Members of ‘We Believe Ohio’ pose at a press conference in Columbus in March 2006. The group was founded by ministers and rabbis who feel drowned out by the religious right. (AP photo)
Is there a religious left in the U.S. today?
ASK THIS | March 23, 2006
Much has been made of the religious right ever since Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1980, but little has been said about the religious left. Is there any semblance of a religious left in the United States today that could counterbalance the religious right?
By Laura R. Olson
Q. Why don’t we hear much about the religious left today?
Q. Where might we find the religious left if we looked for it?
Q. Can the religious left reclaim the political respect it enjoyed a generation ago?
Despite a rich history and a high level of visibility in the 1960s and 1970s, we have heard very little about the American religious left in recent decades. Observers have wondered whether there might still be a religious left in the United States to counterbalance the religious right. For example, America’s preeminent religious historian, Martin Marty, has mused: “[Perhaps] the religious left flies stealthily low and gets unnoticed. Or [maybe] there is not much of a religious left about which to speak.”
The political mood of the United States since the 1980s has not benefited the religious left. The dominant political story of the end of the 20th Century was the ascendancy of conservatism after the New Deal and Great Society eras. The Protestant left has tried since the 1980s to continue articulating its 1960s-style peace-and-justice agenda, but these attempts have gone largely unnoticed.
The Protestant left might also be hindered by its longstanding support for a high wall between church and state. This stance may create a serious mobilization problem when religious leaders insist that church and state should not be excessively entangled—yet then ask the people in the pews to take political action to address injustice.
As I see it, another reason why the religious left has received so little attention in recent years is that it is unclear where to find it. Might it be located primarily in specific religious denominations, or would it be rooted in a broader network of activists?
There are several religious families in the United States that have some affinity for political progressivism, including mainline Protestantism (with its longstanding emphasis on social justice), Catholicism (with its deep and abiding concern for the disadvantaged), and Judaism (with its passion for defending civil liberties). Smaller traditions, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Quakers (Friends), also have a long history of political progressivism. However, unlike the religious right, the religious left has not successfully mobilized large numbers of voters around a concrete agenda in recent years.
There exist a wide range of religious left organizations in the United States today, some of which are well organized and well connected, and others of which are small, fledgling groups struggling for resources and political access. The most important players include Sojourners, the National Council of Churches, and the Center for American Progress. (The Center for American Progress is not primarily a religious organization but it does have a religious component to it, the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.)
An example of an important new organization is the completely virtual CrossLeft, which bills itself as a “strategy clearinghouse and central hub for grassroots activism among Progressive Christians.” CrossLeft is poised to play an extremely valuable role for the religious left, as activists on the ground tend not to be well connected either with each other or with the religious institutions that share their political agenda.
Despite its challenges, the religious left has great political potential. Historically, the movement helped to make history by shaping religious outlooks and political outcomes throughout the twentieth century. Today, it has the potential to become a key constituency of the Democratic Party. Democrats have been assailed in recent years for failing to acknowledge the role that faith plays in many Americans’ lives. The most likely religious constituency to which the Democratic Party might appeal would be religious progressives, especially mainline Protestants—who have been moving in an increasingly Democratic direction at the polls in recent years—and moderate Catholics.
Laura R. Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University and the author of several books on religion and politics.
The first two comments say it all...
- CrossLeft: Managing Director
04/06/2006, 02:29 AM
The first two comments to this post say a lot about the state of American politics and the intolerance from both sides. The first comment by a conservative fundamentalist is emblematic of apocalyptic strain in Christianity that runs completely counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ or the prophets which demand active participation in improving society.
The second comment comes from the fundamentalist secularlist left. Her complete denigration of people of faith demonstrates that the religious right does not have a monopoly on intolerance.
Indeed, there is a religious left that is is grounded in its religious values that inform a sense of social and economic justice. We are growing into a political force despite dismissals from fundamentalists on both sides.