The Religious Left is getting under right-wing media’s skin

For years they dismissed them. Now they can’t stop talking about them.

Rev. William Barber II, a key leader of the Religious Left. CREDIT: AP/Chuck Burton
Rev. William Barber II, a key leader of the Religious Left. CREDIT: AP/Chuck Burton

For years, conservatives ignored them. Some dismissed them. Others chided their prayerful efforts as ineffectual or destined for failure.

But this year, right-wing media outlets can’t seem to stop talking about major players in the Religious Left — a strong sign that left-wing faithful are making a splash.

The shift coincides with a welldocumented surge of activism among religious progressives, whose leaders have become increasingly visible since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Their members have organized in opposition to the president’s cabinet picks, anti-climate policies, proposed repeal of Obamacare, and both iterations of the Muslim ban. Other liberal faithful, hailing from a diverse range of traditions, have opened their worship spaces to harbor undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation under Trump, with some even contemplating offering up their homes.

Analysts were quick to cast aspersions on this rise, with commentators on the right and the left expressing doubt that liberal people of faith could muster a sustained political movement, especially given their relatively small size.

But roughly six months into Trump’s presidency, the groundswell of progressive faith activism has yet to subside, and conservatives are taking notice — and getting nervous. More specifically, they appear to be going out of their way to condemn, discredit, and explain away the Religious Left.

Evidence of right-wing unease over progressive faith emerged over the weekend, when conservative media jumped on comments made by Rev. William Barber II. During an appearance on MSNBC’s AM Joy, Barber derided evangelical pastors who recently prayed over Donald Trump while also supporting — or at least remaining silent about — issues such as the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Barber accused the pastors of hypocrisy, saying their actions constituted “a form of theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

Barber’s remarks, while bold, are hardly unprecedented. Condemnation of hypocrisy is a biblically-rooted idea. Nonetheless, right-wing outlets such as The Blaze, Fox News Insider, and even Fox and Friends covered his words as if they were inflammatory, insisting Barber expressed “hatred” and arguing that he said praying for the president was heresy.

“Hatred of President Trump [is] reaching a new low,” a Fox News host said in response to Barber’s remarks, despite the fact that Barber did not, in fact, say that Christians shouldn’t pray for leaders.

Roughly six months into Trump’s presidency, the groundswell of progressive faith activism has yet to subside, and conservatives are taking notice — and getting nervous. More specifically, they appear to be going out of their way to condemn, discredit, and explain away the Religious Left.

The fervor over Barber comes a little over a week after the right attacked Linda Sarsour, a progressive Muslim activist and one of the chief organizers of the Women’s March. Like Barber, the right’s fervor was rooted in a misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise: when Sarsour called on her fellow Muslims to participate in a nonviolent “jihad” for social justice against Trump, conservative outlets such as Fox News Insider, Conservative Review, and Breitbart filed her remarks under categories such as “outrageous” and “terror.” Using inflammatory headlines, they appeared to be generally unaware that the word “jihad” is not an inherently violent theological term.

Meanwhile, a myriad of conservative authors are crafting messages designed to discredit the Religious Left as a whole. Writers at the National Review and The American Conservative recently reinvigorated a (dubious) claim that progressivism is somehow inherently incompatible with religion. Nationally syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas —who was vice president of the Moral Majority from 1980 to 1985 — insisted that liberal people of faith who engage in politics lead to declines in church affiliation. And Mark Tooley, head of the right-wing Institute of Religion and Democracy, pushed back against the “Christian left” in the Christian Post, calling it “unreflective.”

Others have worked to obscure or dismiss the potential impact of the Religious Left. The National Review, for instance, pushed the un-nuanced claim that the Democratic Party is actively hostile to religion, making the “dream” of a Religious Left supposedly “hopeless.”

“The Religious Left will never be a formidable force in politics because, quite frankly, the left is not that religious,” Rev. Robert Jeffress, a prominent right-wing pastor and an ardent supporter of Trump, declared in an April interview with Fox News. (As of 2016, 72 percent of Democrats claim a religious tradition, according to PRRI data provided to ThinkProgress.)

To be sure, right-wing attacks on progressive leaders of all stripes are nothing new, and conservatives have blasted progressive people of faith in the past. Republicans (including Trump and some of his advisers), for instance, have spent years dismissing the relatively progressive proposals of Pope Francis and his American fans.

But the scope and intensity of conservative media fervor over the Religious Left is new, and if current trends hold — and if the Religious Left continues to rise — the attacks may intensify.

Either way, it looks like the Religious Left is riling up the right, and there’s little indication they’re ready to call it quits.