Salon.com 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!