Monday, June 27, 2011

The Language of the Left: Why Religious and Why the Left

Originally Posted on 1/4/11

It became very clear in the run-up to our site launch that folks find it very difficult to feel neutral about a name like Whether it’s the religion or the progressive politics, most people with whom I’ve discussed the project take the site name alone as a license to air their own opinions on whichever part of the title piques their interest or ire.


The inspiration behind is predicated upon our national need for more discussion placing these two concepts, religion and politics, into conversation in new and constructive ways. Hopefully our site’s original content and commentary will contribute to this much-needed discussion, but if the name alone serves to get folks talking, so much the better.

However, in light of some of the questions and objections that have been raised, it seems prudent to offer an explanation, or perhaps a justification, of some of the strategizing behind our name. For the folks out there who object to religion or progressive politics themselves, let me be clear: I have nothing for you, at least not right now. Take some time, explore the articles and resources on the site, and hopefully our work here will help you understand the urgent need to re-envision the nature of and relationship between religion and progressive politics in the 21st century. If you’re still not convinced, don’t worry; we’ll get to you soon.

For now, however, let’s focus on the people with sympathies toward many of our goals, but concerns about our proposed means of placing progressive politics into conversation with religion. For some of these individuals with whom I’ve spoken, a project calling itself represents an uncomfortable foray into the politics of identity, an arena they rightly consider best approached with caution when it must be entered at all. Interestingly enough, apprehension about the identity politics around our website’s name seems to come primarily from two groups with fairly divergent political projects: individuals with a commitment to postmodern, often deconstructionist theory, and individuals concerned with the increasing polarization of the political climate in the United States. In addressing the concerns of these two groups, we can hopefully further contextualize the work we hope to do here at

A Palliative for Postmodernists

A quick primer for those not predisposed to postmodern thought. In the context of the discussion at hand, postmodern theory suggests that descriptors such as gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, disability, age, economic circumstances, religion, political affiliation, occupation, and other such designations are themselves not defined concepts, but arguments: social constructs whose meanings and connotations are themselves entirely contingent on the discourse about and around them. So to put it bluntly, for all intents and purposes these concepts mean whatever enough people say and consent to acknowledge that they mean. When it comes to identity politics, many postmodern theorists rightly point out the problematic nature of using categories like “progressive,” “religion,” and “society” as descriptors, as if these concepts represented concrete things instead of fluid, perpetually contested social constructs. Such a critique raises some obvious problems for a website whose stated mission includes exploring the role of religion in society from a progressive perspective.

Yet despite the cautionary red flags being waved by postmodernists, the arena of political commentary itself functions as a cottage industry fueled by the haphazard flinging about of broad generalizations. And therein lies the rub. Theoretical limitations notwithstanding, there is real and demonstrable efficacy in the use of the sweeping generalizations that define our national political discourse. Despite the contingency and contestation of the categories employed in these generalizations, they retain powerful normative sway over the emotions and opinions of our national body politic. When a conservative pundit opines something like “America is a Christian nation,” such a claim carries with it not only the force of it’s “factual” claim (regardless of its veracity), but also a capacity to impact, however imperceptibly, the meanings of the terms being used.

By allowing such assertions to go unchallenged, we yield to not only the substance of such claims, but to the conservative influence such claims exert on the very meaning of these terms themselves. At present, a small but vocal minority of conservative individuals and organizations wield disproportionately large influence on public discourse around religious issues within the United States. When we allow these voices to promote their dehumanizing brand of religiosity unchallenged in the public arena, we effectively cede the power to define religion, along with the power to equate religion with oppressive, reactionary beliefs and social practices, to our nation’s conservative elements.

So here is where our work here at enters the picture. By strategically challenging conservative claims about religion and society with our own narratives, we are helping to define what it means to be religious and progressive in the 21st century. Although our site name certainly relies on concepts whose meaning we know to be contingent, by explicitly identifying our work with those concepts we stake an internal and authoritative claim to their meaning and significance. By popularizing the connotations and associations that we ourselves define for these concepts, through our discussions we may actively shape the meaning of “politics” and “religion,” and actively redefine the ways in which these concepts are understood in relation to the host of other identity markers discussed above.

The Polarization Express

It shouldn’t take more than a quick glance across the political landscape to recognize the apparent need for more conciliatory political discourse. If the news is to be believed, more people are currently Hitler than ever before, and political fault-lines seem to be deepening into increasingly polarized cultural divides. So won’t intentionally using the highly politicized language of Left and Right just further divide an already polarized country? Perhaps, but only if we buy into the prevailing narratives about what these two categories, Left and Right, actually represent. As discussed above, by making fresh progressive voices heard in contemporary discussions about religion we begin to push back against the dominant conservative narratives about religion's meaning, and can actively promote a definition of religiosity increasingly associated with progressive goals. In much the same fashion, by strategically deploying terms like “the Left,” “progressive,” and “liberal,” we can impact the meaning and connotations of these terms and their use in political discourse in such as a way as to lessen their derisive and divisive potential.

Media coverage of “the Left” often carries with it a fairly explicit set of connotations, and is peppered with vivid descriptors like “radical,” “loony,” and similarly dismissive language. But our intentional positioning of progressive politics in relationship to moral and religious resources of meaning serves as a potentially powerful and wholly necessary means by which to legitimize the former and reclaim the latter. In addition to obliging our detractors to refute the political premises guiding progressive efforts, we must force conservatives to contend with the moral and theological foundations upon which our political views rest as well. Employing moral and religious argumentation to support political viewpoints often labeled with the dismissive language mentioned above places those individuals who would seek to discredit these views on new and uncertain ground. And while conservative politicians and pundits have demonstrated remarkable aptitude at branding political initiatives intended to benefit the most vulnerable among us as thinly-veiled communist or socialist plots, the legacy of historical progressive victories buoyed by the strength of religious language and resources stands as a testament to a latent power we need only adapt to 21st-century circumstances.

Our discussions aim to promote an understanding of progressivism, and progressive politics and religion in particular, synonymous with opposition to practices that deny basic rights and dignities to others, with tearing down social structures that relegate whole demographics of our populace to the status of second-class citizens, and with speaking truth to those who wield power to promote hatred, fear, and divisiveness. And by defining ourselves in part by our opposition to conservative elements, in the process of defining our own values and the significance of our efforts we simultaneously impact the meaning of theirs. In such a way, we not only contribute to the discussion about the role of religion in society, we define the terms of the debate.

So how does our work placing progressive politics and religion into conversation propose to reconcile increasing political and cultural polarization while apparently identifying ourselves very much with one of the poles? The logic is simple: we shift the center. Rather than bridging contemporary theological and political divides as they are, we work to redefine the opposing sides in such a way as to make identification with the Right or conservative side as morally and theologically uncomfortable as possible. We refute the media narratives that promote false equivalencies of between Left and Right – the recurring “loonies at both ends” trope – by continually reaffirming our principled commitment to justice, even as we hold the Right responsible for the views of its most hateful and bigoted proponents.

This may seem a tad ambitious, but conservative pundits make the job easier with every hateful sentence they utter. We simply repeat, refute, and redefine. Repeat the most reprehensible of conservative talking points, refute these points through principled moral and theological support of progressive counterpoints, and redefine contemporary conservatism until it has become synonymous with reactionary support for intolerance and injustice. With religious and political conservatives ever more eager to winnow their numbers down to only the truest of believers, we force the just and the humane into the center and let those who cling to unjust and dehumanizing forms of belief and practice wither at the fringe where they belong. And fewer people willing to embrace the conservative mantle means less overall polarization. VoilĂ . 

Moving Forward

So while the use of potentially polarizing and seemingly outdated identity markers may well trigger attacks of the screaming heebie-jeebies in all of the political conciliators and reputable postmodernists out there, please rest assured that we here at commit ourselves to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully in our efforts, remaining aware of the fluidity and contestation of the terms we use and their potential to foster division. In the process, as we examine the relationship between progressive politics and religion, we will strive for the redefinition and reclamation of discursive resources too long considered the province of our nation’s conservative elements. Check back for regular updates to our 'Language of the Left' series, in which we will continue to explore the language we use as a frontier for justice.

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