Whither the Religious Left?

Whither the Religious Left?

on April 6, 2017

Recently Religion Dispatches writer Daniel Schultz, a United Church of Christ minister, expressed chagrin, at least tongue in cheek, that I had tweeted approvingly about his dismissal of claims about a Religious Left revival. He had challenged specifically such a claim from a Reuters column. And he was also distressed, again tongue in cheek, that his original column was echoed by Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler and conservative religion journalist Terry Mattingly.

Schultz’s rueful skepticism of Religious Left revival was artfully crafted and offered helpful insights, with which I agree only partly. He’s right that some media occasionally will focus on a bout of activism by liberal clergy and accompanying activists, typically Mainline Protestants, as evidence of Religious Left revival. The evidence is usually anecdotal, such as a small rally with clerics wearing clerical collars and robes for the benefit of cameras. To what extent these demonstrators have a popular following among religious people is rarely explored with any depth.

But I don’t agree with Schultz that the Religious Left is inconsequential. He believes religionists of the Left lack a wide subculture to sustain them, unlike the Religious Right, partly because the Religious Left is too diverse to cohere. The Religious Right is usually conservative white evangelicals, with some conservative Catholics, some Mormons and a few Orthodox Jews. Schultz argues the Religious Left includes a much wider variety of religion, race and ethnicity. He’s maybe, sort of, right, but there’s more to it.

The Religious Left has been for decades primarily white liberal Mainline Protestants, with a few Catholic social justice activists plus some Jewish groups. Black Protestant church leaders sometimes collaborate with the Religious Left but their theological and moral traditionalism has long prevented full alliance.

Decades ago the Religious Left had institutional heft because it comprised the once well-funded and prestigious agencies of Mainline Protestant denominations and once powerful ecumenical groups like the National Council of Churches. The “God Box” at 475 Riverside Drive in New York was their headquarters, with hundreds of collaborating staffers and millions of dollars, enshrouded by the names and legacies of venerable church bodies that had helped found and sustain American democracy across centuries.

Most of that old liberal Protestant world is gone or much deflated. Most of those now depleted church agencies have left New York, including the barely surviving National Council of Churches. The historic Mainline seminaries, which became the seedbed of the Religious Left early in the 20th century, are also marginalized, with far fewer students and reduced endowments. A few have closed despite storied histories.

What are the institutional representations of the Religious Left today? There is Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, the Interfaith Alliance and Faith in Public Life, among a few others. Much of their constituency is liberal Mainline Protestants. They can organize clergy sign-on letters and small demonstrations with lots of liturgical vestments. But they don’t have wide, populist followings. And the media usually ignore them, as do politicians. As part of its last hurrah, the National Council of Churches enjoyed several high profile collaborations with the Clinton Administration 20 years ago. There was nothing memorably similar during the Obama Administration.

In contrast to the Religious Left, the Religious Right has not arisen from denominational structures but was built through parachurch groups often headed by evangelical personalities with large Christian media followings, and sustained by large direct mail campaigns. The Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition were the early models. There are frequent premature obituaries for the Religious Right, following the demise of a particular cleric or advocacy group. But always there are new leaders and organizations.

Unlike the Religious Right, which is typically entrepreneurial, the Religious Left has been tethered by its affiliation with declining institutional liberal Protestantism. And even now, most lay Mainline Protestants, ignoring their own denominations, still vote conservative.

Here’s the twist that most claims about Religious Left revival ignore or don’t fully appreciate. Evangelicalism is now the largest religious demographic, and many of its older elite institutions have shifted politically Left, such as colleges, relief groups, and pan-denominational associations. Many evangelical elites don’t want association with the Religious Right and consequently shift Left. Most political witness jamborees for young college educated evangelicals are left-leaning. Much of the evangelical blogosphere is left-leaning. Essentially much of evangelicalism is replicating what happened to Mainline Protestantism starting 100 years ago. And these liberal evangelical expressions similarly are mainly from elites and are not usually broad-based.

Here’s why I think the committed Religious Left has never had and will never have a very wide popular lay following. Religion is usually about preserving and perpetuating particular teachings and traditions that transcend contemporary culture. Adherents esteem their own community and look to a transcendent authority expressed through clerics and scripture, and usually upheld by family structure. Traditional religion by definition cannot sacralize politics or the state. But the Religious Left, by insisting or at least implying the divine kingdom can be achieved politically, superceding religious communities, ultimately loses its original faith identity in favor of alternative social priorities that are secularizing.

So the Religious Left is almost never populist but it will always exist through the rebellious elites of religious institutions and subcultures, consequently gaining disproportionate influence. This cycle at least in American Protestantism seems perpetual. As liberal religionists stretch the boundaries of their faith or leave altogether, they are replaced by a new generation of enthusiastic converts who rediscover the old orthodoxy.

  1. Comment by rileycase on April 6, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Well stated, Mark

  2. Comment by Wizard Hoffer on April 7, 2017 at 12:20 am

    Something that seems to be true of the left whether religious or secular, is that it’s adherents seem to be disaffected with the status quo. There is no ultimate standard upon which it is based, so it shifts with the times. As you stated, Mark, it actually turns on itself as differences rather than similarities are emphasized.

    There are levels of social justice warriors, white privilege, female white privilege, and unless you are a black, native American, L, G, B, T, Q, etc, you can never fully understand the oppression that particular minority has faced. There is a hierarchy of the oppressed within pc culture. I have witnessed it on Twitter as the left will turn it’s own, with some rather angry tweets against each other. And if you happen to be a minority but don’t toe the party line on an issue, the fallout against you by your supposed allies can be disastrous. Witness white women who voted for Trump as traitors to women, or black conservatives are race traitors, etc. Micro-aggressions are as endless as the imaginations of the aggrieved.

    As long as there is a common enemy which is generally White Male Conservative Evangelicals, the left can come together. If the common enemy were vanquished, it will go on to the next difference, and there is no end to the differences. The relativism pervading the left means that there is no objective basis for anything, and everyone’s view is right but as long as we decide it is right.

    I was contemplating the adoptions by some university professors’ allowing students to pick their own gender pronouns. i believe one student picked “his majesty” for his choice which was hilarious. Of course this backfired on the professor and the school had to disallow that name. (Because there are no standards, but there really are.)

    As Resurrection Sunday approaches, it would be fun to be addressed by a professor taking roll who would say to you: “Christ is Risen! Allelujah!” And you could respond “Indeed!” to indicate your presence in the class.

    It seems the absurdities only increase as the barriers keep being broken.That’s where the left heads, devouring itself eventually.

    Thanks, Mark for your article.

  3. Comment by MikeJ2 on April 7, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    This gets to the heart of how to resist the SJW looniness. Not with anger and indignation, but with creativity and monkeywrenching. “What is your pronoun?” “You may call me ‘Your Highness'”.

  4. Comment by Dave Nuckols on April 13, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Did you mean to review

  5. Comment by Ezekiel37 on April 14, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    It is a miracle that the “establishment” church or “box” churches contain Believers at all. There are too many adjectives for individuals who attend church (left, right, conservative, liberal …). There are only two Believers (“saved”, ”of The Way) and non-Believers – anything else confuses. It is unfortunate that Believers living in a high tech world with digital Bibles including Greek, Hebrew, and Strong’s concordance still have trouble filtering out man’s wisdom (Theologies and doctrines). If all Believers could read God’s Word with the Holy Spirit as Teacher (filtering out error), denominations would finally be irrelevant. Adhering to a 1st Century Believers gathering, tares and wolves in sheep’s clothing could be recognized quickly and removed. Is the resistance due to pride – worshiping a Label (Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Calvinists …), fear or possibly guilt? Each “denomination” is already becoming a tool for the enemy; denominations usually have headquarters that tend to bend so that money flows to pay the bills thus passing down corruption (or wobbling terribly) to each of its churches.

  6. Comment by Frankly Frank on April 25, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    The historic spiritual revivals of the church, according to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, were characterized by the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the desperation of sinners realizing their utter need for God’s help and intervention. Then, the Holy Spirit graciously falls down. Thus, “Christian” liberalism will never experience a revival unless God does something extraordinary in their midst. I hope He does.But if He does, the religious left will begin to affirm historic Christian orthodoxy.

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