The National Catholic Review
John A. Coleman

In a recent article in The Nation, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, expressed his shock at the moribund state of the American secular left. He found it strange, as an outsider, that so many progressives seem to have needed Hurricane Katrina to wake them up to the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities. He thought it unbelievable that the war in Iraq, torture and the American empire had called forth so little contestation. Where were the voices attacking the death penalty or Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib? Discrediting the gross lies about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the erosion of environmental standards and the silencing of science by government? Denouncing the prostitution of government to the K Street lobbyists and the pharmaceutical industry giants? And what about the glaring and growing inequalities in American wealth? If these could not provoke left-leaning corrections, whatever could?

 

A large part of the country, claimed Lévy, seems to be waiting for a new, more progressive mobilization of civil society. “Everywhere in the innermost reaches of America, you can meet men and women who hope for great voices capable of echoing their impatience in a momentous way.”

Where are religious voices in all this—particularly the religious left?

Eluding Definition

Several preliminary animadversions and caveats are in order. First, while there is surely a self-proclaimed religious right in the United States, the religious left is not nearly of the same order of magnitude. A search using Google on the term “religious right” yields 3,890,000 hits; a parallel search about the religious left shows only 276,000 (many of them attacks by the religious right on the religious left). A similar inventory of The New York Times since 1981 produces 1,689 stories referring to the religious right and only 29 about the religious left.

In part, this reflects the vastly unequal resources invested. Nothing like the funds poured into religious right organizations by the Olin, Bradley and Scaife Foundations bankroll the left. Nor is the Republican Party’s courting of the religious right matched by outreach to the religious left on the part of secular political groups. As Michael Lerner, a major spokesman for the mobilization of a spiritual left, puts it: “Liberals have been trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone-deaf to spiritual needs,” such that religious groups on the left are often asked to leave their religious and spiritual values at the door before entering the leftist tent. The secular left seems equally tone-deaf to a necessary cultural course correction to anti-family, sexual revolution and lifestyle excesses of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Second, it is impossible to translate adequately the political terms “left” and “right” into a religious vocabulary. Recently, in what the sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College has called “the maturing of evangelism,” evangelicals on the right have belatedly discovered helping the poor and resisting global warming as to some extent Gospel imperatives. A number of religious left groups, such as Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action and the Catholic Worker, likewise deviate from left-liberal positions on abortion or gay marriage. And indeed, few religious groups self-consciously refer to themselves as “the left.” They prefer terms like “progressive” (e.g., The Center for Progressive Christianity) or “peace and justice.”

As Werner Sombart, the German economist, noted 100 years ago, when he asked why there was such a taboo about socialism in America, the term “left” does not command a wide American resonance. It is mainly fierce opponents of the religious left (like Deal Hudson, the Bush administration’s former point man to conservative Catholics) who brand their opponents as such, implying by the epithet that such groups are not doctrinally orthodox or that they serve as Trojan horses for a dissent that undermines the faith. Such tropes and strategies to discredit the religious left can be found in material from the Morley Institute or in the writings of the Catholic neoconservative Rev. Richard John Neuhaus.

Some names pop up regularly in any inventory of the religious left: Jim Wallis and Sojourners; Ron Sider from Evangelicals for Social Action; Michael Lerner and “Tikkun”; Sister Joan Chittister; Martin Sheen; Rev. Greg Boyle; Richard Rohr, O.F.M.; Pax Christi USA and the Catholic Worker; United for Peace; Progressive Christians Uniting; Faith Voices for the Common Good; Building the Beloved Community; Rabbi Arthur Waskow and the Shalom Center; Faithful America; the Harvard Religion and Ecology Forum; the Faith and Policy Conference of the Center for American Progress; Bread for the World; the Interfaith Alliance; Call to Renewal; Jubilee 2000; Earth Ministry; the Clergy and Laity Leadership Network; Interfaith Worker Justice (a pro-union organization for worker rights); the School of the Americas protesters; Sister Helen Prejean and the movement against capital punishment.

Besides these more national para-church mobilizations, denominations like the Baptist Fellowship for Peace, and individual dioceses and parishes sponsor more localized peace and justice commissions. Of particular note are such church-based community organizations as the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Gamaliel Foundation and the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, which mobilize some three million American churchgoers for local or state-wide initiatives like affordable housing or better inner-city schools.

Having an Impact

In the 1960’s and 70’s it was possible to speak relatively accurately of a “religious left” gathered around the issues of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War and, even into the 80’s, around nuclear build-up and the “dirty” wars in Central America (which spawned the Sanctuary Movement). Yet what Peter Steinfels noted a decade ago when asked about “a religious left” in the United States still seems valid: “So far they have been unable to constitute themselves as an independent agenda-setting force with grassroots muscle and not just junior partners in other people’s coalitions.” As Laura Olson noted in an op-ed piece a year ago in Newsday: “There are practical reasons to believe that religious progressives on the ground are not well connected either with each other or with the elite-level organizations that share their policy agenda. The religious left may also be stymied by its diversity and the fact that many of its leaders endorse what might be termed ‘scriptural relativism.’” Progressive religious groups today, says the political scientist Corwin Schmidt of Calvin College, in Grand Rapids. Mich., “are starting out 25 years behind. They haven’t built a mass base of support.” The religious left has a hefty job of networking and organizational work before it.

Still, the religious left can sometimes jar and startle us into some mindful attention, as when Jim Wallis insists that the national budget is a moral document that needs to care for the poor and needy in our midst, or a preacher asks plaintively: Whom would Jesus torture? A recent issue of the periodical FaithWorks headlined with the article, “Was Jesus an Illegal Immigrant?” The pop star Bono found surprising resonance at the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast when he called for an additional 1 percent of the federal budget to be allocated to help the world’s poor. It was unjust, he argued, to keep poor people from selling their goods while extolling the virtues of a free market, to hold third-world children ransom for the debts of their grandparents or to withhold medicine that could save lives. “God will not accept that,” said Bono. “Mine won’t, will yours?” Further, against the American grain, Bono insisted that we speak the language of justice rather than charity when confronting third-world poverty.

PICO has launched campaigns about the poor in post-Katrina New Orleans and about the wholesale selling of the city’s reconstruction to corporations freed from minimum-wage constraints. Cardinal Roger Mahony and other American bishops have publicly and forcefully urged a more moral and comprehensive immigration reform. Cardinal Mahony went so far as to threaten civil disobedience if elements of HR 4377 that would criminalize ministry to the nondocumented were enacted by the Senate. Church groups have found a common cause in fighting senseless and punitive immigration reforms.

Looking to the Future

My interpretation of the present state and future possibilities of a religious left in America are guided by three sociological truisms. First, relying on Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity,” I think religious forces gain wider societal momentum and leverage only when their ideas mesh with wider material, economic and secular forces for change. In Weber’s immortal metaphor, religious ideals are like railroad switchmen on the train tracks: they can influence the direction of social change, but not outside of or without the pre-existing train track infrastructure. Religious ideas can channel the direction but cannot, of themselves, generate whole-cloth wider social change. Absent a more thoughtful secular set of venues to address what former President Jimmy Carter has called “our endangered values,” the religious left will remain, at best, a kind of Abrahamic minority bearing witness to issues of justice and human dignity without having any major secular impact.

Still, in focusing on peace, justice, poverty, a humane globalization, human rights and ecology, such minorities perform an indispensable sociological function. They keep these causes alive in the interim ebb tides, those periodic swings in American culture and politics between more progressive and more conservative epochs. Thus for example, in their study of American waves of peace movements, Peace Action in the Eighties: Social Science Perspectives, John Lofland and Sam Murullo argue persuasively that the religious left serves as the preserver, in inhospitable times, and the incubator for renewed peace mobilizations. In this way four major religious organizations—The Fellowship of Reconciliation, The American Friends’ Service Committee, Pax Christi USA and The Catholic Worker—laid the groundwork for several different resurgences of the peace movement in the 20th century.

A last sociological truism contends that in the long pull, neither the radical right nor the radical left will prevail in American political life. In the end, moderate voices win out. The main sociological role of the left (whose prophetic proposals, when taken up into the mainstream, are usually toned down and domesticated, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his New Deal) is to force course corrections to address real and pervasive cultural issues being ignored by the political order. Social movements typically lead to corrective legislation and then usually fall to the wayside.

A Center-Left Majority?

But what of Lévy’s claim that there is a generous pool of sentiment in America for a more progressive set of public priorities and policies? Major analysts of polling data, like Daniel Yankelovich or Andrew Kohut, have asserted that the shifts in American public attitudes over the past 20 years or so are less drastic than they appear. If in the 1970’s and 80’s there was a modestly center-left majority, the new majority is modestly center-right. The careful parsing of divergent American religious groups in Kohut’s volume, The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics, is instructive. A clear majority across all groups (evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, seculars, Jews and Muslims) agree that “Business makes too much profit,” that “Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace” (the alternative was, “The best way to ensure peace is through military strength”) and that “Environmental protection is worth the cost” (the alternative was, “Environmental protection hurts the economy”).

Religious groups differed somewhat sharply on three issues: “Government should do more for the needy” versus “Government can’t do more”; “Racial discrimination is the main reason that blacks can’t get ahead” versus “Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition”; and “Homosexuality should be accepted” versus “Homosexuality should be discouraged.” Majorities of evangelicals and mainline Protestants tended to opt for the choice that government cannot do more for the needy. Conversely, a majority of Catholics (both frequent church attenders and others), Jews, seculars, black Christians, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims and Mormons thought government should do more for the needy. Only Muslims, Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants accepted that racial discrimination is the main reason blacks cannot get ahead. Finally, on the testy issue of acceptance of homosexuals (where the national sample divided almost equally between the two choices) a majority in favor of acceptance came from seculars, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox and infrequently attending Catholics, black Protestants and mainline Protestants.

Looking at the data, Kohut speaks of a possible resurgent religious left. Working with secular cognate organizations, “such groups could mobilize the large body of non-religious citizens.”

In the end, it may be a blessing in disguise for religious progressives that their secular counterpart is in such disarray. The current climate allows the religious left to hone carefully its properly religious warrants for action for peace, justice and ecology without being co-opted and manipulated by cynical and crass political operatives more intent on power, winning elections or short-term objectives, as it seems to many that the Christian right has been. The truly religiously grounded left takes its primary warrant from foundational scriptures rather than pragmatic politics. It feels the constraint to bear witness to and work for peace, justice, stewardship of the environment and care for the poor, because these are palpably Gospel values, whether they are currently in season or out of season.

John A. Coleman S.J., is Casassa Professor of Social Values, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.