One of those pieces appeared in 2012 in Sojourners, a magazine of progressive Protestantism. When it comes to faith, I argued, there is no religious conservative point that does not have a religious liberal counterpoint equally steeped in history, tradition and theology. The goal should not be, I said, for religious liberals to avoid sounding conservative. The goal should be for religious liberals to sound liberal.
“Most religious arguments in favor of some kind of conservative objective can be countered with religious arguments. Gay marriage? The Sermon on the Mount. Abortion? The primacy of the conscience. Free market theology? My brother’s keeper. In general, when a conservative proposal is socially exclusive, dehumanizing or otherwise cold-blooded, bring up Jesus.”
So you can imagine how I felt last week when I heard these thoughts coming out of the mouth of Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Democratic candidate for president. On “Morning Joe,” he didn’t merely blast Republicans for their heartless policies. He outright challenged their claim to practicing Christian principles. Noting that in the Gospels, Jesus says, “the first shall be last; the last shall be first,” Buttigieg said that Donald Trump represents nothing of the sort:
What could be more different than what we’re being shown in Washington right now — often with some people who view themselves as religious on the right, cheering it on? … Here we have this totally warped idea of what Christianity ought to be like when it comes into the public sphere that’s mostly about exclusion.
Buttigieg went further. He said — and I’m getting excited typing these words — what I’ve been saying for seven years: cosmopolitan Democrats need to talk about God with heart and guts. (He was more charming, though.) He said anyone running for president must demonstrate that he or she represents all religions, including secular Americans. That’s not surprising. That’s Democratic boilerplate. What is surprising, though, is what he said next. “I also think the time has come to reclaim faith as a theme. The idea that the only way a religious person could enter politics is through the prism of the religious right, I just don’t think that makes sense” (italics mine). Elsewhere Buttigieg said that “we need to see the emergence of a religious left in this country.”
“Religious left” has been something of a unicorn since the days of George W. Bush. That’s when the interests of the Republican Party and the interests of evangelical Christians became indistinguishable. The Republicans, with the help of Fox News, have maligned liberals and Democrats to the point where “faith-based voters,” which should include anyone of any religion, now means only one thing. They have, I think, convinced millions of Americans that liberals and Democrats not only don’t believe in God but are hostile to the point of discrimination toward anyone who does.
That’s the reason I and others have called for a religious left, but it’s still something of a unicorn. Liberals and Democrats, though they worship in equal or greater number than their conservative and Republican counterparts, do not identify themselves according to their religion. While religion informs their politics, it does not define their politics in the same way ultra-conservative Christianity defines the current Republican Party. This, combined with the Democratic Party’s natural caution toward appearing to privilege one religion over another, has resulted in plenty of debate over the desire for a religious left to counteract the religious right, but little action.
Still, a contributing factor to this unicorn state of affairs is the political left continuing to define religion according to the conservative terms preferred by the religious right. If we’re talking about the Bearded White Man on a Gold Throne in the Sky, that’s a problem. But if we’re talking about universal liberal principles, the kind found in the Sermon on the Mount and the ancient precept known as the Golden Rule, then we’re talking about something else. Indeed, if we look closely, we can see that the political left is already quite religious though it might not be ready to concede the point.
Consider Elizabeth Warren’s comments during a recent CNN “town hall.” Jesus said: “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” That taught Warren two things, she said. “The first is that there is a God.” The second “is that we are called to action.” That last bit was the applause line, but I want to zero in on what she said between the first and second: that “there is value in every single human being.” This is a bedrock tenet of American liberalism. Individuals have inalienable rights endowed by their creator. But in putting God and “human value” side by side, Warren suggested that the political left may be more religious than it realizes. She suggested that the religious left has already arrived, because “value in every single human being” is God.
Having a religious left and having people recognize it are probably two different things. Fortunately, Warren and Buttigieg — as well as Cory Booker — are spreading the good news. Democrats should talk about God with heart and guts. And they are.
John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, an associate fellow at Yale’s Ezra Stiles College, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly and the Connecticut Mirror, as well as a columnist for the New Haven Register. You can subscribe to his monthly newsletter, “The Editorial Board”, by clicking here. This article was originally published by the Editorial Board.
One thought on “The Liberal Evangelists”
I am undecided on this issue. On the one hand, I agree generally with the need for (some) liberals and leftists to articulate their values within an explicitly religious framework. The author is quite right that every conservative Christian tenet can be met with a liberal Christian tenet. Christianity is not inherently conservative and has been a source of inspiration for many progressive causes. And just as a matter of practically politics, even if this is not exactly a “Christian country”, the electorate is overwhelmingly Christian, and Dems ignore that at their peril. Religion should not be abandoned to the right.
On the other hand, I cannot shake the conviction that religion is a poor basis for policy and tends to displace evidence, argument, and sound reasoning. One way to put it: why should Jesus’ words or example be compelling to anyone who isn’t Christian? “Unto the least of these” has significance to those already steeped in the Biblical tradition, who ascribe to Jesus something more than worldly being. But what do those words matter to a Jew, a Hindu, or an atheist? There are also differences of interpretation within the same or related traditions: I recall a staged ecumenical discussion about religion and politics in which the Christian said “Jesus taught x”, and the Muslim responded: “Jesus is also in our religion, and he didn’t teach x, but rather y.”
Or, to put it more directly: every liberal Christian tenet can be met with a conservative one. Both sides end up trading quotes and arguing about what this particular Holy Book “really means” and voters pick who they already agreed with.