Religious Left Revival?

on June 11, 2017

Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times has a very informative front page article on enlivened Religious Left activism in reaction to the Trump Administration. The headline, perhaps written by an editor, doesn’t quite match the story: “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.”

The Religious Left of course has hardly been quiet over the last 40 years or 100 years. The IRD was founded in 1981, 36 years ago, in reaction to loud advocacy by Mainline Protestant and some Catholic groups for Marxist liberation and revolution by Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime and El Salvador’s FMLN guerrillas, among others. IRD’s founders preferred Christian advocacy for democracy and human rights.

I joined the IRD staff in the 1990s and recall high octane Religious Left activism against the new Republican Congress of 1994, including the National Council of Churches (NCC) solidarity visit with President Clinton. In 1995 Jim Wallis founded Cry for Renewal, endorsed by scores of senior church officials to energize liberal religious political resistance to the Religious Right and the new Congress. I attended the first rally. Months before, the Interfaith Alliance, also including senior church officials, organized for the same purpose, with endorsement from Walter Cronkite. I attended their first press conference.

These Religious Left exertions over 20 years ago, and more recently as Goodstein comprehensively describes, express frustration at the Religious Right’s ongoing higher profile and arguably more potent political influence. The common complaint is that conservative religious political activism is so pervasive that American Christianity is now associated with the political right. The Religious Left has been trying to counter this narrative for much of 40 years, since the modern Religious Right arose in the late 1970s and achieved almost immediate success with the 1980 election and close association with the Reagan Administration. It was typically alleged that Reaganites were motivated by Evangelical apocalyptic endtimes scenarios that would drive America towards nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Happily, these fears were misplaced and the Cold War ended peacefully.

Reagan during the 1980 campaign famously and cleverly told conservative evangelical leaders, “I know you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” Although impending candidate Barack Obama addressed Wallis’s renamed Call to Renewal in 2006, few if any major Democratic candidates have courted the Religious Left as Republicans pursue the Religious Right, with corresponding media attention.

An important clue to this difference is in Goodstein’s story, which highlights Rev. William Barber, organizer of regular “Moral Monday” protests at North Carolina’s state capital and who addressed last year’s Democratic Convention. He’s described as pastoring a “small Disciples of Christ church in Goldsboro.” Similar to the rest of liberal Mainline Protestantism, his denomination has lost over 60% of its members over 50 years and just recently announced another large statistical loss. The Religious Left’s core demographic has always been smaller than the Religious Right’s and arguably is getting smaller.

The Religious Left is much older than the Religious Right and dates back to the Social Gospel’s emergence early in the 20th century, institutionalized by the Federal Council of Churches, precursor to the NCC, adopting its Social Creed in 1908, opening a century of continuous Mainline Protestant liberal political activism. The Religious Right was never centered around denominations or even churches but mostly large, media savvy evangelical personalities with parachurch groups reliant on direct mail, not collection plate money. In contrast the Religious Left has mostly been centered on once expansive but now much diminshed Protestant and ecumenical church agencies ultimately reliant on church goers not necessarily supportive of their denomination’s politics.

Fifty and sixty years ago Mainline church leaders could more vigorously espouse Religious Left themes.  They had more cultural influence, more money, and a larger constituency that, even if ambivalent about the politics, was loyal across generations to their church brand. Today, denominational loyalties are almost dead, the Mainline has suffered over a half century of continuous membership loss, and its once great agencies are struggling.  The NCC once had hundreds of employees and now has fewer than five.

Even today, most church going Mainline Protestants vote Republican. Mainline clergy, typically more liberal than congregants, know they face politically divided congregations and almost always avoid specifically political controversial political advocacy. By contrast, Evangelical pastors typically face congregations that are 70-80% Republican voting. These pastors are not nearly as political as stereotypes often claim. But when they speak politically they can do so with more confidence. The most politically confident and outspoken clergy are from historically black churches, who know about 90% of their congregants share their politics.

A most interesting part of Goodsten’s article briefly cited an evangelical large church Vineyard pastor in Ohio who’s opposed, like some other prominent evangelical clergy, the presidential executive order on refugees. This pastor doesn’t resonate with old style Religious Right themes, he says. But neither is he likely Religious Left. He’s presumably pro-life, not sexually liberal, and has a congregation that mostly votes Republican. Conservative religious political activism, may need to recalibrate to reach this new generation.

There’s another important difference between Religious Left versus Religious Right. Religious conservatives, no mater how political, still typically emphasize their faith’s unique truth claims and the need for gaining new spiritual adherents. Liberal religionists are more uncomfortable asserting theological truth claims and less focused on spiritual conversion. Consequently their critics say, they seem more politically than spiritually focused and imply God’s Kingdom is achieved through activism and legislation. Liberal churches have lost market share for over 50 years and will certainly continue. The growth of the religiously unaffiliated is much fueled by their decline. Meanwhile, evangelicalism, if not gaining, is retaining its population percentage. There is an Evangelical Left, and doubtless the more traditional Religious Left hopes it will fully align with it. If so, it will join the Religious Left on the same demographic trajectory.

Here’s a final point. Both Religious Right and Religious Left are uniquely American and Exceptionalist, both descending from Puritan hopes for a godly City on a Hill, a tradition amplified by later revivalism that was often apocalyptic in its urgency. The New York Times article describes what is constant in American history: a demand for spiritual renewal based on a transcendent ideal.

  1. Comment by Jeff Seaton on June 11, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    Thank you for this. I read it with great interest. I wonder, what is the basis for your claim that an alignment between the Evangelical Left and the traditional Religious Left will lead to demographic decline for the Evangelical Left? Thanks!

  2. Comment by Mike Ward on June 12, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years”

    That headline show that for all their attempts to be leaders in American liberal politics, the secular liberals haven’t even notice that the Religious Left was there.

  3. Comment by Joe M on June 12, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Outstanding! Thank you.

  4. Comment by Dan on June 13, 2017 at 8:45 am

    Whenever you hear someone lead with “the Spirit is doing a new thing” be wary. I usually answer with “and what spirit might that be.” As others have already written, the quadrilateral values of reason and experience are very often used to disregard scripture and tradition to arrive at the predetermined outcome yet cloak it with a veneer of religiosity.

    While I know many fine individuals within “spirit filled” faith traditions such as Pentecostalism, Holiness denominations, and the rest of the Wesleyan arc, I am troubled by the lack of familiarity with scripture and tradition that many of these folks exhibit. I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush here, but when I was a UMC member, I never really received instruction in the theology of the church fathers, the history of the reformation, and the overall traditions of Christianity. Strict catechesis does not have to mean a narrow, legalistic Christianity. Without it, the faith “once delivered” can be shunted aside for a shallow, works justification, socialist gospel that ultimately leads to significant issues both for the individual and the religious institutions espousing such a world view.

  5. Comment by Jacob B on June 13, 2017 at 8:57 am

    I’d argue that conservative evangelicalism is declining too. I’m not sure how you’re basing the argument that they’re not. Did you see the SBC’s recent numbers? All branches of Christianity in America are losing numbers right now. It’s not a uniquely “left” problem.

  6. Comment by Former employee Vineyard on September 5, 2017 at 10:56 am

    the “evangelical large church Vineyard pastor in Ohio” is in fact very Liberal but hides behind what he calls Third Wave Evangelicalism. Consider his own words, “It is a real privilege and pleasure to share a platform with Jim Wallis. My wife and I subscribed to Sojourners magazine before it was titled Sojourners back in the early 1970s. I think it was called Post-American back then and it was being published from Chicago, Illinois. As the old Virginia Slims advertisement used to go, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” My wife and I actually considered after college moving to Washington and joining the Sojourner’s community. So, I have appreciated Jim through his writings for over three decades.” 2006, Sojourner’s Presidential Forum where Clinton, Obama & Edwards debated for the 2008 election.

    Do you consider someone that loyal a follower of Wallis to be middle of the road?

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