Progressive Neolegalism: Back to the Future of Adventism
by Nate Schilt
I entered both adolescence and adulthood in the 60’s. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I knew what that difference looked like in real life. Even shades of gray were clearly defined. We didn’t have T.V. growing up in Denver, but when we made the weekly drive to Boulder to visit grandparents, we were allowed to watch certain programs like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘Make Room for Daddy’. ‘Lassie’ and ‘Seahunt,’ were strictly forbidden – too much suspense – and ‘Leave it to Beaver’…well, I’m not sure what was wrong with that. I just knew my mother disapproved. Perhaps she saw it as television’s version of an ‘entry’ drug. I know she suspected – correctly it turns out – that T.V. itself was an entry drug to secular culture. But her fleshly weakness found the benign wit of Danny Thomas and Uncle Tonoose irresistible. And so began the downhill slide of a boy raised on industrial strength Adventism. Of course the Beatles and Elvis Presley were way off limits. But then so were Andy Williams and Perry Como.
Along came the ‘70’s, and the enlightenment dawned on Adventism. During the next three decades, “I’m not okay, and you’re even more not okay” was replaced with the Gospel of love, tolerance, and even acceptance. Adventist progressivism began to gently and constructively challenge not only the traditional interpretation of the Church’s sources of authority, but the authoritativeness of the sources themselves, prying the Church loose from its militant, paranoid sectarianism.
Over time, not only were guitars and drums welcomed to church platforms, but listening to rock music and going to the movies ceased being occasions for adding names to prayer lists. Despite progressive whining that the Church hasn’t moved far enough fast enough, the subculture of Adventism has “progressed” dramatically over the past 40-50 years.
But I have noticed something strange in the SDA progressive liberation movement. The sins of listening to Elvis and attending Beatles’ concerts have simply been replaced by the sins of listening to Rush Limbaugh, watching Glenn Beck, or being in favor of Proposition 8 (For non-Californians, this was the proposition passed by California voters to define marriage as between one man and one woman.).
So what gives? How did those who have led a movement that prides itself on having pushed the Church towards greater tolerance and diversity of opinion become so non- diverse, judgmental, and condemning? How did the Gospel of freedom, preached by progressives to release Adventism from the chains of traditional legalism, become a guilt-inducing weapon of choice for Christians whose politics leaned left? Having experienced considerable success in freeing Adventists from the bonds of their voluntary baptismal vows, progressives now seek to bind them by compulsory legal obligations and political sentiments to a new kind of righteousness by works – all in the name of Christ. The war against legalism, it turns out, really wasn’t about legalism per se. It was simply a battle to clear the way for a new political canon of Church authority.
I’d love to gain some insight and understanding from those who don’t see a double-standard here. Why is it okay to use scripture as foundational authority to compel legislative and regulatory implementation of Left wing public morality (can anyone say theocracy?), but not okay to use scripture as authority for implementation of the Church’s moral and religious beliefs? Is it unreasonable to use the word “neolegalist” to describe those who urge the Church to adopt political agendas and beliefs on the authority of God’s Word?