Religious Left On the Rise?
NPR recently ran a story on the possible rise of a religious left.
Another advocate for a religious left had the wonderfully provocative headline — “Christianity’s Future Looks More Like Lady Gaga Than Mike Pence.”
What I’ve noticed is that such stories show up with almost predictable regularity, maybe once a year. I suspect they fall on slow news days. As to whether there is a new or renewed movement of the religious left, I’m a skeptic, and not the only one.
These stories about rumblings on the religious left tell us more about the need of the media and our polarized culture for binary frameworks of explanation — left / right, blue / red — than they do about a significant social movement.
It is true that various conferences convene, declarations are announced and organizations are chartered every now and again that might be described as an expression of a “religious left.”
But they don’t seem to amount to much. Why?
For one thing they are often reactive. They are fueled by irritation that something called “the Religious Right,” has become the public face of Christianity. Or so they claim.
They define themselves over and against such groups that are more conservative in nature. But being against something, in this case, against “the Religious Right,” tends to have limited appeal. People want to know what you’re for not what you are against. And if what you are for is “tolerance” and “diversity” that may not really bring people to the ramparts either.
Another, even more important reason, that a rise of the religious left seems never to equal such hopeful articles as the one at NPR, is that the institutional world that might fund and support the religious left has been in decline for decades. It is no secret that the two words that most describe liberal Protestantism are “aging” and “shrinking.” There are, to be sure, glorious exceptions. But overall this movement tends to be a paper tiger, unable to mobilize either money or votes.
It’s difficult to mount a social movement based on a handful of denominations that are in a constant state of retrenchment and restructuring driven by shrinking funds.
Something else that factors into this is that unlike fundamentalism and evangelicalism, liberal Christianity is allergic to big personalities. There aren’t many equivalents to Jerry Falwell (Sr. or Jr.), Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren in the world of liberal Protestantism. Such entrepreneurial types are discouraged by the bureaucratic complexities and rigidities of mainline Protestantism as well as by a skepticism (some would say a healthy skepticism) about charismatic leaders. But you do have to have such figures to really inspire a movement.
Some such energy has focused around the founder of the Moral Mondays Movement, William Barber. But that may be more the exception that proves the rule.
So these are systemic reasons that the religious left doesn’t quite get it together.
But maybe it is not so bad if there isn’t a powerful, organized religious left?
Some thoughtful evangelicals have wondered if the religious right hasn’t become way too close to the Republican Party and in doing so forgotten their own real calling and identity. There’s a lot about today’s Republican Party that is a pretty uneasy alliance with Jesus — something some evangelicals are feeling.
One of the best things I read about the Covington Catholic/ Native American Elder mess at the Mall the weekend before last focused on the fact that the teens were adorned with Trump MAGA hats. A Catholic commentator lamented the way Christianity had been “pimped out” for political swag.
That’s a danger for a resurgent Religious Left as well, if there were to be one. Becoming the Democratic Party at prayer doesn’t sound all that appealing or even interesting.
What it does sound like is an effort to gain power, political power. Lord knows, we crave it. But I believe we were warned about the seductions of White House invitations long ago. See Matthew 4: 9, “All these (kingdoms of the world) I will give you,” said Satan, “if you fall down and worship me.”
Faithful Christians must speak to the culture in which they reside about what God requires. But simply mirroring the two-party system or left/ right polarities may not be the best or only way to do that. The very best thing the church can do is be the church, in all our gospel peculiarity.