WHITHER THE RELIGIOUS LEFT?….The question may not interest or disturb many people, but it should. We’ve already discussed the perfect storm that led to the nearly-inevitable rise of the Religious Right. But I’d argue that religious conservatives would never have become as powerful as they now are if their rise had been checked by anything close to a functioning Religious Left. At the exact same time–and with nearly the same speed–that the Religious Right was coming to power, the Religious Left was fading from view and from relevance. For more details on how this happened, check out Salon today.
The grand result of all this is a public square in which religion is defined and monopolized by the right. Religious liberals are stuck in the position of convincing people they’re relevant before they can weigh in with any force on political debates. And people out in the grassroots who are ticked off when “moral issues” get portrayed as only conservative, who want to stand up and be counted as religious liberals, have few outlets through which to be heard.
What’s that, you say? Doesn’t Jim Wallis have a bestselling book and an organization to do just that? Hmmm…kind of. I have the greatest respect for Wallis and his efforts (it was after reading one of Wallis’ early books, The Soul of Politics, that I decided to go to divinity school). His work to remind people that people of faith care about things like poverty, too, is invaluable. But it’s not enough, and this is why the entire movement needs some reworking.
Wallis’ central message calls out both the political right and the left, and they both do deserve criticism. But it’s easy to infer from Wallis’ critique that the failings of both sides are morally equivalent, which he would probably admit in private is not the case. In its well-intentioned effort to be exquisitively sensitive about politically involvement, the Religious Left has misunderstood what it means to be nonpartisan. Avoiding entanglement with a particular political party does not require a movement to be neutral.
On Tuesday, I attended a press conference held by five denominational leaders to oppose the President’s budget, which was a great first step…but the religious leaders refused to direct any fire at Bush, dodging questions about whether the budget failed to reflect “compassionate conservative” principles, and insisting that they were there to critique a document, not cast judgment on the administration. I could go on, but I’ll direct you instead to my review of Wallis’ book in this month’s issue of the Monthly.
I’ll return to this subject again. If the left has any chance of countering the Religious Right, it will be when religious liberals make some noise and demand to be part of the debate. But they won’t be able to do that unless someone mobilizes them. And so far, the leading organizations have shown only middling interest and/or ability to do just that.
UPDATE: By the way, one of the reasons religious progressives have a hard time being heard is that they can’t get through the media filters that equate “religious” with “conservative.” You may notice that one of the blog ads we’re currently running on this site is from the United Church of Christ. Take a look at the televised spot it links to and tell me if there was really any reason for both NBC and CBS to refuse to run it.