Monday, April 25, 2011

The Religious Left in the News has a piece up this week in which author Brad Martin examines the largely untapped political potential for religious argumentation around progressive ideas. Aside from Martin's unfortunate suggestion that Jesus is anyone's "weapon," the article offers a solid reflection on the lack of religious themes in contemporary progressive messaging, and examines Jim Wallis' "What Would Jesus Cut" initiative as one concrete example of progressive political and religious synthesis.

Martin begins the article by noting the ubiquity of religious language used in support of conservative causes, including "fights over the contents of school textbooks, battles against gay employment and marriage rights, anti-abortion activism." Martin then offers a particularly instructive reading into the hesitancy felt by many on the Left when it comes to invoking religious language in support fo their own goals:
"It is, however, far less common to see Christian ideals -- or the ideals of any religion, for that matter -- harnessed to ideas or initiatives that originate on the political left. There are reasons for this. Offering a religious rationale for policy goals threatens what for many has become the cherished principle of secular rationalism in public life. Invoking a moral basis for public goals, to many otherwise well-intentioned liberals, undermines the separation of church and state, to which they reflexively seek to repel any threat. But this comes at the cost of chronically ceding the moral high ground and a potentially galvanizing force in national politics."
Hesitancy toward utilizing overt moral and religious language represents perhaps the largest hurdle facing the Religious Left in terms of effective messaging, and it is a problem entirely of the Left's own making. The combination of the Left's own internal pluralism and the progressive predilection toward political correctness, both of which are actual strengths in and of themselves, all too often combine in a lamentable reluctance to avoid explicit moral and religious language in an effort to minimize the potentially exclusionary or alienating effects such language might have on our fellow lefties. It's not out of weakness that many religious progressives tend to avoid language that could make our non-religious comrades uncomfortable, but the overall effect of ceding this language to conservatives does ultimately weaken progressive efforts.

"Secular rationalism," as Martin puts it, is all well and good when it comes to the actual letter of the law, but becomes downright Pharisaical when extended to the ways in which we talk about the law, usually at the insistence of the political Left. We have to recognize that moral and religious argumentation around political issues, even by elected officials, does not necessarily translate to a violation of the Establishment Clause. The constitutionally determining factor is whether or not moral and religious policy arguments can be effectively translated into secular language when it comes to writing the law itself. The language of the law is secular, but the language we use to talk about the law need not be. Indeed, the progressive penchant for cutting moral and religious language out of public debate effectively cedes the rhetorical power of these modes of discussion to conservatives, and deprives progressives of an important resource of meaning.

As Martin indicates in his article, Jim Wallis' "What Would Jesus Cut?" initiative offers an encouraging example of progressive politics explicitly couched in moral and religious language and values. Hopefully one day soon we can reach a point where the synthesis of progressive politics and religion will no longer seem quite so novel!


  1. Interesting article. I'm hesitant to endorse this idea as a former Christian for a few different reasons:

    1) The marriage of religion and politics has historically lead to some pretty awful stuff happening. It's painfully easy to mesh what (general) you think is good with what God must have commanded.

    2) I worry that it will exacerbate the myth that morality can only come from God and that therefore people who aren't Christians are unfit to hold public office.

    3) How will this benefit voters from other or no religious beliefs? I understand that it is important to many Christians to vote in line with their beliefs but it makes me cringe to see campaign after campaign that excludes (and sometimes even vilifies) the rest of us. Could the religious left combine religion and politics without doing this?

    Some of these concerns are probably due to me living in Canada. A few of our politicians do refer to God or religion but it is much less widespread than in the US. I didn't realize before I moved here how much the injection of beliefs that are assumed to be shared by everyone negatively influences the tone of a political campaign or discussion.

  2. Hi Lydia, thanks so much for your comment and for raising these very real concerns.

    You are absolutely right that the marriage of politics and religion has led to some fairly grim chapters in the history of each. I wasn't trying to argue for the marriage of politics and religion so much as I was hoping to encourage religious progressives not to shy away from using the language of their faiths in discussing the many points where politics and religion do intersect and make claims on one another. I feel like the Salon article does a good job of detailing why many religious progressives do tend to shy away from religious language in political discussions, and I wanted to encourage religious progressives not to abandon the real rhetorical power inherent in religious language and the concepts it employs.

    That being said, religious progressives must be careful not to disregard the reasons listed in the Salon piece that prompt hesitancy toward religious language in the first place. As you noted, religion and religious language are all too often used as tools of exclusion. The incredible internal pluralism of the Religious Left demands that we find ways to talk about our beliefs and values that do not privilege certain views over others; this includes members of other religions as surely as it includes those who follow no religion at all.

    I have written in past articles of John Rawl's notion of the "overlapping consensus," shared values illuminated by differing "comprehensive schemes," or ways of understanding. I think by taking this notion seriously as a roadmap for interfaith cooperation, religious progressives can not only help our nonreligious political allies bolster the broader movement for social justice (your third concern), but we can strive to do so in a way that does not privilege our systems of morality, our "comprehensive schemes," over those of others (your second concern).

    I hope those answers are somewhat helpful. Our ability to recognize any of these goals rests in part on our willingness to confront sometimes unpleasant realities and challenging questions. Thank you for being willing to help us ask those questions!

  3. The marriage of politics and economics, politics and chemistry (gas warfare), politics and nuclear physics, and politics and biology have also led to some pretty grim outcomes.

    There really should be a separation not only of church and state, but of economics and state and also of science and state. It's the only way to make politics safe.