Amid the global rise of the Christian right, some intellectuals and politicians have emphasized the need to affirm a stronger religious left in the United States. The Democrats’ downfall in 2016, this argument goes, has shown the limits of ideological platforms that ignore matters of faith and belonging and stick to technocratic and secular jargon. From this perspective, in order to win the culture war against right-wing evangelicals, progressives urgently need to include religion in their strategy.
Since 2016, various attempts have been made at mobilizing religious progressives against the religious right. Vote Common Good, a group of progressive Christians, has worked toward bringing evangelicals closer to the Democratic Party. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) insistently speaks about his faith and how it inspires his political project. Journalist Jack Jenkins has suggested that Booker could be “a candidate for the ‘religious left.’” It has become quite trendy to blame Democrats and the liberal left for neglecting the importance of religion for the people, and to encourage progressives to try and emulate the political methods of right-wing populists and the religious right.
Such sudden injunctions to mobilize religion for political gains ignore the fact that progressive and radical religious movements have been a key part of social and political activism throughout American history—from the Social Gospel movement to the civil rights movements, to activists inspired by liberation theology, to Catholic Nuns today advocating for equal access to health care. More specifically, the now fashionable call to speak or act religious for political gains poses at least three problems.
The Diversity of Progressive Religion
First, it draws upon an instrumental and functionalist approach to religion, one that has long been criticized by scholars of religion and believers. Religion’s job is not to save the left by providing its politicians and leaders a quick fix to regain power. While religious groups may be key allies in the fight against populism, forming a religious left in the image of right-wing religious movements to better counter them misses the complexity and diversity of progressive religious movements.
As noted by Ruth Braunstein, Todd Fuist, and Rhys Williams, labels such as “progressive religion” define what these movements are not (conservative, right-wing, etc.), more than what they are. They exhibit a great diversity of organizational modes, objectives, and methods of action. These movements are confronted, just like the religious right, with internal disagreements around divisive issues. While progressive movements may provide crucial resources to activists, the temporality of their struggles differs significantly from the result-oriented temporality of politicized Christian or secular politicians. Their strategy is not oriented toward seizing political power; they do not evaluate a successful action according to its immediate results, such as the outcome of an election or a policy change, but on a much longer timeframe.
Even the most successful mobilizations, like the Moral Mondays, that bring together several hundreds of activists and faithful participants do not compare with the massive gatherings organized in Pentecostal megachurches. Online activism is equally much more sporadic. Progressive religious movements’ activism is centered around local communities, neighborhoods, and families, and not focused on the global Christian nation or the evangelical mass. This is why, after the 2016 election, some faith leaders have even insisted on the need to stop agitating, to take a pause, and described their activism as a form of breathing. This conception of action is different from, even contradictory to, the result-oriented action of the religious right lobbies and most secular activists who call for instrumentalizing the religious left.
Leaders of these progressive organizations, while they may have personal ties with members of the Democratic Party, stay away from openly supporting a political party and emphasize the negative impact of political polarization on the public good. Jim Wallis, the president and founder of Sojourners, has described progressive evangelicalism as an alternative to both the religious right and the secular left. In his 2005 bestselling book, he articulates a vision of the common good and public space that transcends partisan binaries. Likewise, Reverend William Barber, one of the most charismatic and active leaders of religious progressivism today, rejects the binary between right and left, and talks about a divide between what is right and wrong. On September 14, 2018, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a theologian and minister close to William Barber, reacted to a New York Times article by tweeting, “We don’t need a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. If Christians who care about the common good vote w/ all our neighbors for a government that works for everyone, we can reconstruct democracy.”
The strength and originality of the movements and groups that are lumped together under the label of religious progressives comes from their diversity, their grassroots entrenchment, and, most importantly, their interest in mediating conflicts and building bridges across racial, religious, and ethnic divides. In November 2018, Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Josh Whinston led an interfaith group of Jews, Episcopalians, Muslims, and Disciples of Christ in the West Texas town of Tornillo to welcome asylum seekers from Central America. Since June 2018, Reverend Trey Hegar, former marine and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, has offered support to asylum-seeking victims of ICE raids. The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut has given sanctuary to a Muslim Pakistani couple threatened of deportation for more than six months. While right-wing evangelicals continue to fascinate and steal the headlines, examples of this ecumenical activism that are not artificially using religion abound and remain largely under-theorized.
The Fallacy of Promoting Good Religion
Second, the call to constitute a united religious left comes down to promoting good religion against bad religion. As Winnifred Fallers Sullivan has argued, the United States was founded upon the rejection of a normative understanding of so-called good religion, and a commitment to a pluralistic, egalitarian, and horizontal religious sphere. While conservative groups have nevertheless and repeatedly tried to impose their understanding of good religion, progressives have often pushed back to defend the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities. Why, then, should they embark now on a project based on the same dubious binary between good and bad religion? Who is to decide what counts as good or bad religion?
Progressive Christian activists and leaders often denounce the theology of the Christian right as heresy or blasphemy. And yet, American progressives who seek to instrumentalize religion would benefit from considering how similar debates have played out in Muslim majority countries as well as in Europe and North America around the promotion of good, moderate Islam. Top-down attempts to manufacture a liberal friendly Islamic theology and “modern” Islamic piety, by promoting supposedly reformed Islamic leaders, schools, or curricula, have rarely accomplished what they set out to achieve. Not only have such attempts failed to provide a robust alternative to violent jihadist ideologies, but they have also been received either with indifference or suspicion by rank and file Muslims who see them as dubious attempts by state officials or elite intellectuals to interfere with century-long theological and cultural disputes. Since 9/11, the distinction between good and bad Islam has contributed to the securitization of Muslims and the shrinking of their rights much more than promoting plurality within their communities.
A Responsibility to the World
Third, the call to form a united front of the religious left reveals a nostalgic fixation on the civil rights era that is based on a partial, US-centered reading of how religion played out in liberation movements of the 1960s. The raison d’être of radical and progressive religious movements at the time went beyond their oppositional stance to right-wing policy and movements. Foundational to their theology was a strong commitment to global peace and justice, from Vietnam, to Latin America, India, and Africa.
Sarah Azaransky has demonstrated how black intellectuals and activists in the 1960s saw the struggle for racial equality as an inherent part of a global struggle for social justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about an “inescapable network of mutuality” that tied together different struggles: “So we are all concerned about what is happening in Africa and what is happening in Asia because we are part of this whole movement.” Scholars and public intellectuals such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays, or women’s movement leaders such as Juliette Derricotte and Sue Bailey Thurman, Azaransky argues, saw the movement for racial justice in the United States as part of a broader movement against colonization. “Their contributions to the American religious left,” she explains, “should be understood as emerging importantly from black internationalism.”
Similarly, radical Catholic priests who organized protests against US foreign policy in the same period were equally influenced by, and committed to, international freedom movements. Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, one of the most illustrious representatives of radical Catholicism in the 1960s, was profoundly inspired by the theology and activism of the worker-priests in the 1940s French underground. Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, a Catholic priest and peace activist, explained the civil disobedience actions that they orchestrated in relation to the United States’ moral responsibility to the world. Just like King, they were convinced of the inextricability of the struggle against racism at home and the opposition to war in Vietnam. As Francine Du Plessix Gray recounts: “‘Do you honestly expect,’ Philip Berrigan asked, ‘that we could so abuse our black citizens for three hundred and forty years, so resist their moral and democratic rights, so mistreat, exploit, starve, terrorize, rape and murder them without all this showing itself in our foreign policy? Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral, and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?’”
In other words, religious progressives and radicals in the civil rights era felt a strong responsibility to justice and equality at home and abroad simultaneously. That same idea inspires religious leaders such as Barber today, when he cites racism and militarism abroad as two of the most salient evils of what he calls America’s moral malady. Similarly, environmentalist activists, religious or secular, cite Pope Francis’s denunciation of the richest part of the world’s responsibility in climate change. Their call to a global collaboration draws upon the Pope’s plea to rich countries to act more responsibly and change their lifestyle and modes of energy consumption. Instrumental calls to use religion to win elections and counter the religious right often omit the importance of worldly commitment.
Toward a Faithful Social Justice Globalism
Instead of calling for the creation of a religious left, a more productive way to think about how to counter religious nationalism may be to better understand the nature and power of actions such as the ones cited above. Although they may come across as disparate, disjointed, or anecdotal, they express a commitment to a social justice globalism that brings together the faithful of all kinds. Movements and actions of solidarity that are organized by ecumenical groups are not interested in building an alliance of all “good” and progressive religions against bad religion. Whether a Dutch church service that protects an Armenian family from deportation, or the congregants of a church in Durham, North Carolina who surround an ICE van while singing “Amazing Grace” to prevent the arrest of Mexican immigrant Samuel Oliver-Bruno, such religious-inspired collective actions distinguish themselves by two important features.
First, they actualize a distinctive conception of, and relation to, religion. Religion is not a specific realm of activity or ideas, defined by specific boundaries, and placed outside of or next to the secular world. Rather, religion infuses questions of economics and politics. Many of these movements openly or tacitly draw upon the immanentism and mundane commitment called for by German pastor and anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), for whom God inhabits the secular world and manifests outside of sacred places—in the profane world and in human relationships with strangers and outcasts.
Second, these movements implement a particular form of cosmopolitanism, distinct from the universalist and potentially patronizing and elitist form of cosmopolitanism of Western political liberalism. Religious-inspired movements of solidarity with migrants are micro forms of cosmopolitanism that are deeply rooted in local communities. Interestingly, these micro and localized cosmopolitanisms emerge not primarily from New York, Paris, or Rome, but from Durham, Tornillo, the Hague in the Netherlands, the Italian region of Calabria, and the French Roya Valley.
If these movements truly want to resuscitate the internationalist spirit of the civil rights era, a key challenge for them will be to find a balance between providing safe spaces and protection to migrants and resisting catastrophist visions of the global south. They will need to figure out ways to work not just for people from the south, but with them. Sociologist Grace Yukich has shown the obstacles that the New Sanctuary Movement has faced in trying to build alliances between white and migrant activists. She argues that, at times, the movement has come across as a “pro-migrant movement without migrants.”
In the present context of moral panic around migration and refugee issues, while borders are being closed in Europe and walls built in the United States, it is very difficult for religious-based movements to resist the miserabilist vision of the global south as a mere place of death and war. Just as one should refrain from seeing religious progressivism as a tool for redeeming the political left, one should be wary of Christian-inspired visions of religious progressivism that more or less construct the persona of the migrant, refugee, black, Jew, or Muslim as a subject whose redemption will allow for reconstructing the Gospel. While the religious right imposes certitudes to its followers, it is important for religious progressives to offer more than sanctuaries to their own flock and instead keep building the “networks of mutuality” that MLK called for.
In the meantime, conservatives and progressives frame public debate through sophistic exchanges of Bible verses and descriptions of what Jesus really wanted. Instead of parroting and mimicking right-wing evangelicals, it may be more productive for progressives to initiate new conversations, establish new narratives, and enable new forms of collective actions.
I would like to thank Benjamin Naimark-Rowse and Mona Oraby for their helpful comments and suggestions for this essay.