I first heard the term “the religious left” used by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin in 1994, and it sent my imagination soaring. Of course! The religious right had created the strategies for organizing masses of people around moral issues and for convincing them that one political party represented their beliefs on these matters. All that the left had to do to enjoy equal cultural and political power was to use those same methods in the service of its own agenda. If the right could motivate people against LGBT rights and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the left could turn out at least as many people in support of AIDS research and the new, post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela. But the last quarter century has not seen the adoption by the religious left of right-wing organizing strategies. It has not been possible, and it remains inadvisable.
It has not been possible for numerous reasons, beginning with the fact that the religious left is significantly more diverse than the religious right, including religiously. The evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who anchor the religious right have important differences in terms of liturgy and polity, but their scriptural, historical, and cultural touchstones are largely the same. Their dominance of right-wing religious space creates a sense of uniformity and impermeability, despite the growing presence in their ranks of other conservative religious groups. These newer members of the coalition join in the opposition to issues like LGBT rights that have been focus points for decades.
The religious left, meanwhile, has long attempted to unite a variety of progressive spiritual communities, and the resulting diversity has worked, happily, against reductionism. Its early efforts were anti-war, beginning with the First World War, and arguably reached a peak of visibility in the United States with opposition to the Vietnam War. Religious differences can create frictions within interreligious coalitions, but so can racial differences within religious traditions. Who gets to speak, to lead? Whose organizational culture will prevail? What are the appropriate styles of leadership, and who is considered acceptable in such a role? What does this mean for whose agenda will ultimately be out in front?
The goal of progressive religious organizing is often said to be “community, not consensus,” or “unity, not uniformity.” If one truly respects religious differences this can be the only approach, but it works against the formation of bloc voters, bloc activists, and lock-step commitment to political platforms and candidates. My own experience in congregation-based community organizing with the Gamaliel Foundation is that religious communities join multifaith coalitions because a particular issue is critical to them and they are looking for support and collaboration. If their passion is for addressing gun violence, however, they may be less inclined to syphon off the energies of their membership toward activism for increased education funding. Coalitions shift their attention as issues gain traction (gun violence) or evolve in their expression (Black Lives Matter as part of the ongoing Black Freedom Movement). Groups’ commitments to interreligious organizing shift as well, in alignment with their own evolving priorities and their sense of how much support their issue is going to have within certain organizations in the current moment.
A second reason that the right’s organizing practices have not been taken up by the religious left is the variety of issues to which the left is committed. For almost fifty years the religious right has been blessed with a single, overarching nemesis that they (and the politicians who partner with them) mine continually, which is abortion. Other issues certainly exist for the right, but the organizing power of abortion in national politics provides a centralized focus and a point of accord that the left simply lacks. The focus of the religious left is broad—poverty, racism, immigration, sexual violence, LGBT rights, reproductive freedoms, and more. I respect the sincerity of the anger, grief, and dismay with which many religious conservatives view abortion; I also do not doubt the manipulation of these strong feelings by those Republicans who have turned people into “single-issue voters,” who may disregard other moral issues of importance to them, such as funding for health care, in order to vote a straight “pro-life” ticket. The religious left, meanwhile, has no single issue with which to galvanize and unify itself for the long term, to the frustration of people with very specific justice passions. The movement is simply too diverse. In fact, a major factor in the continuity of the progressive movement has been its decentralized focus.
The religious left has never sought to answer the right’s juggernaut issue of abortion with an equally dominating pro-choice activism. To do so would force the departure of some within the coalition, including a number of Catholics and African-American church groups. LGBT rights are another topic amongst those which a nun whom I know calls “pelvic issues.” Any number of multifaith efforts stick to particular topics or to related causes that steer clear of anything associated somehow with sex.
I know a multifaith organization that, in the days following the Pulse nightclub shooting, discussed placing a “we stand with Pulse and the LGBT community” statement on its website. It was the imam in the leadership group who said, “That would be difficult for me.” It would not have been difficult because he was anti-LGBT (he was most supportive). It would not have been difficult because the shooter self-identified as Muslim (the imam was very public in his opposition to the use of violence in the name of Islam). The statement would have been difficult because it would make him lose spiritual credibility with those members of his community who are not as supportive of LGBT persons. He faced a dilemma common to many religious leaders within multifaith organizing: how to ease their communities into a broader understanding of the oppression experienced by new partners, how to understand their own part in that oppression, and how to understand the interrelatedness of their own oppression to others’, and all without losing the legitimacy that makes them people to be listened to in the first place. The other leaders in the interreligious group thought it was more important to support their partner’s efforts within his community than to jointly publish an important message of solidarity and so they issued no statement.
Interreligious organizing is messy. Our partnerships can be ones of convenience, related to very particular shared goals, that avoid nervous discussions of sensitive issues. There are different levels of comfort with living with this ambiguity and tacit opposition. Multifaith partnerships sometimes dissolve from the pressure. There can be great differences of opinion on how patient to be with partners who have conservative opinions on particular subjects. I was once at a multifaith conference at which a woman minister asked the group’s opinion on whether she should accept an invitation to speak—but not to preach during a service—at a church that refuses to ordain women. I said she absolutely should do it, to provide her own undeniable example of faithful and gifted ministry, for if we are not in dialogue with those who differ from us we will not have the chance to change their minds. I was sternly rebuked by two young academics (who were not Christian) who insisted the minister must have nothing to do with such a disrespectful community and should not reinforce their prejudices by visiting them on their own terms. Any number of multifaith organizations experience tension between those who feel there should be, ironically, zero tolerance of the intolerant, and others who advocate for continuing the relationship because of the great value and potential of intercommunal friendship itself. Indeed, painful experiences of discrimination and injustice can be difficult to accommodate for the sake of staying in relationship.
A final major difference between the religious left and right is the reticence of the left to participate in anything that might taste of religious dominance, and the apparent enthusiasm of the right to do just that. The left is uncomfortable with promoting its own spiritual authority lest it work against the goal of an ethically diverse, respectful, responsive polity. There are also cautionary tales of when leftist religious muscle-flexing may have backfired. Many on the left experience the right as religious bullies, and are determined not to participate in any such behavior.
Religious progressives are a fractious family, making it difficult to adopt and adapt many of the successful strategies of the right that impose—or simply advertise—such a tight conformity. Progressives resist the homogenizing of their differences of human experience and spiritual belief. This messiness in the religious left is the very source of its integrity. The fate and the promise of the progressive religious movement reside in its efforts to build community in spite of differences while struggling to move all of society, itself included, toward greater justice. It is complicated work.