Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

What’s left of the religious left?

Amy Sullivan wants liberal Protestants to imitate their conservative brethren and find an authentically religious voice:

While their conservative counterparts were setting aside differences to focus on a single mission, members of the religious left -- no longer following the guiding cause of civil rights -- lost their way, dispersing their attention over what seemed like 87 different policy issues and busying themselves with internal denominational battles over female ordination and other debates. Many well-intentioned members of the religious left, not wanting to be associated with the nascent Christian right, filtered religion out of their rhetoric and secularized some of their appeals. The more vocal groups like the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority became, the more religious liberals withdrew from public view.

The parting gift the religious left gave Christian conservatives was an uncontested public square. Years before the religious right had the membership numbers to match its boasts of political influence, it was winning debates simply by controlling the agenda and cornering the market on religious authority. Richard Parker, who teaches religion and politics at the Kennedy School of Government, believes that the religious left simply forgot about a crucial part of its mission. "The Catholic Church believed it needed to learn how to articulate for its members faith-based reasons for action, and to frame arguments for the public square in ways that did not directly derive from church teaching," he says. "Mainline Protestants [who form the bulk of the religious left] lost the first habit, and only carried out the second." Those members of the religious left that did remain politically active often seemed like caricatures of left-wing activists, agitating to save baby seals, Arctic wildlife, third-world orphans with only the faintest of biblical appeals marshaled on their behalf. While religious groups were some of the most vocal opponents of the recent war in Iraq, their unique voices got lost within a sea of peace slogans. More damningly, to the extent that the religious left continued to exist, it became tied in the public’s mind with secularists. "The positions of the religious left and secularists on crucial questions seem indistinguishable," says Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation. "And that hurts them politically."

And here’s the kicker:

The religious left, on the other hand, hasn’t seen any need to build separate institutions because its members already have outlets for political involvement. The average religious liberal doesn’t need to go to church to get involved with political issues; she goes down the street to her local ACLU’s meeting or to a MeetUp or joins a letter-writing campaign through her teacher’s union. Her commitment to politics may be driven by her religious beliefs, but the connection is never made explicit. A religious conservative, on the other hand, spends more of his time at his local church and is more naturally drawn to activism through that community of congregants.

In other words, it’s much easier to see what’s left of the religious left than to see what’s religious. If a conservative odor is enough to drive you away from a position, then your liberalism or leftism would seem to be more salient than your religiosity. There are noteworthy exceptions, like
Stephen L. Carter, who recognizes that shared faith is a bond more important than any merely political position. The test I would pose to Ms. Sullivan is whether she can imagine a Biblically-based position that conservatives have gotten right. I’ve read lots of her stuff (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but I can’t remember her ever offering any sort of warm fuzzies regarding conservative religious positions. So, Amy, will you ante up?

Hat tip: Get Religion.

Update: Here’s a helpful and pointed summary of Sullivan’s argument.

Discussions - 1 Comment

They should avoid people who quit their church because of disputes over bike paths.

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