Thursday, November 29, 2007 • 9:55 PM Comments (6)

Left-Leaning Religion and Politics: An American Tradition

posted by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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

Comments (6)
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Hi, Elizabeth. I recently visited an evangelical Christian intentional community, the Nehemiah Community, in Springfield. Their work embodies an interesting combination of Christian evangelism and social justice work. They are very involved with the homeless and hungry of the city, and the members attend and participate in various city churches, seeking to be "prophetic voices in the church," meaning, advocates for the "help the poor and suffering" message of the New Testament. Also, I wonder if you've heard of the Agape Community in Ware? It, too, is Christian, but decribes itself on its website as "ecumenical," so I'm not sure if they have any interest in evangelism. They have a straw-bale house and a grease car.
Posted by Hayley Wood on 11.30.07 at 6:28
This piece is very timely for me since I keep finding how much of our popular media seem to wash away the religious background and motivations of persons in the public eye. For example, Dr. William Foege, who played a lead role in eradicating smallpox and who is responsible for numerous worldwide health initiatives, has a background as a medical missionary. It is easy when reading about him and others, who were nurtured within a religious tradition and who continue to work out of that tradition, to miss (because the press doesn't mention it) or skip over (because it is added parenthetically) how pivotal religious belief and practice is. When most of the religion we get in the media or our public school curricula looks distant or extremist, we misunderstand the enduring diversity and force of religion in the U.S.
Posted by James P. Gubbins on 11.30.07 at 7:29
I enjoyed the article and have two questions for Professor Duclos-Orsello (or any one else who cares to respond). 1) I seem to remember that de Toquville focused in on religion and religious activity as one of the main reasons that democracy and democratic change work so well in America. Is this correct? 2) You focus on left-leaning politics, but surely the intersection between right-leaning politics is just as strong. Do you see an essential difference in the ways that the two political wings utilize and merge with religion? Or is the difference of political aims the only real difference?
Posted by Josh Duclos on 11.30.07 at 11:28
Great Questions. I will take a quick stab here and get back to this when I have thought about it a bit more. 1) Yup -- my guy Tocqueville wrote a lot about the relationship between religion and democracy. He does, however, make some very clear statements about his thoughts that clergy should refrain from interacting in politics directly. How this recasts my thoughts above is complex. 2) Directly related to this is your second question. Yes...there are connections between right-leaning relgious beliefs and politics (in fact, I believe one of my fellow bloggers is going to write on this soon). I will have to think more about the answer to your question about utilization vs. aims. Keep writing!!!
Posted by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello on 12.1.07 at 12:44
Interesting post! You certainly could also talk about the work of the Catholic workers in living in impoverished communities and protesting against war or against the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. I think an important marker (and perhaps a bridge in some way to the left and right in faith circles) is William Jennings Bryan. Bryan is often remembered for his fundamentalist attack on the teaching of evolution, but he was perhaps the most prominent politician aligned with the social gospel movement. After Bryan and after the Scopes Trial, many of his fundamentalist followers migrated from left wingers to right wingers. So politicians today who hold Bryan's position on evolution (Mike Huckabee being one) stand largely opposite from his position on the role of government in distributing wealth and creating opportunity. Another interesting figure in the Christian left would be Reinhold Neihbur, who has local connections in Heath.
Posted by Andrew on 12.5.07 at 13:26
Andrew...thanks for mentioning some of my very favorite folks. I was trained at BU by Richard Fox (a Neibhur scholar) and my Catholic socialist leanings make Dorothy Day a fascinating figure in this discourse. As for the SOA...see pic at top...Martin Sheen is one of the few Hollywood types whose political activism I take seriously. I love your reminder about Bryan. I agree that too often he is understood only as a forerunner to some of today's Republic populists (thanks richard Hofsteader)...you are right on here!
Posted by Elizabeth on 12.20.07 at 11:28
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