The so-called Religious Left represents the faithful and scriptural embodiment of Christianity in America’s public square, one progressive minister declared in an interview with The New York Times. Faith in Public Life CEO Reverend Jennifer Butler – who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – hailed the Religious Left as “the unsung hero of American public life.” By contrast, she said Christianity had been “hijacked by partisan politics” employed by religious conservatives, and alleged that the Christian Right was a ploy created by political and corporate special interests to “usher Ronald Reagan into power.”
Butler made these provocative comments during an interview with New York Times National Religion Correspondent Laurie Goodstein broadcast on June 12, 2017, via Facebook Live. The day before, on June 11, Goldstein published a piece entitled: “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.” IRD President Mark Tooley authored a blog post in response, arguing that the premise contained in the headline was absurd.
“The Religious Left of course has hardly been quiet over the last 40 years or 100 years,” Tooley wrote. He recalled that IRD was founded in 1981 in the midst of loud support by liberal voices in Mainline Protestantism for Marxist revolutions worldwide, among other notable examples of well-organized activism.
Tooley later noted: “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.”
But this is exactly the narrative that Butler attempted to push. Although perhaps this is not surprising given her background. Before founding Faith in Public Life, Butler used to represent the liberal PCUSA at the United Nations and served as chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration.
Butler attempted to explain why the Religious Left has failed to gain “the attention that it deserves.” She noted that her organization was founded 12 years ago because Religious Left leaders realized their message was falling flat and wanted to “wrest the moral debate back to be more scripturally based and more faithfully based.”
“So the faith community really galvanized about 12 years ago,” Butler said, to recapture the moral high ground within Christianity. She said the Religious Left wanted to get back to what she seemingly perceived as the heyday of religious social justice activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Butler argued that recently “we [the Religious Left] have been rebuilding our power and rebuilding our public voice.”
She attributed the Religious Left’s decline to the movement was “kind of subjected under the Christian Right in its rise to power in the ‘80s.” During the 1980s and 1990s, she later added that while the Christian Right boldly proclaimed their values, activists on the Religious Left became “embarrassed” to speak about their beliefs.
In part, she also blamed “media bias” against Religious Left’s voice in recent decades. “And the Christian Right was able to convince, sometimes, reporters that it represented a moral voice when in fact the Christian Right was actually created by political operatives and funded corporate sources to broaden the Republican Party and to usher Ronald Reagan into power. And so really it is a political movement more so than it is a religious movement.”
Goodstein followed up by asking perceptively whether it was also true that the Religious Left was “more political than religious.”
“No, actually, we challenge the Democratic Party as much as we challenge the Republican Party,” Butler answered. “We will always be driven by our values and by our morals and by Scripture. And we see ourselves as reporting to a higher authority. So we are driven by faith.”
Butler said she “really respects the separation of Church and state,” but emphasized the importance of expressing ones values in a democracy. She noted that progressive political victories on human sexuality came about when the Religious Left began making “theological arguments” in the public square.
Goldstein challenged Butler to explain how the Religious Left is supposedly gaining momentum while liberal Mainline denominations are losing members and progressive parachurch organizations like the National Council of Churches (NCC) are downsizing. She also noted that many Mainline Protestants voted for President Donald Trump in the presidential election last November.
“We’re in a dramatic state of churn within American society across the board, and what we’re going to see over the next decade or two is a rebirth in terms of progressive religious organizing,” Butler said.
Butler followed this up with a rather odd assertion. She also alleged: “Polls also show that a lot of people are leaving their churches because of the hypocrisy they’ve seen.” She said young people are leaving churches where they see “anti-gay behavior” and “Islamophobia,” and have been joining progressive congregations after the election of Trump, a trend which she said was happening in all religions.
“I think we’re going to see an entire realignment in American religion and a reinvigoration of progressive religion,” she said.
However, this claim that progressive theology leads to church growth runs counter to actual data. Conservative denominations (e.g., the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and Assemblies of God), Evangelical congregations within Mainline denominations (e.g., most of the fastest growing UMC congregations), and non-denominational churches have all experienced major growth. In contrast, highly progressive denominations like the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC) have experienced the most rapid decline.
Watch the complete interview with Butler via The New York Times’ Facebook page:Google+