The Problem with the Latest Predictions for ‘the Rise of the Religious Left’

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The Problem with the Latest Predictions for ‘the Rise of the Religious Left’

Hollis Phelps

Not only are claims that the religious left is “on the rise” as old as the contemporary religious right itself, but the framing of the religious left may actually further enable the religious right.

It’s common knowledge that the religious right played a large role in the election of Donald Trump in 2016. About 4 out of 5 white evangelicals voted for Trump and the majority continue to back him, even if explicit support may be slipping. 

Evangelical support for Trump has, of course, not gone without its critics, among which include fellow evangelicals themselvesSome have even suggested that we’re on the cusp of an alternative religious movement. 

Enter the so-called religious left. Last week NPR ran a story about the putative rise of a more left-leaning religious coalition in the United States. The story suggests that a “comparable effort by liberal religious leaders” to the formation of the Moral Majority some 40 years ago is now taking shape, “coalescing in support of immigrant rights, universal healthcare, LBGTQ rights and racial justice.”  

Although the “religious left” has more of an interfaith emphasis, the majority of this relatively loose coalition of religious institutions and organizations remain Christian. That’s not surprising, given that some 70% of Americans continue to identify as Christian, in one shape or another. 

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Nevertheless, it also explains why many on the “religious left” have included, among their main concerns, a rehabilitation of Christianity’s public image. A sense that Christianity has been “hijacked” by the religious right often pervades the activism of more liberal Christians. As one among the latter put it to NPR, “I think many people in the United States, when they hear about ‘Christian beliefs,’ they think it has something to do with a certain fundamentalist mindset.”  

Tired of their faith being reduced to little more than conservative talking points, Christians of the religious left want the broader population to know that Christianity has more to it. Among other things, Christianity is eminently about social justice, a concern for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. In a word, among the ranks of Christians are a good many “progressives.”  

Such is the line that Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons took in his piece from last week titled “Christianity’s Future Looks More Like Lady Gaga Than Mike Pence.” 

The title is a reference to Lady Gaga’s calling-out of the Vice President at a recent show in Las Vegas, as the “worst representation of what it means to be a Christian.” Although prominent right-wing Christians, such as Franklin Graham, didn’t take to kindly to the jab, Graves-Fitzsimmons ran with it. As he put it, “Lady Gaga stood up for our faith and fought back.”  

Graves-Fitzsimmons sees in such prominent figures such as Lady Gaga and junior congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Catholic who isn’t afraid to pull out a few biblical references against the current administration, the future of Christianity in the United States. 

Hence Graves-Fitzsimmons’s contemporary interpretation of Jesus’ claim of the prophet Isaiah’s mantle in the Gospel of Luke “to bring good news to the poor.” He writes: “Jesus announces his support for Democratic socialism and dedicates his ministry to the ‘Little Monsters,’ Lady Gaga’s term for the outcast and vulnerable among whom she ministers. Ocasio-Cortez is flipping tables in Congress like Jesus in the Temple and proclaiming a radical vision for economic and social fairness. They are ‘good and faithful servants,’ in the language of Jesus.” 

I’m certainly on board with the social and political concerns of the religious left. Nevertheless, I’m less sure about the framing of its putative rise, both among more neutral commentators and among the faithful themselves.  

To begin with, claims that the religious left is “on the rise” against its conservative counterpart are nothing new. Indeed, they’re as old as the contemporary religious right itself. For instance, in 1984 well-known Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox claimed to see the emergence of a more left-leaning Christianity. In light of this, he advocated for a public “postmodern” theological and ecclesiastical movement, one whose inclusivist and liberationist bent would counteract the myopic conservatism of the religious right.  

Likewise, a group of religious leaders calling themselves the “progressive evangelical network” gathered in 1995 to publicly declare their opposition to the religious right which, they claimed, had abandoned Jesus’ teachings. Jim Wallis, one of the leaders and founder and editor of Sojourners, said at the time, “We want to speak to the nation’s ills more in the tradition of the prophets—Jeremiah and Amos—and less in the tradition of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.” Observers made similar claims during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Perhaps the Trump presidency has given religious progressives a new sense of urgency. However, the fact remains that we’ve been waiting for the ascendency of the religious left for a while. And we may be waiting for a while longer if the rise of the “nones” in the United States is any indication.

Moreover, and more troubling in my view, is the claim that such a movement would also serve to correct public opinion about Christianity and Christians in the United States. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, Americans already have an overall favorable view of most religious groups in the United States. Indeed, positive views for all religious groups represented in the study had increased since 2014, with the exception of evangelical Christians, which remained the same. This isn’t surprising, given the religious make-up of the United States, but the obvious subtext is that most people seem able to identify and appreciate differences in and among religious groups. 

Unfortunately, some of the calls for a renewed religious left use the putative “public image” problem to construct their own version of a victim narrative, which then serves as a rallying cry for the mobilization of a countermovement. The notion that faith has been “hijacked,” that popular and political culture is hostile to Christianity, is a central feature of the claims of the Falwells, Grahams, and Robertsons, even if evidence supports the contrary. So it is at times with the religious left too.

The other problem with this framing is that it presupposes that there even is such a thing as an ‘essential’ or ’true’ Christianity. While Christianity isn’t endlessly subjective it would be extremely difficult to argue that a millennia-old world religion with its numerous cultural variations and scriptural interpretations can be reduced to ‘true’ and ‘not true’ forms. And it’s entirely possible that echoing the Christian right’s claims to represent a true Christianity only winds up bolstering such claims.

If the “religious left” is to be a vital force in the current landscape, it should resist such framing. The future of liberal Christianity and the religious left more generally won’t be found with the Gagas and Ocasio-Cortezes, but rather in the unglamorous work that often can’t be encapsulated in a catchy countermovement. For the victims found there are the real victims: the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.