Left-Leaning Religion and Politics: An American Tradition
The holiday season is upon us (I’m sure you’ve noticed!) and while my extended family’s holiday table usually rings with heated discussions of politics, sex and religion (and the intersection of the three), I wonder how many others do? In the interest of full disclosure, my family is a bit out of the ordinary on the surface. I am the daughter of a former priest and a Catholic Extension volunteer and I grew up in a French-Canadian Catholic home where political discourse was one and the same with discussions about liberation theology and the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings. For those who follow such works, some of the dynamics of my life are captured in Peter Manseau’s memoir Vows. However, my own wide-ranging networks and friendships over the years have led me to believe that that at its center, my family’s faith-and-politics link is not that different from many other Americans (past and present) who believe in both theological liberalism and left-leaning politics.
As a result, I’ve begun to wonder—in this season of politicking and slick ad campaigns from left, right and center—whether there is enough conversation about the historical intersection between politics and religion in our national quest to move strongly into this 21st century. I don’t mean conversation like the usual “religious right” vs. “secular left” sort of bifurcation, or even the limited scope of the otherwise wonderful candidate chats organized by the Sojourner’s Presidential Forum in June. What I am interested in is whether we, as a people and a nation, would do well to think about the ways in which some of our most cherished national heroes, prized historical moments/decisions, and internationally-covered media events have come into being by the efforts of theologically liberal civic actors whose beliefs were tied to the freedom of thought and belief associated with the paradigms developed during the enlightenment and whose politics were “left-leaning”. My cases studies are 1) Abolitionism,2) social justice efforts during the Progressive Era, and 3) the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. (Note: Yes, I know that the folks below are all men and that they are all Christian…I have many more ideas…and I’m sure you do too. Weigh in please!!)
First up: Henry Ward Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison and the abolition of slavery: As a celebrated “triumph” of American history the abolition of race-slavery holds an honored place. The people who brought the abolitionist message to mainline American Christians in the antebellum era did so by way of vocalizing and popularizing a liberal Christianity that at times split congregations and denominations. By the 1830s Beecher had moved far away from the Calvinist teachings of his father Lyman. Instead, as a Transcendentalist figure arguing that for free inquiry and abolition, Beecher preached this message from his Brooklyn pulpit. Garrison, as editor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, had a venue to circulate the sort of liberal (and by our measure left-leaning) religious rhetoric that Beecher and others vocalized in church. In so doing, what these men and other successful abolitionists did was make the case that slavery was anathema to the gospel teachings. This argument was “left-leaning” and “liberal” but in time it wove its way into many hearts and minds, not to mention one of the most well-known texts in American literature, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After all, it is only in the Quaker home in that novel that, free from the taint of slavery, a moral Christian life can be found.
If we turn to the late 19th century and the challenges of growing economic inequality all-too—obvious in urban America my claim picks up speed. Don’t many of us look to the “Progressives” as creative and resourceful middle class reformers who helped make life better for some of the most struggling Americans; those depicted in works like The Jungle (1906).? Well, I do! Among the earliest social reformers and social justice advocates of this era was Walter Rauschenbusch (Christian theologian and Baptist minister) who, along with Washington Gladden (Congregational minister) were early movers and shakers in the Social Gospel movement which not only pressed mainline protestants to see social justice and an ethical obligation to society as part of being a Christian, but influenced some of the most well-known social reformers of the early 20th century including Jane Addams. Rauschenbusch, who ministered in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and authored “Christianity and the Social Crisis” (1907), faced much criticism in his day; among other labels he was tagged as a socialist and heretic. That is, he was labeled “left-leaning”. Yet his willingness to question the morality of the “Gospel of Wealth” helped establish an ongoing debate on the left and the right alike about limits of wealth and social responsibility to the poor.For more on this see the PBS film on “Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel”
Rauschenbusch’s influence and ideas (both liberal and left-leaning) extended all the way to none other than the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. Not only do King and his “Letter” occupy a central position in our national mythology (e.g. the triumph of the spirit and the indomitable power of truth and righteousness) but both the man and the text are products of reading Rauschenbusch and other liberal religious leaders while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University (right here in our own fair state). In “Letter” King speaks to both Christian and Jewish colleagues and claims precedence and support for his non-violent actions based on both liberal theological grounds and “secular scripture” if you will. In a key passage King positions himself as both a religious and political “extremist”, linking his actions and his beliefs to those of a range of respected historical figures from Martin Luther to Lincoln. To give you a sense of this here is a small section: “Was not Amos an extremist for justice – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ …Was not Martin Luther an extremist – ‘Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’…”
Of course this list could go on and on (please add more!!!). But my hope is that even this short list of some key moments in US history might cause us to pause in our cultural rush to disavow either the power or the presence of “liberal”/ “left-leaning” religious ideas or practitioners in mainstream politics/policy. None of the individuals mentioned above were perfect or above reproach for some act or another, but many of them cut important swaths in cultural, political and faith-based circles…and as a nation we admire them for it. In such a traipse through history I think we might also find some models for a) how to engage “liberal” or even “left-leaning” religious actions and beliefs to enact political and social change and b) moving the conversation of religion and politics toward making use of the energy and hopeful nature of most of America’s faithful.
To bring this list up to date I want to mention just one way in which people with “left-leaning” religious beliefs are currently transforming lives and (albeit often on a small scale) our national character. You might want to check out: Faith in Place. This Chicago’s non-profit’s tag line is “We give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth.” My good college friend Sara works for Faith in Place and spends her time helping bring green technology and sustainability practices to faith based organizations of all sorts across the Windy City. Liberal theology, left-leaning politics and mainline economic and political change come together here!
Let me end with my own hopeful message. I am the mother of a kindergartener. My son has been exposed to many different religious beliefs and practices in his short life because of the wide range of beliefs held by friends, neighbors and relatives. He loves talking about how one friend lights candles and eats “flat bread” and another “prays more than we do” and how we believe that “God is everywhere”. Of course, I am not naive enough to think that childhood acceptance of other religions signals a new political paradigm, but I do hope that my little one will be able to make use of the lessons of history and use his “liberal” or “left leaning” religious upbringing to create good in the world. In this holiday season, I don’t think this is a bad thing to wish for. He certainly would be in good company and he certainly would be continuing a very central and well-known “American” tradition.
–Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, Professor of History, Salem State College