Can the Religious Left be Effective Again? Short Answer: No

Every four years, when the presidential election cycle comes around, news junkies are treated to some iteration of the following stories:

  • Is This The End Of The Religious Right?
  • Can Evangelicals Be Liberals?
  • Can Democrats Win People of Faith?
  • Do The Democrats Have A Religion Problem?
  • Can The Religious Left Be Effective Again?

You could set your watch to the schedule, if it were hourly instead of quadrennial. (The answers, if you’re keeping track at home, are: No; Yes, a few of them are; They already do; Don’t be a dope; and No, not in their current formulation.)

We get a variation on that last question—Can the religious left be effective again?—in a recent Slate piece by Ruth Graham. It’s long, nuanced, and commendable for locating the liberal Christian tradition not just in one stream, but in Catholicism, evangelicalism, and mainline Protestantism. Graham’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that with Trump fracturing the Religious Right coalition, 2016 might be a unique opportunity for the left to exert its influence in the realm of religion and politics. To do that, they’ll need to demonstrate some “zeal,” by which Graham means an ability to show their faith-based positions make a difference.

I had some quibbles with how she developed this theory, but those were fairly minor. The bigger issue is more conceptual: Graham ties the decline of the religious political left to the decline of theologically liberal Christianity. There’s certainly room to criticize liberal-to-moderate churches for their lack of zeal, but as a thesis for explaining the problems with the religious left, it’s misguided.

Some fool will no doubt show up in the comments to say that liberal churches are hemorrhaging members because of their politics, but it just isn’t so (for a lot of reasons). The decline is typically measured from the artificial high of the 1950s and early ’60s, though it’s sociologically better explained by birth rates and migration. There are plenty of liberal churches doing just fine, thank you very much.

In fact, as Diana Butler Bass points out, there’s actually evidence that Mainline membership decline has slowed or even stopped. Butler Bass also suggests a new way of understanding congregations: “practicing congregations,” which draw strength not from liberal or conservative activism, but from their embrace of spiritual practices. I’ve been around a number of such churches. They indeed tend not to be strongly partisan one way or another. Nor are they exactly filled with evangelistic fervor. It’s not that their members aren’t faith-filled people—it’s just that they don’t understand the gospel as a message to be gotten across to everyone they encounter. You invite people into the practices, you don’t try to convince them intellectually of their superiority.

It’s also worth pointing out that the vast majority of all Protestant churches are small: something like 75% have fewer than 100 members in worship every Sunday. Those communities typically function like extended families, and that’s what they’re interested in, not being the base of activist cells.

What all of this means politically is that what should be the vital beating heart of the religious left isn’t particularly interested in partisan politics. They’d much rather focus on developing social capital in strong communities. If you consider supporting food pantries part of the Liberal Agenda, they’re all over it. Electing progressives up and down the political ladder? Not so much.

There are vital congregations filled with lefty activists, but they tend to be in lefty paradises like Madison or Berkeley or Boston. Outside those areas, they’re much fewer and farther between, and in total, they’re outnumbered by the partisan-neutral churches. That’s not nothing to the religious left! A neutral church is not a conservative church, and that helps. But in terms of political effect, it blunts the liberal thrust.

Along the same lines, religious lefties often don’t wear their faith on their sleeves. They’re activists, but they don’t push faith as the source of their activism. To be honest, it’s never been clear to me that many of them even connect the two. They certainly aren’t interested in forming a mirror image of the Religious Right within the Democratic party.

But when it really gets down to it, what limits the effectiveness of the religious left isn’t primarily structural. Nor is it institutional, or a matter of zeal. I think we have to decouple the narrative of political effectiveness from church vitality.

The big issues I see holding back the Religious Left are first that it’s incredibly siloed, and non-supportive of different avenues. They just don’t play well with one another. But also, the religious left is far more diverse in both demographics and issues than the Religious Right, which makes it much more difficult to build a cohesive movement. There have been some efforts to overcome this, but they tend to push mushy, uninspiring centrism, and they’re not organic. They fail.

Second and perhaps more important, our politics, and our society as a whole, is becoming more and more tribal. The religious left can’t “proselytize” on political views because nobody really can these days. As in politics, as in faith: there just aren’t that many people who are undecided, one way or another. So of course the religious left preaches to the choir. Everybody does, these days.

I used to think that the religious left could overcome this issue with the sophisticated and imaginative use of framing to build consensus across different tribes and silos. I even wrote a book with that as the thesis. Now I’m less sure. I think people are happy in their little in-groups. Unless something happens in our society to cause people to start listening across boundaries, I doubt this will change very much.

Third and last, there are quite a few religiously-unaffiliated people out there, just as there are a lot of unaffiliated voters. People don’t listen to liberal religious leaders because they’re not particularly religious. Importantly, while some people are truly undecided, most of them are unaffiliated by choice. One of the biggest problems in our religious and political systems alike is how to offer those people a meaningful alternative. They don’t want to join political parties because they don’t trust political parties, they don’t want to join a faith tradition because they don’t know which one is right (and they don’t trust them). Good luck, God bless, let me know when you figure out how to reach such people, because it’s a damn mystery to me.

So those are what I see as the limits to the political effectiveness of the religious left. I don’t disagree that this year presents an unusual opportunity for liberals and progressives of all stripes to make a sale, but none of the reasons I’ve listed above has much to do with the strength of liberal faith. The weakness of the religious left mostly reflects the divisions of our society.

Does this mean religious lefties shouldn’t even bother? By no means! You can judge for yourself how effective particular causes are likely to be. But there is one enormous meta-issue where the religious left could play a very meaningful part in a broader coalition: racial justice. If you want to know where the religious left really thrives these days, it’s not Sojourners or the United Church of Christ or Daniel Berrigan-style Catholic radicalism. It’s in Black Lives Matter and the emerging Hispanic communities across the nation.

Remember how I said something had to change in order to get people listening across boundaries? Well, Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians are becoming a larger and larger portion of American society. Pretty soon, a new consensus will form, and people will start listening to voices from the religious left again. They’ll have black or brown faces connected to them, is all.