Who Are The ‘Religious Progressives’— and Why Use Such an Odious Term?

Mark Silk provides a good write-up of some of the in-fighting that is emerging amongst politically progressive religious groups. This fissure was visible to a lesser degree at the 2006 Progressive Faith Bloggers Conference, where there was extensive debates about what “progressive” means both politically and religiously, and how these definitions intersect. If you look at the list of attendees at the PFBC, you see many of the same players that are discussed in Silk’s article. However, the list of the PFBC is far larger in terms of representation of different faiths. It seems as though the debates we had in micro are being writ large, and religious progressives, regardless of how you define the term, are simply falling into the structures created by the Religious Right, rather than creating our own.

What does being a religious progressive mean? Is it a question of being politically progressive? Is religion put at the service of politics and do we read into the tradition to get to that end? Are we simply talking about the fact that religious people are a constituency who deserve to be at the table like anyone else? That is, progressivism and religiosity are not inherently opposed. The obverse of the question is that religion can be progressive, rather than an impediment to progress, and is not inherently regressive.

The definition of “progressive” is being fought over with more substance and nuance than I can give in a short piece. However, my own reflection is that it is time to bring back the religare into religion, to bind ourselves together into a community. It is generally accepted that the public use of religious language was ceded to the Religious Right, partially because of organization and partially by sheer shock of the utilitarian use of religion. A different sort of religious consciousness is emerging and declaring itself publicly. This means that the new community must define itself. The definition of self is the binding together that we must work towards.

Robert P. Jones, also of Religion Dispatches, fears that the “Religious Left” is defining itself too much against what came before them. I share this concern and am uncomfortable using the term “Religious Left,” partially for that reason. We must define this community without oppositional identity. We can be against certain ideas and methodologies, but it cannot be our raison d’être; there must a positive vision of what this movement offers. However, I am also part of the camp that believes that there is a greater calling that we must respond to as people of faith. Once we are clear as to what we stand for, we know who we can work with and to what end. If the revolutionary nature of religion is left by the wayside, then it is simply another political tool.

One of the problems is that we have adopted the language of political religion. There are progressives and there are the faithful. What religion was not revolutionary and progressive? Moses brought radical monotheism; Jesus brought a radical conception of Love; Muhammad married the Law and Love. Krishna gave us duty, and Buddha detachment. The radical nature of religion in creating new communities based on a common understanding of the Good cannot be lost to an understanding of religion that is based solely on its institutions. By adding the qualifier “progressive” to religion, we are arguing that it is not inherent to the tradition. Although somewhat less odious than the “Religious Left,” it still concedes the definition of religion. We are religious, no more and no less than the regressives and the passives.

More pernicious is the adoption of structures inherited from the Religious Right. The debate is still by and amongst Christians. Yes, they are still the majority, but what the PFBC did, for a brief while, was to show that being religious is not defined by any one group and we all have a stake in what happens in this country and in the world. In terms of name calling, we use the term “American Taliban” to refer the morality police of the US in order to highlight the similarity that all regressives have in their interpretation of faith. Implicit in that is the idea that people in similar positions across faith spectrums have something in common.

However, the institutions in the country were established to privilege a very narrow definition of religion, specifically a narrow understanding of Christianity. We have adopted those structures with very little change. In this fight on what it means to be “progressive” where are the Jews and Muslims? We have been and are part of the fight as well. (I will be honest and say I have not yet read Dr. Jones’ book, Progressive and Religious, which seems to deal with some of these issues.)

Pres. Obama, who I believe understands the religious debates in a much better way than previous presidents, also perpetuates narrow interpretations of what it means to be religious. The White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships only includes two Muslims, Dr. Eboo Patel and Dalia Mogahed. Dr. Patel represents a strong interfaith perspective (disclosure, I consider Eboo a friend) and Ms. Mogahed, while versed in Muslim opinion, is not a scholar of the faith or of religion in general. I have the utmost respect for both people and their work, but if you look at some of the other people on the council, there is no parity in terms of religious scholarship (either from the Islamic or Wester academic perspective) for the Muslim community. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the point of a faith-based council, but it strikes me as adopting the attitude that non-Judeo-Christian theology is too “other” to matter.

If, as people of faith, we are serious about injecting a level of seriousness into the conversation on religion in public life, than let us be serious. Let us not take the half-baked, street corner theology and the institutions it justified as a tabernacle. It is time to be serious about the prophetic tradition of overturning the current order to create a new community. It’s going to be hard, difficult, and ugly, but that’s how movements are born; it’s how we can change the way we talk about the world. If we can’t be serious amongst ourselves, how can we expect others to take us seriously?