Friday, October 07, 2016

Keywords: Robust, Progressive, Christian, Movement

Perhaps as a Gen Xer I am too influenced by the twisted rise and flourishing of the "Christian Right" in the 80s. During my most formative years, guys like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson had a prominent voice, heading up loud and organized communities carrying significant cultural clout, and voting as a bloc.

By the time I got to college, and was in the process of disentangling myself from the morass of Christian conservatism and its creepy interest in moral and thought control (Remember that Dobson made his mark by encouraging spanking as the moral and Christian thing to do... or think, as a contemporary example, of Intervarsity's plan to fire anyone who backs gay marriage, or earlier this year Wheaton College's parting ways with Larycia Hawkins, or the Christian right's current bizarre alignment with Donald Trump), I started asking myself, "Where are the voices of the Christian left?"

Well, there weren't any prominent ones. Liberals tend to think back to a glorious past, and they name people like Walter Rauschenbusch, or the Niebuhr's, or a small journal like The Christian Century, as the central voices of our movement. If they name modern examples, they name people that, although influential on some levels, certainly don't lead movements--think Marcus Borg, or Martin Marty, or more recently, Brian McLaren or Nadia Bolz-Weber. Or eloquent radicals like Cornel West.

In the meantime, we've witnessed not necessarily a weakening but a shifting in focus of the ecumenical movement, so that although liberal Protestants are more aligned than ever before, they still don't have a cohesive center. Theories abound as to why this might be. Conservatives tend to see this shift through a Schadenfreude lens, gleefully clapping their hands together at the decline of liberal Protestantism.

Others see the shift not as a decline but proof of how important liberal Protestant ideas have been in advancing movements for social reform and in shaping our current self-understandings. This is to say liberal Protestantism's power is illustrated in the extent to which it gives itself away and shapes what becomes of plain old life--secular or religious. 

If this is true, this then explains the vast difference between Democrats' and Republicans' religiosity, but in a counter-intuitive sense. Most commentators assume that more Republicans are overtly Christian because their faith aligns with their politics. But if in fact liberal Protestantism has shaped our life through social reforms and indeed inhabits all of our own self-understandings, then it could equally be argued that more Republicans are overtly religious because they have to work so hard to try to align Christianity with a politics at odds with authentic Christianity. Democrats, on the other hand, and especially the group of Democrats who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated, may not need to do so because their faith already so closely aligns with their political and social practice that their whole life is imbued with their faith rather than added on to it.

Christians who lean left are already involved in the political movements they care about, they just don't do it through Christian organizations. They don't "wear" their religion overtly. They just get it done, together with all those who share common cause, of any religion.

Nevertheless, a part of me still wonders, can there be a Robust. Progressive. Christian. Movement? Or is that a pipe dream shaped by my mimetic desire for the perceived power of the right?

I guess I would like to overcome the public perception of Christianity as aligned with right-wing politics. The Christian right has "owned" that space, and I'd really like to steal it back. Yet I'm also convinced it's probably better to continue organizing and achieving various specific goals with ecumenical, interfaith coalitions than to break off as expressly Christian movements.

That being said, I would like to have some voices taking the lead in the Christian left that were not just authors but organizers. We have some great folks, like Rachel Held Evans, who people read. But the Christian left isn't mobilized. This is unfortunate, as one of the greatest parts of the Christian left in past eras was its power of mobilization. Think social Christianity, unions, and Chicago.

I'm particularly disappointed in the absence of Christian leaders from the current worker justice movements in America. Clergy and others have gone quiet. On the other hand, I'm fascinated and inspired by community organizing movements across our country working for positive social change.

Some would say the left needs to be cohesive absent of theology. Because it welcomes so many viewpoints, it won't work to herd them all into a group. This may be true. But I also think the fracturing of the left is something the left willingly accedes to because the one thing the right has going for it, above anything else, is the wealth and influence of large corporations. The last thing monied-interests want in the United States is a unified left that would speak up for the working class and the poor.

In fact, on this last point, I even have a frustration with the left itself, because it isn't left enough. AS a true Christian leftist, I have for quite some time thought the current Democrat candidate, Hilary Clinton, is the Republican's best candidate. Her platform (and the platform of Democrats more generally) is actually what I consider to be centrist conservative. Liberals, especially white liberals, seem to be quite comfortable allowing middle-class and suburban liberalism win the day in Christian left thinking.

But for progressive thought,  a truly organized and robust Christian left would move over towards acting with the bloc about which the left should have the most concern--the disenfranchised, working class, and poor.

The Christian left recognizes, rightly, the old Grundvigian adage: Human first, then Christian. So the left will always in all likelihood be more willing to work with atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, anyone who shares common values with them. In fact, the left likely leans all the way over towards seeing the intrinsic value as much in Buddhism or secularism as Christianity itself, and is just fine with a balance of religions and various secularities together effecting the outcome and development of our nation and culture.

But the left does this on theological, Christian grounds: "Power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Christian progressives believe power is for the poor, so that the sending at the conclusion of the liturgy might be fulfilled, "Go in peace and remember the poor. Thanks be to God."


  1. Thanks for Grundvigian adage, Clint. As someone who has been a worker-priest, the Bishop's representative to a monthly Religion and Labor Dialogue (which was unique in the community AND the state and region), and a leader trained in the PICO network for church-based community organizing I agree with the lack of public and well-articulated positions and visible church leaders. Great pondering points here, thanks.

  2. Well, well said. Hits the nail on the head. Wish I had written it.

  3. Anonymous2:30 PM

    I feel that the left tends to embrace secularity, with a heavy emphasis on the separation of church and state. This makes it difficult to speak of a Christian left parallel to the Christian right. The historical record of the post Constantine Church leaves most people on the left wary of any mingling of faith and politics.