

“No longer is it just Republicans who talk about their faith,” he added later, “it’s Republicans and
Democrats.”

Plan for growth

If progressive religion is “greening,” as Gertmenian put it, then Plymouth Center exists to add fertilizer to the soil.

Brodin said its mission went well beyond just politics and faith, to exploring the theological questions behind progressive Christian faith.

Plymouth Church, for instance, attracts people who have “hard questions about faith” and are less concerned about adherence to doctrine, Gertmenian said.

“(People) want this, they feel a hunger for it,” he said. “But they can’t fit into a church that is anti-gay or is so hung up on personal morality and completely overlooks public
morality.”

Brodin said the center also would be a place where young progressive faith leaders can study and make connections. Last summer, the center partnered 15 seminarians with progressive religious leaders from across the country through its Emerging Leaders Project, a project it will continue this summer.

In March, Brodin was the sole fulltime employee of the center, but she expected it to grow in coming years.

“Plymouth has a long history of having strong organizations born out of [the church], like VocalEssence and also the Plymouth (Church) Neighborhood Foundation,” Brodin said, naming two independent non-profit organizations spun-off from the church. “Both started out like the center and then gained strength and sort of moved out of the nest.”

Gertmenian said Plymouth was through its history a haven for progressive people of faith. Now, the Plymouth Center was its opportunity to spread its message.

“It’s no longer good enough for us just to be a haven,” he said. Now, it’s time for us to … say our truth more broadly in the world.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]