What is the “religious left” and what are its prospects for responding to the current moment of authoritarian populism? The short essays in this forum will probe the meaning, history, and relevance of movements and actors that may be grouped together under the label of a religious left, i.e., progressive political movements rooted in religion.
The resurgence of authoritarianism around the world—movements that are simultaneously populist and yet serve economic elites—represents both a challenge and an opportunity to the left. That is as true of the religious left as of other progressive political actors, and perhaps more so: Given the moral void now revealed at the core of the leading populist authoritarians, movements that ground their politics in a convincing moral vision may get a wider hearing than has been heretofore the case. Given the willingness of so many conservatives ostensibly concerned about morality to get in political bed with the authoritarian populists, progressives of moral integrity may be particularly credible. Thus, these essays explore a phenomenon that they show is historically important and currently significant, with the potential to be crucial for electoral and social struggles in the years ahead.
But before exploring this terrain, perhaps the very use of the term “religious left” must be justified. The forum contributors use the term loosely, without implying a set of unified or strategically coordinated actors who constitute anything like a single social movement. Whether the religious left ought to or is capable of acting in more coordinated fashion is a question worth exploring, but at present there exists no such coordination nor any entity capable of producing it. Rather, “the religious left” represents a convenient shorthand to describe a loose collection of entities generally seeking more egalitarian, democratic, liberationist, anti-racist, and/or ecologically responsive social policies while explicitly basing their political stance on their religious or spiritual commitments. In other words, the categories of religious left or progressive religion partake of all the ambiguity of the terms “progressive politics” and “religion.” Their political proclivities vary across a spectrum from quite radical to reformist, and their religious commitments vary from deep affiliation with major religious institutions, to movements seeking radical reform of those institutions, to highly personalistic spiritualities conceived as lying outside of institutions. The ambiguity of the category and the diversity of the movements within it simply reflects the real world today, in which longtime religious actors have discerned a new urgency to deep reform and political defense of democracies under the threat of authoritarianism, and longtime or newly-emergent political actors are seeking religious or spiritual roots to sustain their work in the face of contemporary challenges.
Thus, do not seek here a unified movement or closely shared political agendas. Rather, the religious left discussed in the forum will share a broad spirit of democratic egalitarianism, some kind of identity that prioritizes spirituality or religious belief—and a common threat in the form of the new authoritarian populism.
If we accept the category of religious left as a category for analysis, what do we see? First, the religious left certainly has an extensive history, from the “saints” who helped prosecute the English Revolution to many of the abolitionists who fought American slavery to many women’s suffragists to the civil rights movement to resisters against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons to the liberationist Christians of Latin America, the Philippines, Africa, and East Asia. Second, the religious left has significant meaning for many of its adherents: while the intertwining of religious belief and political commitment may be a marriage of convenience for some, for many it represents a strong identity regarding what spiritual commitment really entails in a world of inequality and injustice, and the radical calls of the founding figures across many religious traditions. Third, we see a widespread contemporary presence across a variety of societies, from the spiritual grounding of some leaders of Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights activists, and faith-based or broad-based organizers and spiritual progressives in the United States, to religious activists against white nationalism in Europe to ecological advocates motivated to defend the rainforest by a spiritual view of ecosystems, to the resistance to Communist Party authoritarianism in Hong Kong—and much more. Fourth, we also see vast diversity in their stances vis-à-vis institutionalized religion and institutionalized politics; no one way forward appears to appeal to the actors of the religious left.
How might we begin to dissect the likely future trajectories of these movements? Of course, if recrudescent authoritarian populism takes hold of political institutions for the long term, the immediate future of the religious left will be dire along with the rest of progressive political aspirations. More likely, the future trajectory of these movements will depend on how they answer and respond historically to a series of questions and dilemmas:
- Can the religious left globally project a compelling vision of a more egalitarian and democratic future that undercuts the populist appeal of authoritarians while simultaneously inspiring commitment from those excluded by white nationalist and male supremacist visions? That is, can these movements become effective alternative channels for the legitimate discontent of working people, thus severing populism from racism and its service to elite economic interests?
- How will the religious left respond to three simultaneous macrotrends: i) the continuing interest in and engagement with religion and spirituality in a wide variety of settings and across generations; ii) current alienation, especially of younger generations in Western societies, from institutionalized religion (even when many young people continue to identify with the tradition the institution claims to represent), and the concomitant decline of the very institutions that have sometimes supported the religious left; and iii) the deep secularity of contemporary life, in which non-belief and non-spiritual viewpoints are constantly available alternatives even as many people hunger for spiritual meaning in both the West and much of the world.
- Are actors on the religious left sufficiently committed to religious institutions such that they will engage in the hard work of cultural critique and organizational reform required to reorient those religious institutions in the progressive directions they believe represent the traditions’ ethical core? Or will actors on the religious left decide that the preferable route forward lies in abandoning institutions in favor of political work sustained by individual spiritual commitment?
- Alternatively, does the religious left need ongoing ties to religious traditions and institutions—as a source of new sympathizers, funding, credibility, shared spiritual disciplines, or spiritual support amidst the vagaries of political engagement? How does the answer differ in different societies?
- Can the religious left build organizational cultures sufficiently vibrant to provide grounding and leverage against the deep cultural assumptions that undergird vast swaths of contemporary culture, especially in Western and westernized societies but increasingly across the globe? Those assumptions include a radically autonomous view of human persons that severs individuals from the communal contexts in which they thrive as social animals, and a view of public institutions as inherently repressive.
Depending on how the religious left responds to these dilemmas and questions, one can imagine four potential trajectories ahead.1
These trajectories are formulated from my research on western societies (the United States and Latin America); patterns will surely differ in other settings. Broadly speaking, the likely potential trajectories appear to be:
First, just as progressive political engagement has sometimes functioned for individuals as an exit door from religious engagement, it may become the exit door from religion for the religious left as a movement. If spiritual discipline and practice lose meaning or fade from prominence in the glare of intense political engagement, the religiously-engaged and spiritually-focused dimensions of the movement will wither. On this road, the religious left will ultimately merge with secular progressive politics.
But perhaps spiritual meaning can continue to be cultivated on the religious left in the absence of substantive ties to religious institutions or the spiritual practices typically embedded there. On this road, the religious left would bring together “spiritual but not religious” actors into some degree of coherent political action and sustain that work over the long term.
But this may represent an impossible task: perhaps history has produced religious traditions, orders, congregations, and larger institutions because sustaining spiritual meaning for the long term and across generations requires such structures. If this is the case, the above strategies must fail and religious left actors hoping to influence politics long term—at least those that survive to do so—will be those that pursue one of two strategies. On one hand, they might seek to systematically reshape existing institutions, striving to become not only progressive movements seeking political reform, but also spiritual revitalization movements seeking to reform their traditions as well. On the other hand, they might seek to systematically institutionalize themselves as new functional equivalents of traditions, orders, congregations, or denominations (albeit perhaps called something else)—the way much of “non-denominational Christianity” has become a series of major networks of megachurches that function like denominations.
Finally, perhaps the conditions no longer exist that made religious traditions, orders, congregations, and denominations the institutional carriers for religion and thus powerful partners for social movements—historically and in the very recent past. Perhaps the new social media technologies and smartphone capabilities have so changed human communication flows that alternative forms of stabilizing religiously-inspired political work can be found. If so, it might be possible to forge a sustainable religious left held together (i.e., institutionalized in an alternative mode) via cyberlinked networks of collaborators embodying a variety of spiritual commitments and religious traditions, each of whom carries their spirituality autonomously from religious institutions. On this road, networks of spiritually grounded activists committed to progressive politics become the future carriers of the religious left. On the other hand, such hyper-individualized spiritualities might be incapable of sustaining long-term work, of reproducing it across generations, or of pulling adherents out of the centripetal temptation of radical narcissism. In this case, this road would herald the implosion of the religious left, no doubt to be reborn in the future.
Thus, depending on how the religious left responds to contemporary challenges and on what turns out to be historically viable, a variety of alternative futures might play out—no doubt including some not contemplated here. But a great deal about the future of the religious left depends on answers to these questions, and the essays in this series explore various dimensions of the religious left that are relevant to such answers. What does the history of religious progressivism teach contemporary leaders? Does the Christian right offer a model for a religious left, or a counter-model to be avoided? What are the costs and benefits of building a relatively unified religious left? Should religious progressives invest primarily in electoral politics and current political institutions, or in prefigurative politics that critique and begin to envision better institutions? How should the religious left interrogate or redirect the current flow of populism in polities around the world? To what extent does religious progressivism offer a set of “bridging cultural practices” that can help stabilize and empower the interracial, interfaith, and cross-class alliances that can build a more democratic and egalitarian politics?
A final thought drawn from the North American context suggests why this conversation matters: If Alexis de Tocqueville had it right that US democracy depends upon the cultural toolkit and habits of the heart learned via religion, then answers to these questions will shape whether the new American authoritarianism changes the trajectory of history the way that the rejection of Reconstruction did in the late nineteenth century, leading to Jim Crow and segregation. More broadly, answers to these questions in societies around the world will determine whether religions have effective responses to authoritarian populism, and thus remain relevant for shaping contemporary human history. As Antonio Gramsci argued, political and economic struggles are partly fought on the cultural terrains that undergird human communities and shape human orientations across generations. Even in a secular age, those cultural terrains are deeply shaped by religious traditions and institutions and by the spiritual commitments of citizens. The essays in this forum will thus help us think about the shape of these struggles now and into the future.