Where is the Religious Left?

Gay marriage. Abortion. Prayer in schools. When religion and politics show up together on the news, it is  generally the Religious Right that is being talked about. The Religious Right is made up of people who come at politics from a religious and conservative perspective, and it has proven to be  a powerful political movement.¹ In this article, however, I turn to the puzzling question of why religious and political liberals do not have a similarly influential movement.  In other words, where is the Religious Left? Religious and political liberals do in fact have influential spokespeople and an interest group presence in  Washington DC.¹ However, in order to have real political power,  this must be matched by a widespread, ground level movement.  This broad-based support is what the religious and liberal  movement lacks.² Religious progressive leaders, such as Rabbi Lerner, have been working hard to mobilize a Religious Left,³ but  have discovered that they must overcome formidable barriers if they are to succeed.

The first difficulty, according to the Pew Forum, is that  the Religious Left is extremely diverse. Most of the Religious Left identifies itself as progressive Christian, and “progressive Christians come from different religious traditions and disagree almost as often as they agree on a number of key political and social issues.” In contrast, the Religious Right has formed around a nucleus of white evangelical Christians, who compose the  majority of the movement and are homogeneous in their religious  and political beliefs.⁴

This diversity leads to what is arguably the Religious Left’s greatest weakness: it has no clear objective around which to  rally.² Political causes include socioeconomic justice, affirmative  action, open immigration, environmentalism, LGBTQ rights, and  corporate responsibility.¹ Efforts to choose from among these  goals have been hampered by the Left’s “regard for pluralism: for  letting people say what they want, how they want to, and for trying  to include everyone’s priorities, rather than choosing two or three  issues that could inspire a movement.” ⁵ Meanwhile, the Religious Right’s goals are clear-cut (stop gay marriage, end abortion) and have great emotional resonance with people.  The second difficulty Religious Left faces is that religious leaders on the Left have greater difficulty directing their congregants’ political beliefs and actions. Liberal congregations do not give their religious leaders the same degree of authority as do conservative congregations to their leaders. Rabbi Lerner, one of the most well-known leaders and writers of the Religious Left, offers these observations:

A religious leader telling people how to vote is absolutely out of the question in the liberal world. It just wouldn’t happen … the authority level is much less … On the Right there’s much more of a willingness of people to listen to their leaders and say “What  do I know, I guess this person might know a lot better than I.” ²

Among other things, the idea of “scriptural relativism” ascribed to by many liberals means that no one, including clergy, has the final word on what a religious text means. Thus, it is difficult for liberal clergy and other liberal religious elites to motivate and organize  people to take action.¹ Making things even more confusing, many  on the Religious Left believe strongly in separation of church and state. Even if ministers are at ease with taking political action, they are hampered by the fact that their congregations are frequently uncomfortable with their denomination or clergy members engaging in political activity.¹

One practical manifestation of this weaker authority may be decentralized political activism in churches and local communities.  Maha Ibrahim, Senior Field Representative for Representative Nancy Skinner, said that the liberal religious churches (synagogues,  mosques, etc.) in her district engage in a lot of activity. Yet these  efforts are generally split among many causes and are run by  members rather than the religious leaders.⁶ It seems to me that  this method of activism is much less efficient than the more top-down approach of conservative churches—yet another reason the  Religious Right may have an advantage in organizing politically.

There is a third difficulty that the Religious Left faces: the secular Left is a huge obstacle to the rise of a politically active Religious Left. Secular voters on the Left usually dislike or dismiss  religion’s role in politics;² Democratic politicians are reluctant  to use religious language.⁷ The Right, meanwhile, welcomes the Religious Right with open arms.² Similarly, the media on the Left,  generally secular, is either “indifferent” or downright “hostile”  towards the Religious Left. This is in complete contrast to the conservative media’s attitude towards the Religious Right.²

There are important consequences to being shut out in this way.  Many on the Religious Left, even among those who are politically active, have imbibed the idea that they should be supporter  rather than leaders. Rabbi Lerner argues that the secular Left  has so consistently and so comprehensively marginalized the  Religious Left that the Religious Left has “internalized” the idea  that it should not challenge “the way that the Left thinks or the  way that the Left operates” in any way, at least not from a religious  perspective.² Reverend Oliveto, the head pastor of Glide Church  and its representative in the Interfaith Alliance, spoke about the  Interfaith Alliance’s role in the Occupy Movement: “we aren’t  trying to direct the Occupy Movement but as Interfaith leaders  provide this circle of support.” ⁸ The Interfaith Alliance has a clear sense of itself as a facilitator and supporter rather than a leader. This attitude may offer a hint as to why a state with what is considered a relatively powerful liberal religious presence in Sacramento⁹ has been largely unsuccessful in translating their institutional strength  into a broad-based movement.

I conclude with a disclaimer. The purpose of this article has been to explain why the Religious Left has been slow to organize, but by no means does this mean that it cannot become  a formidable power. Historically the Religious Left has been a influential political force, playing a large role in the battle against poverty, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War protests.¹ More recently, the Religious Left has been making real progress in linking up its members. Although they have faced difficulties, groups like the Network of Spiritual Progressives and “We Believe  Ohio” mark a distinct step forward in mobilization.³ Democratic politicians, meanwhile, seem to have been paying more attention  to religious progressives while on the campaign trail. Obama’s  2008 campaign in particular was marked by far greater attention  to the religious, including religious progressives,¹⁰ though actual  concessions have been quite limited.² The 2012 elections will be  a litmus test for seeing whether they have continued to make  progress in the years since.

1 Olson, Laura R. “Whither the Religious Left? Religiopolitical Progressivism in Twenty-First-Century America.” From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the AmericanReligious Mosaic. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2007. Print.

2 Lerner, Michael. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2011.

3 Formicola, Jo Renee. The Politics of Values: Games Political Strategists Play. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.

4 Pew Research Center. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. 69% Say Liberals Too Secular, 49% Say Conservatives Too Assertive. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. PewResearchCenter, 24 Aug. 2006. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

5 Banerjee, Neela. “Religious Left Struggles to Find Unifying Message.” New York Times 19 May 2006. New York Times. The New York Times Company. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

6 Ibrahim, Maha. Telephone interview. 15 Nov. 2011.

7 Wilcox, Clyde, and Carin Robinson. “Prayers, Parties, and Preachers: The Evolving Nature of Political and Religious Mobilization.” From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic. Ed. J. Matthew Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2007. 1-28. Print.

8 Oliveto, Karen. Personal interview. 17 Nov. 2011.

9 Cleary, Edward L. “The Lively World of California’s Religion and Politics.” Representing God in the Statehouse: Religion and Politics in the American States. USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. Print.

10 Crabtree, James. “Closing the God Gap.” Prospect[United Kingdom] 23 Sept. 2008. Sojourners in the News. Web. 20 Nov. 2011


Chris Han is a third-year political science major at Cal. He is originally from Albany, CA, and currently lives in Castro Valley, CA.

Thumbnail by Antonprado from Stock Free Images.

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