Who is Religious Left?

Editor’s note: “Dispatches” in the following article refers to the author’s recent collection of essays, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith in Politics in America. The book and its author are not affiliated with Religion Dispatches.

There is a great debate emerging among progressive religious people in American public life. This debate comes at a time when established political interests have invented an official “Religious Left” as a counterweight to the Religious Right, one of the most significant social and political movements in American history. This official Religious Left, a handy auxiliary of elements within the Democratic Party is, of course, nothing like the kind of dynamic social movement that has, and may yet again, change history.

A recently released manifesto titled “Come Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda to End the Culture Wars,” sparked a renewed round of debate between the official Religious Left and religious progressives. The document was produced by DC think tanks Third Way and Faith in Public Life, in collaboration with a group of white, male, and mostly conservative evangelicals, and outlines a few areas of agreement between some Democratic insiders and some prominent evangelicals.

The agenda proposed, the process by which it came about, and who was included, excluded, and why, have been met with some criticism to which Robert P. Jones, one of the principal authors, has issued a stinging retort. Unfortunately the response doesn’t address the substance of the criticisms raised, though its diversionary tactics do say much about the state of the debate.

Moses v. Think Tanks

Jones denounces several writers whom he labels “the Dispatches group,” after a book of essays I edited, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith in Politics in America. He goes on to suggest that the twenty-two authors included somehow epitomize what is wrong with the Left—and that they’re somehow comparable to the Religious Right. Before addressing Jones’ claims, I’d like to say few words about Dispatches and flesh out some of the contours of the debate. Here is a brief quote from my editor’s introduction:

Herein are some remarkable examples of how progressive religious people think and write when unencumbered by the dictates of contemporary fashions in “faith outreach” by candidates for major offices; or framed solely by areas of “common ground” with conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Such activities may be fine, but they do not define what a Religious Left is or should be. Religious progressives cannot, and should not be expected to, elide their deeply held values or be asked to sacrifice the human and civil rights of whole classes of people in the interest of short term political expediency. Astute progressives understand the art of politics includes dialog and compromise, but dialog and compromise are not to be conflated with capitulation, self-marginalization, and betrayal.

This paragraph summarizes some major differences between the contributors to Dispatches and the methods and goals of the “Come Let Us Reason Together” initiative and others like it. But there is one more worth highlighting: the need for organizing and movement building.

Dispatches features for example two essays by Dr. Marshall Ganz—the top organizer for the United Farm Workers in the heyday of Cesar Chavez, an organizing advisor to many, including Barack Obama, and currently teaching organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In the essay that opens the book, Ganz explains how he understands his lifetime of organizing for social justice in terms of questions posed by Rabbi Hillel more than 2,000 years ago. In a second essay, and generally in his teaching, he discusses the lessons we can draw about the nature of organizing, leadership and power from the stories of among others, Moses, David, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Jean Hardisty, Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women at Wellesley College, and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, highlight this general difference in their essay in Dispatches. They think the liberal/left has erred in its recent emphasis on think tanks and public relations strategies over the kind of movement organizing that have been critical to past gains for labor, women, African Americans and more. They question the efficacy and the morality of this approach, adding, “timidity, ambiguity, and constant compromise have not proved successful strategies; projecting a clear, principled and uncompromising voice of progressive values and policies is not only morally compelling but strategically smart.” They warn against power collecting around “the most ‘achievable’ social change as opposed to the most just.”

Straw Men and Red Herring on Parade

While some of the contributors to Dispatches have written critically about the Governing Agenda, most, so far as I know, have not. And while we are not the document’s only critics, he claims we are the “most vociferous.” Despite the fact that we all wrote independently of one another, he nevertheless opts to label us, “the Dispatches group.” We raised concerns about such things as the marginalization of progressive perspectives and constituencies in favor of white male evangelicals; the unrepresentative process by which this “Governing Agenda” came into being; its highly limited nature; and how their claim to have identified common ground on abortion not only avoided the subject, but actually pushes the Religious Right’s “abortion reduction” agenda.

Jones’ main response was to unfavorably contrast our character with those he interviewed for his recent book, Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming Public Life. He complained of “snarkiness” on our part; “sheer incivility,” “rancor,” “throwing stones,” a “binary mindset,” and a “take-no-prisoners mentality,” while claiming that he is part of a “more humble” movement with a “less defensive attitude.” Our “mindset” he writes, “has generated some surprising parallels between the left and the right.”

As Jones offers little evidence for these inflammatory assertions we’re left to consider the claim on which he rests his case. In Rev. Osagyefo Sekou’s powerful critique, published on Martin Luther King’s birthday, he laments: “I am saddened by the cowardice of religious leaders and their betrayal of the best of the democratic tradition. Third Way’s putative call for reconciliation, ‘Come Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda for the End of the Culture Wars,’ is nothing less than the continued blessing of the religious right’s cultural politics.” Sekou had his reasons for considering this a “betrayal of King’s legacy”—but you would not know them to read Jones’ essay.

Jones’s misrepresentation of Sekou’s points is achieved via analogy. He writes:

Compare for example, two strikingly similar responses to “Come Let Us Reason Together”: one by Tony Perkins, head of the James Dobson-affiliated Family Research Council, a key organization on the Religious Right, and one by the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left.

Perkins:

Discussions of the “culture wars” in America remind me of the Cold War. Some people were willing to end it by surrendering much of the world to communist domination. Ronald Reagan’s approach was simpler: “We win, they lose.” (Perkins, 2007)

Sekou:

The evangelical stream of the religious right is part of a tradition that opposed King and one that now stalls queer rights, supports a ban on abortion, and sanctified the war in Iraq. Historically, only the defeat of this stream has served to expand democracy. (Sekou, 2009)

This self-righteous attitude that takes aim at enemies who must be defeated has always been one of the temptations of the prophetic religious tradition, with its iconography of the lone, persecuted prophet. Taken to its extreme, this posture on the religious left can paradoxically become a mirror image of the Religious Right.

Jones asserts that the Perkins and Sekou quotes are “similar”—though he does not say how. Indeed, a careful reading of both the quotes and the context in which they appeared, reveals that this is, at best, a stretch. In fact, neither Sekou—nor any of the rest of us—are taking any “posture” to any “extreme” and are in no way “mirroring the Religious Right” in form or in substance. This is a classic straw man argument.

Jones also misrepresents and dismisses Rev. Debra Haffner’s concerns about the manner in which the Governing Agenda group arrived at its conclusions, writing that she “accused the initiative of ‘false advertising’ declaring that, by her narrow definition, only one supporter was actually ‘progressive.’”

Here is what Haffner actually wrote:

My colleague, Tim Palmer, was on the press conference call yesterday. Four of the five speakers identified themselves as pro-life; not one affirmed sexual and gender diversity; and several went out of their way to affirm their anti-marriage equality position (although the report did not mention marriage at all). There are 30 people who have submitted supporting statements for the report; I would call only four of them progressive religious leaders, and only one has a demonstrated, longstanding commitment to women’s reproductive choice and LGBT persons.

It is worth underscoring here that the culture warriors of the Religious Right, ones that Jones featured at the press conference to announce common ground toward the “End of The Culture Wars,” fired off a few rounds anyway.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Whatever the merits of getting a handful of conservative evangelicals to publicly agree to positions already embraced by the vast majority of Americans (sexuality education and availability of contraception); or that the laws already require in many places and common decency demands (non-discrimination in employment for gays and lesbians)—is not nearly the historic progress that Jones and his colleagues make it out to be.

But fortunately, there is a great discussion already underway about what a far more dynamic vision of progress and would be like and what would take to get there. Millions of religious progressives are thinking, acting, and writing vitally in the present; drawing on the lessons of history and the rich social justice traditions from which they have come; guided by their respective faith traditions in their profound hunger for justice.

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