The Religious Left isn’t what the media thinks it is

Progressive faith, like the progressive movement, works differently.

CREDIT: AP /Charles Krupa
CREDIT: AP /Charles Krupa

For the first time in what feels like forever, the Religious Left is having a moment.

Spurred into action by the election of President Donald Trump, the past few months have seen a groundswell of activity among America’s left-leaning faithful. Since November, liberal (and even some conservative) religious groups have defied the president at every turn: they have spoken out against his cabinet picks, condemned both iterations of his Muslim ban, decried his budget proposal, challenged his repeal of Obamacare, voiced outrage over his anti-climate policies, and offered up their own worship spaces to undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation.

This rapidly expanding interfaith coalition — which includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and more — has become an unavoidable component of the larger “resistance” movement, cropping up at everything from airport protests to the Women’s March to the March for Science. They’re also helping organize the forthcoming Climate March.

The movement eventually became too big to ignore, leading more than a few writers (including this reporter) to predict a revival of the so-called Religious Left.

[Its detractors] fail to account for how the Religious Left works, particularly how it differs radically from the Religious Right in structure, outlook, and goal.

But such lofty forecasts were immediately met with a flurry of criticisms dismissing the Religious Left as overblown — especially compared to the power of the Religious Right.

Some of these arguments were simplistic, such as conservative writer Rod Dreher’s assertion that “liberal religion” is “insufficiently substantive” to “hold most people.” Dreher has a habit of making sweeping, bizarre, and often offensive claims about religion that are divorced from fact, and the same is true here: Literally millions of Americans belong to liberal faiths, and while young people are becoming less religious in general, progressive religious people are actually projected to outnumber religious conservatives in coming years. (Dreher goes on to rattle off a spate of tired, 100-year-old conservative arguments about the supposedly flawed theological nature of liberal faiths that showcase a profound lack of understanding for what most liberal religious people actually believe.)

Other authors were far more reasoned, however. The most robust debunk effort came last week in the form of a FiveThirtyEight piece by PRRI research director Dan Cox, who used cold, hard data to highlight the issues inhibiting the development of a large-scale progressive faith movement on par with the Religious Right. Among other things, he argues that fewer progressives claim a specific faith tradition these days (limiting the movement’s size), the diversity of the Religious Left means sub-groups disagree on several key issues (ostensibly hobbling organizing efforts), and that progressive faith leaders are bad at social media (a difficult claim to prove, but I’ll let it slide).

It’s hard to argue with most of Cox’s points in isolation, statistically speaking, and his fellow naysayers are right that the ascendency of progressive faith has been foretold many times only to be proven false. But the implicit conclusion they draw — that the Religious Left’s small size and hyper-diversity dooms any hope of political influence — suffers from a flawed logic: they fail to account for how the Religious Left works.

More specifically: Like progressive movements in general, the Religious Left is an effort in coalition building that, by design, is drastically different from the Religious Right in structure, outlook, and goal.

No one disputes that the Religious Right is a political force to be reckoned with in American politics. Right-wing religious Americans, led by an overwhelmingly white coalition of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics, have achieved a number of political victories over the past few decades. The success of Fox News, the initial failures of the LGBTQ rights movement, and election of George W. Bush (not to mention Donald Trump) are all at least partly attributable to the power of so-called “values voters” and a small empire of like-minded institutions, schools, and think tanks.

The Religious Left is at its strongest when it’s part of a larger progressive coalition. CREDIT: APAndrew Harnik
The Religious Left is at its strongest when it’s part of a larger progressive coalition. CREDIT: APAndrew Harnik

But the various iterations of the progressive faith movement have rarely, if ever, been interested in the sort of top-down power structure that the Religious Right spent decades and millions of dollars constructing.

When scholars recount the heroes of the faith-based conservative movement, for example, they cite leaders who either aligned themselves with politicians or were politicians themselves: Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, and so on. Their cultural crusades were (and continue to be) deeply political in the traditional sense, focused on elevating theological arbiters into seats of power, one election or legislative session at a time.

By contrast, paragons of the Religious Left are masters of criticism and protest, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and now William Barber II. Their political efforts — and particularly their successes — are typically centered around pushing the powerful to rethink their views and policies, not on becoming the powerful themselves. Indeed, progressive faith movements have spent decades forging broad coalitions from various and often incongruous factions that team up to pinch societal pressure points for a common goal. Their institutions — seminaries, advocacy groups, and entire religious denominations that lean left — would never stand a chance against the Religious Right on their own, but become a sleeping giant when they work together.

The Religious Left is at its strongest when it strives to be prophetic — and prophets rarely make good politicians.

Faith communities are so adamant about this approach that many reject the term Religious Left, preferring descriptors that invoke nonpartisan movement-building.

Granted, progressive people of faith have undoubtedly called for electoral victories at times, usually to the benefit of the Democratic Party. But the Religious Left is at its strongest when it strives to be prophetic — and prophets rarely make good politicians.

There’s a tendency among political commentators to dismiss this approach as ineffective, and it’s true the Religious Right has been far more successful at electing men and women sympathetic to their cause. Meanwhile, most religious progressives would be hard pressed to name a single politician that purely embodies their spiritual ideal (although Hillary Clinton arguably came closer than most).

But if movements for civil rights and LGBTQ equality have taught Americans anything, it’s that Congress and the White House aren’t the only centers of power in a democratic society: broad, sustained social movements can shift the needle, too. And unlike some conservatives and even liberals who struggle to see the value of marches, sit-ins, and sign-waving, many progressive people of faith are trained in the art of direct action that makes an impact — even if it’s sometimes hard to see.

In fact, you probably missed some of the Religious Left’s biggest successes in recent years — because they were enveloped within broader movements.

For example, despite overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage from religious Americans in the early days of the LGBT rights movement, progressive religious groups eventually became an important ally in the fight for equality, with faith leaders running ads in favor of marriage equality ballot initiatives and queer rights organizations hiring their own faith outreach directors. These efforts helped forge a cultural space for people to be both religious and pro-LGBTQ, which is likely why Barack Obama, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Hillary Clinton all invoked their personal faith when they announced their support for marriage equality.

In fact, you probably missed some of the Religious Left’s biggest successes in recent years because they were enveloped into broader movements.

Meanwhile, Obama himself acknowledged that he could not have passed the Affordable Care Act without the help of sympathetic Catholic nuns; some of the earliest opponents of then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” bill were progressive religious groups; and it was a faith-led Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina — whose main tactic was sustained, boisterous protest by progressives from across the state — that many say helped unseat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.

Such is the consistent strategy of the larger progressive movement, which relies on a diverse network of overlapping communities to achieve its goals.

Modern American progressivism is only efficacious when all the groups huddled beneath its “big tent” work together. That has always included the progressive faith community, and regardless of whether we call it the “Religious Left” or something else, their newfound energy will only make the progressive movement stronger.

Does that mean the Religious Left will ever match the institutional might of the Religious Right? Of course not — but they don’t have to, and they never wanted to anyway. Don’t look for the lefty faithful to recreate the megachurches of the right, or for them to mirror the “grass tops” strategy made famous by any number of evangelical ministers.

Their methods are different: look for them in their pulpits and in the streets, where they’ve always been.