Maybe Instead of Solidarity, The Religious Left Should Try Being Indivisible

If I were asked to briefly summarize my various critiques of the religious left, I’d probably say three things.

First, I’d say that the religious left—again, such as it is— is committed to unity at all costs, including the cost of asking women, gays and lesbians to take a back seat to economic concerns and immigration reform. It has to this point been extremely reluctant to reject potential allies, even those with rather not-progressive views. Working in coalition is difficult, of course, but there has been an unwillingness to call out bad behavior even in the mildest way.

Second, I’d say that the religious left consistently misdiagnoses the sources of partisan difference. The guiding model seems to be that if enough people of goodwill can be brought together and made to understand their shared values, polarization would melt away, resulting in fairer, more generous social programs.

It’s not clear to me if they believe this because of their commitment to unity, or if that commitment stems from this belief. Either way, the movement consistently discounts the ways in which social sorting, economic class and particularly race overwhelm any kind of shared religious values in determining political stances. They also seem to have no idea how thirty years of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have taught conservatives to delegitimize their political opponents. “Come, let us reason together” doesn’t work when your conversation partner doesn’t believe you’re a real American.

In sum, I’d probably say something like this: the religious left is chasing a phantom. Its leadership appears to believe that if it can project just the right faith-rooted message with just the right messenger or messengers, the broad middle of Americans who only want to do the right thing can be reconciled across racial and political lines. This will then somehow usher in a new progressive era of peace and justice.

In a word, the religious left is extremely, politically, naive.

Listen, the fight for a more “moral politics” never was going to be a success. Saying “I’m not a ____, I’m a Christian” is trying to have your cake and eat it too. Politics cannot be so easily transcended, as any student of Augustine or Niebuhr understands.

Rallying cries summoning believers to “battle for the soul of the nation” aren’t much help either. Our nation doesn’t have a soul. It has a moral narrative if anything, and that a contested one. Even to the extent that America can be said to have a soul, that thing is a dark, twisted and brutal thing. Hasn’t anyone ever read Moby Dick? The Fire Next Time? People don’t want to redeem the “soul” of the nation. They don’t even want to do the right thing, half the time. What they want is for their ethics to be normative. Let’s be honest about that.

In a contested moral narrative, the perspective that wins is the one that uses power effectively. Let’s be honest about that too. What’s wanted isn’t a “better” use of Christian moral commitments.*

It isn’t a “deeper” politics rooted in a “fuller” understanding of the gospel. The number of scripture verses you can quote doesn’t matter a bit. Nor does how many more of those verses speak of social justice than sexual ethics. It does not matter how “prophetic” people are. Nor does it matter how spirituality informs one’s politics. We live in a secular and hyper-partisan age. These things motivate almost no one.

In fact, even the very idea of a religious left is unhelpful in some ways. Allow me to summarize some of the reactions Laurie Goodstein’s article drew on Twitter:

  • Thank God, it’s about time.
  • The religious left is back!
  • No, it’s not.
  • “Religious left” is an oxymoron (this spoken by secular leftists and religious conservatives alike).
  • The Democratic party should be secular.
  • You can’t be “religious left” if you stand for abortion or gay rights.
  • You can only be part of the religious left if you stand for abortion and gay rights.
  • What about the Jews, Muslims, seculars?
  • We don’t want the religious left to be like the religious right!
  • We need to convert the nation!

And on and on. The minute we conflate the categories of moral principles and politics, it becomes a discussion of whose principles should be normative, and whether that’s allowable or not. In a sense, the idea of a religious left raises more questions than it answers, creates more divisions than it heals.

So what is to be done about it? How can a real and effective religious left come about?

In reflecting on this question, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t actually care much about the institutional religious left. To be sure, there’s room for organizations that try to develop the political identities of religious voters and represent them in Washington. But those groups are effectively irrelevant to what’s actually happening in the political world, or close to it. My God, the roadbuilders’ association leads the Wisconsin state government around by the nose. Meanwhile, nobody’s paid attention to a clergy protest here in decades. So no, I don’t really find much to care about in the religious left, as it is.

What I do care about is religious liberals or leftists who are willing to use power. Moral suasion does nothing. Anybody who’s ever watched Paul Ryan penitently bite his lip, then pledge to burn another piece of the social safety net to the ground ought to understand that. Raising money for the opponents of miscreant politicians just might change their course, though.

Symbolic demonstrations representing a moral worldview do nothing. The implied threat that those same people in the streets today are going to make politicians’ lives a living hell tomorrow by tying their offices in knots does. Writing letters to Congress or signing open letters to elected officials accomplishes nothing. Showing up at their town halls and public appearances demanding answers and accountability does. So do organizing primary challenges or get out the vote efforts for general election opponents. Religious lefties deprive them of a great deal of effectiveness because they wait for their moral exemplars to lead them, and because they hold out for moral purity, particularly in remaining unsullied by the dirty business of partisanship.

If that’s your bag, that’s fine, God bless. My suggestion is simply this: instead of focusing so heavily on coalition-building, messaging, and above all else doing the right thing, the religious left should flip its assumptions.

The folks at Indivisible get it. They tell activists not to wait for the big march or for political leaders to save them. Instead, they’re asked to form small, localized cells, which are given some suggestions for effective advocacy, but also encouraged to come up with creative ideas that suit their self-determined priorities.

This approach would allow activists to navigate tricky questions of religious particularities for themselves. A Christian might hook up with five Jews and defer to their wisdom, for example. A group of pro-life Catholics might coordinate with pro-choice Lutherans, bracketing those positions (and theologies) to work together on defeating the ACHA. Because those various individuals and groups speak only for themselves, there’s no need to parse differences or worry about whose perspectives are acceptable and whose aren’t. The religious left becomes fractal, emergent, what you make of it in its local incarnations. Messaging and witness to the God of justice becomes a distributed task. The stars of the movement and the social solidarity it creates—including with the secular left—emerge on their own. The work of the broader movement would then become recruiting, training, coordinating, most of which Indivisible has shown can be done inexpensively and with relatively few leaders.**

Think of it as small groups for left-wing politics: train, equip and send independent teams of believers out to live their faith in the political realm, trusting that they’ll do the right thing. It actually is Jesus’ leadership model, for goshsake, one many churches have adapted to carry out their work quite effectively.

There is a good bit of this going on already. God willing, it’s what Dr. Barber has been up to across the nation. My suggestion, though, is: what if this became the focus of the movement? What if instead of working so hard to convince the world that the religious left was coming back, this time with a new and improved moral message! the institutional leaders spent their time developing these small groups? Not stars, not even seminary-honed religious leaders: just garden-variety lay people committed to creating social change in their own ways, and the hell with kumbaya and press releases and symbolic demonstrations?

What if, in other words, the religious left gave up on trying to bring everyone together in some trans-partisan fantasy moral conversion and instead took the parable of the sower seriously, casting their seed on rocky ground and paths, shallow soil and good earth alike? What if people spent less time trying to developing a religious left, the religious left, and focused instead on letting religious lefts and leftists blossom, trusting that God would increase their efforts thirty or sixty or a hundredfold? Some people won’t get it, of course, and some people will reject it, while others won’t be able to act on it. But those who do might just be able to change the world.


* Here’s a neat example of the problem with specifics and universals: I say “Christian,” because I of course am a white Protestant Christian, and because people like me tend to dominate the conversation. But we might just as easily talk about Jewish moral commitments, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or secular. But which one should be normative? Why?

** The work of journalists, as an aside, becomes interviewing local activists, rather than Jim Wallis or William Barber, or any of the other people already quoted in a hundred other stories.