Is There a Religious Left?
June 22, 2020 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Is There a Religious Left? (The New Yorker metered paywall): “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down.” So begins one of the most consequential sermons of the twenty-first century. Bree Newsome, a thirty-year-old artist from North Carolina, was a few dozen feet above the ground, scaling a flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House. Police officers were hollering up at her, demanding that she come down, but she kept climbing, and kept preaching: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” A review of American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country
posted by not_the_water (25 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
My aunt, along with two other female members of the clergy, was recently escorted out from the balcony at the Tennessee state legislature in a protest against retaining the legislature's bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I mention that they are women because, as women, their positions mean nothing to conservative Christians (including some that hide in their own denomination), and therefore to press reception of them as clergy. Some thumb-faced POS who ordered a degree from Fuckoff Bible College in a trailer in Florida is a more believable face of American Christianity than a woman who studied koine in graduate school for her masters in divinity. So I was very proud of her, but expected their work to get more publicity than it in fact did.

From America's founding, religion has been associated with patriarchy, white supremacy, and cruelty. Even many Americans who reject religion accept this premise at some level, so that it seems to many as if the progressive religious are either attempting to create a comfy vegan version of something real and bloody or otherwise flat-out deceiving, citing Scripture to their purpose.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:13 PM on June 22 [27 favorites]

Nowhere is this discrepancy clearer than in the way the political press covers the black church. For all the talk of the religious right, one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting blocs is also one of the most religious populations in the country: nearly ninety per cent of African-Americans claim a religious affiliation, and almost as many rate religion as a highly important aspect of their life. The voter registration and political organizing that has always taken place in black churches often goes without mention, even though Souls to the Polls has been such an effective way of increasing voter turnout that Republicans have tried restricting early-voting access on Sundays.
This. Every single time. I'm a white progressive Protestant. I know our numbers have always been and will always be tiny. But it just blows my mind the way the national press ignores the power of Black churches as though the Civil Rights Movement never happened and as though Rev. Barber is just some guy who woke up one day and decided completely independently to do Moral Mondays.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:28 PM on June 22 [69 favorites]

From my experience the Unitarians are a progressive, left-leaning to leftist, religious organization that is very inclusive and non patriarchal. The difference here is that religion is a personal matter and not any dogma from on high. There are atheist Unitarians as well as Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, and so on. They are not a comfy vegan version of something real and bloody as they have been on the front lines of a lot of political actions. As to citing scripture, they don’t have scriptures. You might, and you might share it at the church, but watch out, Unitarians love to question and to argue. It’s a small movement, but over the years they have had an impact far bigger than their size for progressive politics in this country.
posted by njohnson23 at 1:30 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]

Michael Harrington on religion, the United States and socialism. "I believe in my beliefs," Harrington says, "but as against the indifference that I see in this society, the void, the emptiness, I think religion is infinitely preferable."
posted by No Robots at 1:32 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

“Some thumb-faced POS who ordered a degree from Fuckoff Bible College in a trailer in Florida is a more believable face of American Christianity than a woman who studied koine in graduate school for her masters in divinity. ” This, over and over. And thank you for that turn of phrase, Countess Elena.

It isn't that progressive Christians haven't been there all along, in significant numbers even, they just get no press. Particularly the Black church.
posted by bcd at 1:55 PM on June 22 [14 favorites]

it also reflects the extent to which activism on the religious left is sometimes grounded in local issues.
I went to a college which turned out to be a hotbed of the religious left. (I didn't know that at the time; I chose it because it had cheap tuition and was close to home.) This statement is true of at least one of my classmates who went on to become a pastor and get involved politically. He's part of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, which does advocate for more general issues like Basic Income, but mostly focuses on local issues.
posted by clawsoon at 2:02 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

I found this piece confusing in arguing about a general ignorance of faith on the left by the press and public, when so much of it is really about racism. (It sounds like the book might have the same issue, which maybe drove the piece?) While the article mentions specific Black faith activists I don’t think it really connects with where ignorance about them comes from—in many cases, the whiteness of people who have power on “the left” (which the piece also fails to define). I vividly remember Bree Newsome Bass getting arrested while quoting the scriptures; I don’t think there was a failure to cover her faith as much as there was a failure to cover her in full as an activist, a Black woman who did something remarkable. Same for Rev. Barber. Same for lots of the Black churchgoers and voters who are constantly underestimated and oversimplified by white pundits making election predictions. It would have been interesting to grapple with the racism of the more trendy wings of “the left” right now.
posted by sallybrown at 2:04 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

It was a lawsuit by the United Church of Christ against North Carolina's Amendment 1 that finally brought that excrement down.
posted by NoMich at 2:21 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

Something that I didn't see mentioned in this piece was what I see among the politically active progressive religious people I know and do work with in the community. I see people everyday using religious teachings to guide their political leanings and public work. After reading about how we should love our neighbor as ourselves and that everybody is our neighbor they put the book down and go out to love their neighbors. That's harder to do when you're using the book to hit someone over the head for reading a slightly different version of the same book. It's also much less obvious that the actions are coming from religious beliefs when you don't tell people constantly and loudly that that's what you are doing.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 2:30 PM on June 22 [14 favorites]

There are certainly some. A friend is a Pastor for the Church of the Bretheren in Indiana, and he is very progressive and left. And another acquaintance is a Christian pastor in Tennesee, and while I don't think he is "left", he is at least calling out other evangelicals for their hypocrisy over supporting Trump. So, they are out there.
posted by Windopaene at 3:42 PM on June 22

I understand that the black church is a powerful force in the Democratic Party, but would they be accurately called “progressive” as we define it today? A lot of the internal opposition on social issues within the party comes from the church.
posted by Selena777 at 4:22 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

I'm just here to recommend Bree Newsome's twitter. She's a good writer and a great thinker. I started watching her when she took down that flag and her analyses are consistently sharp.
posted by panhopticon at 4:35 PM on June 22 [9 favorites]

Is There a Religious Left?

Perhaps Unitarian Universalists?
posted by jim in austin at 4:37 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

since religion does not just mean Christian... American Buddhism, while tiny in comparison, certainly has a good number of social activist leaders...

angel Kyodo williams
Lama Rod Owens
Roshi Joan Halifax
the Zen Peacemakers
the Soto Zen Buddhist Association

this list is Zen-heavy because that's my practice and what I'm most familiar with
posted by kokaku at 5:35 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]

There has always been a religious left. Remember Carter?
posted by fshgrl at 5:52 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]

There is a website and a Facebook group for The Christian Left. I often describe myself as "a recovering Christian" or "a recovering Baptist". I'm a member in the Facebook group, and I enjoy it.
posted by xedrik at 6:54 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

Progressive Judaism has been the vector of my activism for a couple years now; while I work on issues that pertain to all kinds of people, I enter into that work through Jewish organizations and movements. And while orthodoxy per se is not exactly common in these circles, I find that many leftist Jews I know (who are engaged on anti capitalist work or Palestinian liberation or ICE opposition, things like that) are much more religiously engaged and practicing than the NPR-liberal Jews I know. While highly pluralistic, many of the people I know who are reading The End of Policing and Audre Lorde are also reading Talmud and chassidut. The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is a decent overview though by no means exhaustive; plenty of ever more radical and observant groups the deeper you go. So yeah, at least in the Jewish sphere, the Left is definitely composed in large part of the Religious Left. תיקון עולם‎.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 7:41 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]

Hi there, member of the Religious Left here, and this is one of my favorite soapboxes! Indeed, my faith informs my politics are completely intwined, and the more religious I've become, the the farther Left I've moved. Couple of key points from my rant:

There are TONS OF US. Tons and tons and tons, in every faith tradition you can think of. I'm a Christian who attends a Presbyterian church in the PC(USA) denomination. Fun fact: PC(USA) split from the other American Presbyterian denomination (called the PCA) primarily over Progressive political causes, so it's in our DNA. But I know tons and tons incredibly Progressive Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, every faith you've ever heard of and ones you maybe haven't. So why is the mere idea of our existence so confusing that it deserves a New Yorker article? Why is the entire story of religion in America dominated by white, Conservative, Evangelical Protestants?

A common behavior I've noticed among Progressive religious people is that we don't want to be perceived as pushy with our faith. We don't try to convert you, we don't think you're damned, we worship quietly. Many (most?) progressive religious congregations aren't wealthy. If you don't preach the poison of prosperity gospel you probably can't afford a house of worship the size of a football stadium with laser lights and a helipad. You don't see us protesting in front of abortion clinics or carrying machine guns at state capitals, but "local religious people volunteer at food pantry" or "interfaith harvest dinner was really lovely for 10th consecutive year" don't make the news. We make bad TV, so you may know a Progressive religious person and not have any idea. Until recently, a lot of people have been fine with this. We're not in it for the power and prestige anyway.

But at the same time, the Religious Right has been on a 40 year fundraising and full-court media wooing barrage. They want us to think religious necessarily equals white, Conservative, Evangelical Protestant. They want us to think there are too many of them to be worth opposing. The Religious Left has been too passive in fighting for what we believe, but we are working on it. From large scale things like the Poor People's Movement to smaller actions like my congregation's letter writing campaigns and social justice fundraisers and weekly demonstration outside our church in support of defunding and demilitarizing the police, I believe it is changing. We have so much work to do! Too many decades of passivity left an energy vacuum that the Right filled, but it doesn't have to be this way.

Black churches have been a powerful force in Progressive movements since forever, but by and large white churches have been complacent and lagged behind. This has been a sin and a mistake, but we're learning. The Religious Left is learning to be intersectional, learning to organize, and learning to be loud, and we're doing it not in spite of our faith, but in essential harmony with it.
posted by mostlymartha at 9:44 PM on June 22 [31 favorites]

I am close to a lot of white people (among my family and childhood friends) who are very eager to announce right now that they consider themselves (and their churches) religious progressives. I grew up in the same Episcopal churches, among lots of people who liked to think of themselves as the “good” kind of Protestants because they were involved in nice charitable activities like food banks and because they voted Democratic (and, frankly, because their priests had graduate degrees from the right seminaries). They were, however, averse to anything that might ruffle feathers or call into question the high status of their overwhelmingly white, wealthy, politically powerful, socially connected friends who made up these churches’ membership. They were, fundamentally, a lot more akin to a Junior League than a social movement. I do feel that this culture is changing — both because the socially conservative wing has gone its own way over the last decade or so, leaving fewer easily-ruffled feathers around to fear, and also because the Trump era and this moment in particular are radicalizing people. But I am wary of white churches that are giving themselves too much credit right now -- in a year, will they still be at protest marches after church (we will still need protest marches, even in a Biden presidency), or will they be back to brunch at the country club? I’m glad this article focuses mostly on the POC Christians and non-Christians that have been leading the way.
posted by naoko at 11:09 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

I'm an atheist but my parents are part of the United Church of Canada (so called as a bunch of other denominations merged to form it). They lobbied the Canadian government for years to allow gay marriage, allowed gay ministers in 1988, and shares buildings with the Unitarians at times. After I realized I was bi last year I found out that my parents had been working to make the churches they've attended more accepting to queer people since the early 90s.

That said, I'm utterly unshocked the rights get all the attention: There are a lot more of them, they are louder, and spreading hate is easier. Oh, and they try and convert people.
posted by Canageek at 11:43 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]

I'm also part of the religious (Catholic) left and frustrated with how it gets ignored in progressive media. There is a long history of Catholic leftist protest in this country. Look up Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers if you're interested. My Twitter feed is full of progressive nuns and priests. About a year ago, 70 Catholics were arrested in DC protesting Trump's immigration policies. I knew about it because of Catholic media, but there wasn't a peep from progressive secular media. The only Catholic protests they cover are pro-life. The others don't fit the narrative.
posted by FencingGal at 1:53 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

I didn't want to brag about my church, but since other people are bragging about their churches, my church is across the street from the Georgia State Capitol (the building in the background with the Pride and Trans flags is my church). Even though our building remains closed for all congregational activities, for the past few weeks, we have been hosting a group of street medics and providing refreshments, masks, hand sanitizer, and just a place to take a break to protesters in our courtyard. It has been a huge labor of love that just sort of come together because we saw a need and tried to fill it. The passage of the first ever hate crimes bill in our state today came about because those protesters filled the streets and didn't stop demanding it, and I'm glad that my people were there to support that. To me, that's progressive Christianity.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:33 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

High five, mostlymartha!

I'm Catholic, and I know that, among the same folks in my suburban town who I see over and over again when there is volunteering to be done, there are Catholics, Methodists, thoughtful agnostics, and a few others whose small churches I can't identify. Everyone united to improve the world and to push back against the Republicans.

No blowhards or glory seekers, just people doing Works to go along with their Faith, you know?
posted by wenestvedt at 4:37 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

Yes, here in Latin America the Catholics have been occupying this niche with Liberation Theology, based on Marxism. It's been persecuted by the Vatican in the 70s-80s, nowadays more accepted but they don't talk about it too much. The Argentinian Pope has criticized free markets and capitalism; our right wing likes to call him "The Communist Pope". Also, here in São Paulo we have Monsignor Júlio Lancellotti, with a really outstanding work helping homeless people. He is routinely threatened by the cops for that, especially after he came out as an antifascist after our president dogwhistled drinking a glass of milk on a live broadcast.
posted by Tom-B at 2:03 PM on June 29

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