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Is there a Christian Left?

Writing today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig rounds up recent polling on religious attitudes in order to propose that the Religious Right is in its twilight years and the "Christian left" is on the ascendant:

With millennial religious and political attitudes in flux compared to our predecessors, the upcoming years could be the Christian left’s big moment.

There are certainly data that prima facie support this analysis, but does it hold up to sociological scrutiny?

Back when the Public Religion Research Institute released its survey that augured the new era of "religious progressives," the idea captured some media attention for good reasons. 

First, the Religious Right has mostly failed to acknowledge the decoupling of abortion and same-sex marriage in the moral reasoning of younger Americans. Everyone who studies American social attitudes knows that the graphs of these two issues look nothing alike. It’s been one of the main stories from a sociological perspective for about ten years and was featured in Putnam and Campbell's 2010 must-read, American Grace. But almost none of the leaders on the Religious Right acknowledge it publicly, and until they recalibrate, no amount of Ralph Reed rebranding will be able to maintain the fervor of the 80s and 90s. 

Second, it is true that religious leaders on the left have successfully managed to expand the sphere of what counts as a core moral issue in recent years. Leaders like Faith in Public Life have demonstrated that emphases on poverty and inequality have always been central to the Christian tradition, and they are receiving greater emphasis since the Great Recession. The stratospheric popularity of Pope Francis has no doubt aided this change in focus. Other moral issues previously peripheral to mainstream Christian consciousness -- environmentalism or "creation care"; LGBT respect; anti-nuclear proliferation movements; gun safety advocacy -- have moved toward the center for some religious communities. 

At the very center right now is arguably immigration policy. One cannot get much more biblically based than hospitality to the migrant. The Catholic bishops have been impressively out in front on these issues. From the Catholic perspective, this is also a religious liberty issue: the liberty to serve populations without fear of harassment (or worse) for harboring undocumented or illegal residents.

I grant, then, that moral attitudes and emphases associated with progressives are on the ascendant, but that does not necessarily translate into a "Religious Left" or "Christian Left." Any comparison with the Religious Right (Moral Majority and Christian Coalition) of the 80s-90s must acknowledge how hard-won and onerous were the achievements of its leaders. Ralph Reed was one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century.

A counter-movement would need to show regular attendance, financial support, and tenacious action. A movement needs, in short, committed bodies—not just responses to poll questions or clicks on a social action website.

The Religious Right still has way more committed bodies, people organized and reared through cohesive, structured communities. There is denominational affinity, some ethnic affinity, and perhaps more importantly, geographical concentration that leads to sustained cultural engagement.

Similar notes of skepticism were sounded a year ago by Peter Steinfels, who was a panelist at the unveiling of the PRRI / Brookings study mentioned above. As one of the most seasoned observers of the Christian intersections with political and social movements in the past forty years, his assessment has great value: 

What I doubt is whether the specifically religious character of religious progressives can play anything like the motivating, energizing, and organizing force of religion among religious conservatives – and I do think that the study and the way it has been greeted implicitly assume something of a parallel between these two sectors.

Consider the responses to this prompt. Religion is “the most important thing in my life”:

Religious progressives: 11%
   Religious conservatives: 54%

The "most important" types are the ones Ralph Reed mobilized into a game-changing movement. The others may have their particular moral issue here and there, but they interact with religious topics less predictably and fervently overall. 

Steinfels also noted that

87% of religious progressives view religion as a 'private matter' that should be kept out of public debate on political and social issues. That view may provide a negative counter to aggressive religious intervention on behalf of traditional sexual and personal norms, but it does not provide much ground for religious engagement on the kinds of issues [identified as heralding the rise of the Religious Left] – helping the poor, maintaining the safety net, and opposing inequality.

Now, if leaders of religious conservatives fail to respond to changing moral attitudes -- especially on homosexuality, wealth inequality, and environmental degradation -- then perhaps over time a viable counter-movement will arise. But at this time, I see only changing emphases without a discernible movement that counts as a "Christian Left."

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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The Religious Right and the religious left aren't comparable things. The Religious Right is a political movement while the religious left is a broad label that basically composed of those who are rejected by the Religious Right's gatekeepers. The rise of the religious left will be characterized more by a weakening of the political power of the Religious Right rather than the rise of liberal versions of the Moral Majority or the Catholic League.

I think there's a religious right and a spiritual left. I know most Christians (and most atheists) loathe "spiritual" as a weasel word (commit, dammit!), but there it is.

The right goes to church, gets organized, and understands the importance of a united front in effecting social change, often through political action. The Groupthink clarifies individual notions, and sets priorities and tactics. In recent years, the right has made more of an effort to broaden its agenda to more than abortion and homosexuality. But including poverty, human rights, and the environment on the roster of concerns is has come through evolution of the right, not through any desire to include the left.

So the left continues to stay home watching CBS's "Sunday Morning" and/or reading the NYT, and tries to "do the right thing" (informed by a mash-up of early religious training and generic notions of "mutual respect for others") through individual voting decisions, monetary contributions, private prayer, and volunteering. Nobody offers thought clarification because it would be presumptuous.

First, Michael. I am skeptical about the bishops being "out in front" of immigration issues.  They have made helpful noises, but not in the heartfelt way that brings them out full force on abortion, religious liberty, defined mostly as anti- emergency contraception.  There has been no Fortnight for undocumented immigrants, no Fortnight for food stamps.  The religious left is mostly an assortment of individuals, thus far mostly powerless.  There is no community organizer that I am aware of who is willing to step out and gather the troops.  No standard bearer, no charismatic figure to light a fire under progressive Christians. As Ryan noted, the religious right is at its heart a political movement.  And, they have the backing of people and organizations who have the money and the media empires to exploit the fears and insecurities of their followers.

I think people in the religious left do work towards political and social goals, but they tend to do so in ways that aren't as church-organized ...  they beong to the Sierra Club, they support feminist organizations, they vote for LGBT rights.  Still, there are liberal religious organizations too but they often tend to be pluralistic, like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights ...

I think you will find a lot of members of the religious left in denominations like the UU, UCC, some Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans,

And, of course, the RC church, but that membership is overshadowed by the teapublican politics of the official USCCB structure.  The the folks in the pews, usually urban dwellers in my experience, are a wide variety of lefties, but eh RCC rarely gives them any structure to gather around.  The Catholic Worker is noticeable for its leftism, but it is rarely if ever visible outside its immediate sphere of influence.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Action priests, the labor priests (a la San Francisco's Peter Yorke), the anti-war clerics and nuns (Berrigans et al), the "Right Reverand New Dealer" John Ryan ... all were anomalies of their time.  Catholicism simply does not encourage public actions of organized lefties.  Where were/are the Catholic "Wobblies?"  These kinds of groups are fostered by internal independant actors.  Catholicism wants to control actions under its umbrella. 

But I do believe that the times they are indeed a'changin and the masses have had enough of disgust with the toothlessness of the USCCB except for its obsessions with contraception, abortion and marriage equality.  The reactions might be localized, but they will ... and are ... happen.

last word s/b "happen(ing)"


But you know that.

I know most Christians (and most atheists) loathe "spiritual" as a weasel word


Spiritual is a good term and has been underdeveloped by the Western church. It is, however, an integral component of Christianity and is wonderfully expressed by the Russian Orthodox interpretation of sobernost. I think until we can capture the "essence" (for lack of a better word) of Christianity, it will continue to be subsumed to politics which is not what it is. I really like Berdyaev and he argued that the whole world (not just communism) had embraced materialism following the collapse of Christendom. He stressed a return to the life of the spirit and this life of the spirit is paramount and transcends ecclesial categories. The individual is also important. Politics needs to be placed in its proper limits and not be allowed to swallow us up whole. Politics removes us from interior life and that is dangerous. I agree with him there and that has been my experience too. That does not mean we do not work for justice - as Berdyaev famously said, bread for myself is a material question, bread for my neighbour is a spiritual one. But coming from a very different place. I know that the Russians are in the doghouse these days but he is worth reading if you can get past him being such a slavophile.

Having felt estranged from mainstream Catholicism (and religion, in general) for the last couple of decades, I am aware of a strong undercurrent of solidarity with like-minded people (mostly Catholic, but not exclusively so)  and have remained connected with this "movement".  I suppose that we are "liberal", but the common denominator is more religious than political. Think: Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Helen Prejean. They all protest the status quo. You certainly can't call them secularists. They stand firmly against abortion, the death penalty, weaponry and war, finding their inspiration and courage in their faith.

"Christian Left" seems too reactive and limited of a label to describe this group of people.


George D., yes, spirituality is certainly a component of religiosity. However, I the term "spiritual" has been degraded into code to refer to those who have hazy beliefs in God and the soul and the unity of creation, but aren't willing to commit to a creed or dogma.

Jim M., yes, UU fellowships are about as close as you can get to a religious left, though having been brought up in one, they are no match for Ralph Reed insofar as organization and clarity of purpose is concerned. UUs bicker and argue, pause to send off a check to UU World Service, and then go back to bickering and arguing again. 

I think what the left lacks are charismatic leaders. Most of the ones Beth C. mentions are dead, assuming you could include any of as leftists. I have no idea what a religious leftist would look like, really. A friend with whom I had a similar discussion identified Pastor Rick Warren as a leftist. Hoo boy.



Maybe leftist religios leaders would be guys like Fr. John Dear, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Fr. Matthew Fox, Rob Bell, Steve Chalke?

Or Brian McLaren, Fr. Richard Rohr, former president Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu?

The distinctive thing about those folks Beth and Crystal mentioned is that, unlike the disciples of Ralph Reed, their Christianity was not at the service of one party. We sometimes forget that the Democrats were running the White House and Congress when Dorothy Day violated their law by refusing to take part in civil defense drills. The same situation obtained when Dan Berrigan and his friends visited the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md. Yet neither was ever confused with the staunch supporters of the Republican parties of their day.

I take away the lesson that if there is going to be a useful Christian left, it has to be Christian first and independent of party nominees second.


I think that is because theology has not yet been able to come to a consensus around a contemporary vocabulary that we can use, at this time, that resonates with the experience of the growing number of "spiritual but not religious" people ( a not insignificant number ).  Part of the reason for this is the collapse in confidence of all manner of institutions, family, religious, political, and legal.

I think this is the moment for Catholic theology to move in to engage with these currents and start with looking at different kinds of vocabulary.

Take the term "mindfulness". It is being used in the treatment of anxiety, personality disorders, and many other uses. Yet, its origin is clearly religious. Buddhism is the closest but it is also part of the Christian tradition. We would use the term "recollection" or "examination" or "meditation" or "contemplation". The point is to still and reflect. I can't remember the last time I heard any of these mentioned at a parish. Even during Holy Week, the most meditative and reflective period, we seemed to have lost our rituals and liturgies that often help with this dispostion.

Or the term "soul". We often use the term consciousness to refer to that immaterial part of the mind and person. Could this term be used to denote what is meant by the term soul. Think of the impact of, you are at risk of losing your eternal consciousness versus you are at risk of losing your soul. I am not consicous of a thing called a soul. But I am conscious of awareness and conscience and all kinds of interior movements.

Psychology, addiction work have all begun to think about these "spiritual" dimensions as there is this kind of dynamic that is observable but lacks scientific definition. The former religious categories also seem ill at ease given their moorings to other aspects of official religion that many find distasteful.

So, the challenge is to find new wineskins!

Because, back to the major point. Changes externally will only come about from the interior. Be the change you want to be, as Ghandi said and Catherine of Siena "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire"

As an aside, and I know this post is long but speaking of centering prayer, has anybody heard from Ann O? I have not seen her posting.

I've been a bit worried about Ann Oliver too.

I think the spirituality part of religion is alive and well.  It's the institutions that are dying, in part because of the discepancy between the gospel and the way the institutions operate. 

Is there a Christian left?  No, they've all been raptured! 

Ann O. has been doctoring. I heard from her last week and am hoping she will reply to my last. I'm sure she would appreciate prayers, and I'll drop her a line and let her know folks were asking.

Tom B., you make an important point. It is easier to galvanize people when you can get their religious and political ideas working hand in glove. It is very difficult for Democrats (as the putative party of the left) to galvanize Catholics and many other Christians because of the party's plank on abortion. The DNC tried last election cycle to articulate an openness to the faithful with Sr. Simone Campbell, but secular Democrats like my mother resented her appearance. 

Frankly, I don't even know what a leftist is anymore. In the olden days, it was all about racial and gender equality in the public arenas of work, education, voting, etc.; taking care of the poor, sick, and indigent with dignity; and requiring companies and institutions to pay workers a fair wage and share in the profits they helped create. My Catholic friends and neighbors seemed to extol those values when I was a kid. But that was half a century ago.

When I try to interest my Millennial co-workers, who are supposed to be liberals, in forming a union or bargaining unit, they freeze. They're happy to be resentful of the world as it is, but they don't feel like they can do much to change it, or even make their own little corner a bit better. For them liberalism seems to be more about "personal lifestyle" than anything else.

I’m among those confused about left/right, liberal/conservative, orthodox/progressive divides and labels. I’ll drop a few more Catholic names that haven’t been mentioned: Herbert McCabe, Gene McCarraher, Gutavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, Jean Vanier, Rosemary Haughton, Michael Baxter. They are often considered left-leaning. Maybe so, but in what ways? I’d have a hard time slapping “liberal” and “progressive” labels on them. (The term “liberal” doesn’t mean the same thing today that it meant years ago.) And then there are the “radical orthodox” -- what to make of them? I am a deep admirer of Dorothy Day, but many forget that her morality and piety would be deemed “conservative” by today’s standards.

Well, since my name has been dropped here, perhaps I should enter the fray.

I would go one step farther than Michael's conclusion.  I don't think there's a discernible Left anywhere, at least that I can see.  I always took "left" to mean the extension of democracy from the "political" sphere as defined in liberal societies -- characterized by a demarcation of the "political" sphere from the "social," "economic," and "personal" -- into precisely those spheres.  Historically, the left understood that democracy and capitalism, for instance, were antagonists, not allies --that capitalist property and its prerogatives stood in the way of democratic control over the means of production.  Similarly, it understood that democracy and patriarchy were enemies -- that male supremacy inhibited the full flourishing of women, and so democracy needed to be extended into the relations between the sexes.  

So while I'd still consider myself "left," it's not clear to me anymore that people "on the left" agree on what programmatic implications follow.  Like Jean Raber, I'm not sure what, practically, "left" means anymore.  On the political-economic front, for instance, does "the left" want socialism?  Anarchism?  Social democracy?  A reinvigorated New Deal?  A kinder, gentler neo-liberalism?  "The left," let alone the "Christian left," seems to have no substantive vision of community in which to anchor its politics.  This is one reason, I'd argue, that the religious right has been able to portray "the left," Christian or otherwise, as a movement for sexual pandemonium:  the left's commitment to liberation from traditional patriarchal mores -- bound up historically with its commitment to the extension of democracy -- remains disembedded from any substantive vision of community. 

Chris Loetscher's comments are apt here.  "Liberal" doesn't mean what it used to; it used to mean laissez-faire, then it meant favorable to government regulation of business, now -- I guess it means Obamanoid, technocratic corporatism.  The "radical orthodox" a la John Milbank are, as far as I can see, trapped in a petty-bourgeois, Chesterbellocian distributist time warp.

To speak to Jean's last point.  The Millennials I teach are quietly but genuinely frightened about the world they're walking into -- and that includes the business students, who will often say quite openly (and without any bidding from me) that they know many of the jobs they'll be offered are going to make them unhappy and destroy their souls.  But, they ask, what's the alternative?  The best I can do is say, here's a lineage of people who were in circumstances similar to yours, and here's how they addressed the issues.  I also suggest to them that not having as much money or commodities as your parents had may in fact be a good thing, and that the impending economic and ecological crises of their time will constitute an opportunity -- painful, arduous, but still real -- to ask themselves what kinds of relationships they really want to create.  


You have the chronology of politicization of abortion backwards. While Catholics have long opposed abortion, Evangelicals used to see opposition to abortion as Catholics trying to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of society. It was the work of people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the eighties who made opposition to abortion one of the sine qua nons of white Evangelical Christianity as part of their political mobilization. A similar thing is happening today with contraception.

As Ryan says about abortion and the Evangelicals, Randall Balmer (religious history prof and editor of Christianity Today) wrote about the change of Evangelicals on abortion.  Here's a bit of what he wrote, from NPR ...

"In the 1980s, in order to solidify their shift from divorce to abortion, the Religious Right constructed an abortion myth, one accepted by most Americans as true. Simply put, the abortion myth is this: Leaders of the Religious Right would have us believe that their movement began in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Politically conservative evangelical leaders were so morally outraged by the ruling that they instantly shed their apolitical stupor in order to mobilize politically in defense of the sanctity of life. Most of these leaders did so reluctantly and at great personal sacrifice, risking the obloquy of their congregants and the contempt of liberals and "secular humanists," who were trying their best to ruin America. But these selfless, courageous leaders of the Religious Right, inspired by the opponents of slavery in the nineteenth century, trudged dutifully into battle in order to defend those innocent unborn children, newly endangered by the Supreme Court's misguided Roe decision.

It's a compelling story, no question about it. Except for one thing: It isn't true.

Although various Roman Catholic groups denounced the ruling, and Christianity Today complained that the Roe decision "runs counter to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people," the vast majority of evangelical leaders said virtually nothing about it; many of those who did comment actually applauded the decision. W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote, "Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision." Indeed, even before the Roe decision, the messengers (delegates) to the 1971 Southern Baptist Convention gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, adopted a resolution that stated, "we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother." W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed his satisfaction with the Roe v. Wade ruling. "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person," the redoubtable fundamentalist declared, "and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed."

The Religious Right's self-portrayal as mobilizing in response to the Roe decision was so pervasive among evangelicals that few questioned it. But my attendance at an unusual gathering in Washington, D.C., finally alerted me to the abortion myth ...."

Ryan and Crystal, I wasn't aware that I'd offered a chronology, but thank you for those insights about evangelicals and abortion. 

Eugene, my son just started his job at one of those soul-sucking companies your students speak of. I hope you will offer more specifics about the people and situations you discuss with them for when the shine wears off that minimum wage pay check. 

It's fascinating how Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons have shifted their priorities and even to an extent their beliefs in order to form a powerful political coalition within the Republican party.

Crystal, Thanks for the reference to Balmer. According to Cythia Gorney (Articles of Faith, 1998), the American Baptist Association, in 1968, passed a resolution calling for abortion "at the request of the individuals concerned" and saying it should be considered "an elective medical procedure." It's amazing how Catholic so many Baptists became on that issue after their political baptism. That flip-flop still has Catholic bishops bamboozled. The bishops haven't noticed (as Balmer did) that their new friends dropped their opposition to divorce about the same time they discovered their opposition to abortion.

Thre common identifier of Catholics on the left, back in the good old days, was support for organized labor. For that, they had the backing of Pope Leo XIII, whom they shamelessly relied upon to keep intra-faith opposition at bay. Rightwing propagandists did some of their most effective work on that issue. Once upon a time, most Catholics would say "right to organize" and the right wing said "communism." But the right switched to the Horatio Alger glories of the self-made hedge fund billionaires, and that began to undermine opinion about labor, even among working men and women.

  Then St. Ronald showed that unions could be busted without drawing public opporobrium. And that was about the end of the Catholic Left except on occasional ad hoc issues. I love Tennessee and Tennesseans, but the their politicians, throwing their weight around like a bunch of capos when Volkswagen was ready to roll out the red carpet for the UAW -- and getting away with it -- shows how successful the Falwells and Reeds were in poisoning public opinion. Last time I tried to discuss the subject with a fervent Catholic, he told me that Pope Leo was not an American, and then he cited one of the bogus Lincoln quotes circulating courtesy of propagandists who attribute their own words to others, as needed. He didn't get any of his views from his church (he got them from Glen Beck, as he admitted), and he didn't know his church ever had any views on the right to organize.

A complete analysis of then-and-now would require wading into Vietnam, but I have rattled on long enough.

Speaking of organizd labor and Catholics/Protestants, an interesting essay by Cesar Chavez on how the Protestants helped the farm workers much mire than the Catholic Church ...

The last paragraph ...

"Finally, in a nutshell, what do we want the Church to do? We don't ask for more cathedrals. We don't ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don't ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don't ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood. "

For awhile now I've wanted to identify myself as "Catholic" rather than "liberal" or "conservative" With Francis at the helm, I'm getting closer to that camp. 

Dorothy Day knew how to do this more than anyone else that I know. While remaining theologically traditional, she was radical in her social justice activism. She was not afraid to confront Cardinal Spellman after he broke a union strike, kindly, but insistently, informing him that of the dignity of workers as expressed in Leo's encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

There is a point where faith crosses into politics, but it can go either way, left or right.

A little nugget that I discovered while looking up the history of the cemetary strike in NYC in 1949 and the roles of Cardinal Spellman and Dorothy Day:

Cardinal Spellman was outraged with the critical Catholic press

coverage of his conduct during the strike. "'I'll never forgive Commonweal,'

Spellman said. 'Not in this world or the next."' 82



That's a dangerous position to take for someone who has prayed the Lord's Prayer countless times.

Not really.  Commonweal was not then and is not now a person or a sinner that must be forgiven.

As someone who would be labeled by commonweal editors  a social conservative I agree with you completely about Dorothy Day.  I suggest she has much in common with all Catholics.  Moreover, while she was radical in her politics she would disagree with much of the modern left's government sponsored social programs (as she would with the right's self help  prescriptions).


Every liberal who has kids, especially daughters, quickly becomes a social conservative!

George -- I have two daughters, and I've moved farther to the left over time.  

Well it depends on definition of social conservtism. I am not in favour of rampant pornography (I am glad about google's recent move concerning adult banner ads), modesty in dress is a good thing (i.e. if you are not selling, don't advertise!(, drugs are not, crazy partying not cool too many hurt....boys need to value character and not make emply promises...ditto for girls actually. Stable relationships are a good thing, multiple, serial affairs are a bad idea.

But i am economically liberal/spcialist.

GeorgeD, your impression would appear to be at odds with certain evidence.{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22}&_r=0

I don't think revealing clothing has much to do with political outlook.  Do you think liberal parents sit around watching pornography while encouraging their daughters to dress immodestly or not value character? 


Let me clarify. Liberals tend not to see cultural mores and shifts as part of the wharp and woof of politics. Nor do they necessarily tend to see the links between these kinds of issues and public policy as readily. This may be a generalization but they tend to favour a laissez-faire attitude around these kinds of issues.

Take pornography as an example. It is usually social conservatives who are quicker to notice the effects and support legislative efforts to limit it in the public domain (e.g. laws such as supporting .xxx as an address for those sites that feature that kind of content). Liberals tend to see this as restriction of civil liberties.

Or take for instance incidences of uptick of crime in certain neighbourhoods. Liberals will tend to attribute it to guns, poverty, the justice system, etc. while conservatives might be more inclined to attribute it to the breakdown of the family unit, absent fathers and so on. Both have their points but each has different kinds of emphasis.

You will likely not find a liberal priest, parish, or person discussing the virtue of modesty. Even I have not done that too much. If you do, you will find yourself marginalized or laughed at.

My point is that I think conservatives will more quickly see these connections given their socially conservative impulse than liberals.

Funny  how we adapt easily to soundbite descriptions.  I don't think I'm alone in noticing that the term "religious right" itself demeans religiousity on one hand, and obscures the racism, xenophobia, sexism and fear of change underlying this political movement.  Look at all of the issues and policies that these self-identified faithful ignore-like poverty, hunger and the New Jim Crow voter suppression--and what these faux Christians support--gun mania, cutting "big government" except for corporate oligarchies.  How we have come to accept these folks as "religious" is beyond me. 


I am speaking mostly of middle to upper middle class whites. But that is just my observation. The situation is slightly different among minorities somewhat (e.g. more socially conservative in many areas but liberal in all others). Again, my observation.

I dunno. Most liberal Boomers I know sowed their wild oats like everyone else and then settled down. I don't know any who are still hooking up, getting drunk, wearing halter tops, or smoking dope. Most of us are over-caffeinated so we can continue to work, worried about the world our children and grandchildren are inheriting, and carrying about 20 more pounds than we should. Most of the folks in my circle are still married (or at least stayed married until the kids were out of the house), lived within their means, paid off their mortgages, taught their kids to love Jesus and respect others, and tried to stay off the dole when they got laid off in their 50s.

It would seem to me that most liberals live lives that no conservative would have much objection to.

But liberals do feel that a humane society provides safety nets for the poor, the infirm, the aged, and mentally impaired, and that businesses owe workers a fair wage and a cut of the profits they help make. Churches and civic organizations play a part in this, and I am happy to participate in their efforts. But churches and organizations are not always well funded and are often fickle to their own causes. (We have a parishioner whose daughter has leukemia. The Men's Club had a spaghetti supper to raise funds for her. Sorry but that family's going to need more than $300 to get through this ordeal. Without Medicaid, they'd be bankrupt.)

Is it any wonder we look to the government to provide consistency and dependability and oversight in certain areas of life?

this is a fascinating discussion.  My own view is that there is not an organized Christian Left or even a Catholic Left bu tit has more to do with how those with a more liberal view see the world than anything else.  There is a tendency to support everyone's right to approach  the world in his or her own way.  That is decidedly different from how the Right sees things. 

I also think that going back to Humanae Vitae, at least from a Catholic perspective, there has been an interesting shift in perspective that is somewhat out of sync with the larger society.  From the mid-19th through mid-20th Century, Catholics generally were able to address both sexual values and social values.  The social mission was demonstrated through such things as the development of Catholic Hospitals, colleges, various social support networks and institutions.  Today, though, many of those institutions are virtually indistinguishable from their non-Catholic counterparts.  The only differences between our local Catholic hospital and its non-Catholic neighbor these days are that it has crucifixes on some walls and doesn't perform a few  reproductive related procedures , though its docs will tell you where and how to get those procedure.  It isn't a charitable organization as that term would be understood by any rational person but a multi-million dollar business with a CEO who is among the highest paid in the region.  Note that his counterpart at the local non-Catholic institution is equally well paid.  within the last few years they alternated as the highest paid CEOs in a local newpaper's annual piece outpacing insurance and manufacturing giants.  A similar thing has happened to many Catholic colleges.  My father tells of the President of his school coming to the house to find out why he hadn't returned to class after summer break.  When told that he lacked the $100 tuition, the priest told him to "show up tomorrow and we'll work something out for the payment." The same school refused to allow his grandson to move into a dorm room because due an error his tuition was $100 short!  I guess my point is that these institutions, while still carrying the Catholic name, are no longer performing the same social functions they did at their founding. 

As the Church has lost its social service function, at least in its traditional outlets, it has effectively doubled down on sexuality as its central focus. While this has certainly always been a significant part of the Church's teaching, it hasn't always been the primary one.  Over the last third of the 20th Century and into the current one, it has labored mightily to fight back on that front against birth control, divorce, pre-marital sex, abortion, gay marriage, as if it sees holding the fort as its definition.  We see it, for example, in the bishops' oppsoition to the health care law.  The idea that millions of people were without any health care coverage was less important than that such coverage might include birth control.  And the idea expressed by Cardinal Dolan and others that if the Church wasn't exempted from those requirements Catholic hospitals and other institutions would be closed.  That is the sad state of institutional Catholicism at this point. 


As the Church has lost its social service function, at least in its traditional outlets, it has effectively doubled down on sexuality as its central focus.

That's a really interesting comment.

To what extent were Catholic schools "liberal" in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Boomers were filling up those schools? I have lots of friends who make fun of their Catholic school years, the strictness of the nuns, and the famous Catholic guilt. But I often wonder if what they heard back then helped shape their liberal activism as young adults. You listen to stories about St. Lawrence on the grill, St. Peter's upside-down crucifixion, or St. Joan at the stake enough times, and marching in an anti-war demonstration seems like a cakewalk.


"Scientist are beginning to figure out why conservatives are ... conservative" ...

Well, I have been sitting here, listening to WBUR Boston (Long story, since I am in Florida) and erupting all over the place. I am generally considered to be liberal, but if I don't have a negativity bias, why does nearly every story from the world "out there" set me off? Am I really a closet conservative? Or the graduate of a Jesuit university? Yeah, maybe that's it.

I think it is the Jesuits, Tom. I'm in the same boat. 

I think it's very hard to come up with a coherent view on this subject without at least considering the role of race is driving people to one political side or the other.  Per Eugene's comments above, I believe that racial division also makes it difficult to settle the question of what people on the right and the left really want, because, particularly on the right people want things for themselves but don't want them for other groups, which is not a coherent political stance (beyond tribalism).  I am not accusing anyone here of that, but if you have lived in the South long enough you definitely know this phenomenon exists. It is especially apparent at a certain generational level.

Gene McCarraher: > "I don't think there is a discernible Left anywhere..."  Followed by various analytical contrasts (implicit form)

We should pay close attention when Prof. McCarraher speaks about the Left.  One of the things limiting the Left, in the sense that Prof McCarraher means it, is that the dialectic is not a style of analysis that many Americans, certainly in the last 50 years and maybe ever, find familiar or comfortable.   We are not very reflective people: we struggled to follow Plato, never read Hegel, and connect "dialectic" if at all with Marx, whom all of us reject, having read nothing much past the title of The Communist Manifesto.   We do not argue in the European style, most of us rejecting the Old World because of what we were taught about the New.

We are a propositional people: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident..."; "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated .." "Remember the Maine.."  It goes all the way back: "Our glorious Lord will have a holy city in America... (Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop before him, indeed before landfall in the New World).  At the same time, consider our common life as Americans - in a formulation due to Lewis Lapham, writng in Harpers in 1995: "we value the companionable virtues - helpfulness, tolerance, kindliness, the patience to listen to one another."  Well, that was1995...] 

These are not the habits of thought ad memory of radicals, and they do not fit with the leftist dialectic, cetainly not in a sustained way.

By coincidence was just reading a piece on Putin and he quoted Berdyaev's definition of conservatism, "the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state." Truth is that we require both and there will always be tension. But as a Chinese mentor explained to me, tension is okay, tension is good. We should not fear tension and try to topple one side but instead balance those forces in a spiritual centre.

Beth Cioffoletti, Yes, I agree fully. Categories 'liberal' and 'conservative do not apply anywhere except in civil political organization, and even there they have become less and less useful and explain why it is so difficult for us to find a 'home'. The values you describe are those of a consistent ethic of life, of common ground, of Cardinal Bernardin. Instead of strident rhetoric and divisive partisanship, we can begin to work in the public sphere emphasizing service, as Pope Francis says, and in the political sphere toward a middle way as described by Lisa Sowle Cahill in her work on bioethics. Until coherent clerical support or leadership emerges, we need to find ways to move currently available institutions and methods to build stronger movements even if it means suppressing our gag reflexes to join with partisans who are with us on at most one or two of those values.

It does seem to me that conservative and liberal labels still apply to religious beliefs too, althought there are cross-overs, of course.  Liberal Catholic ... pro-justice, anti-death pentalty, pro reproductive rights for women (Catholics for Choice), pro gay rights, pro women's ordination, pro doing away with annulments and accepting divorce, pro married priests, etc.  I would be surprised to see many conservatives accepting a number of these stances.

Mark Logsdon, Can you add a few words? Do you mean that Americans, being averse to (or innocent of?) dialectic can't create a left? I am not arguing; I am asking.

It is difficult to escape from at least some ideologically driven positions but I think it is important to maintain and individuality. As Nietzsche quipped, the party person is by necessity a liar. And this, of course, is certainly a truism that cannot be avoided.

The largest growing political party in the US is the category of "Independents". This is interesting as more an more young people become dissilusioned with binary type systems or even the dialectics characterizing them at times.

George Washington was quite prescient in all of this:

Of paolitical parties, and by extension, "right" "left" boxes:

the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

24 It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

Just turn on the news and...QED!!

John Campbell,

Tension can be very good. We can build higher towers using wires that pull in all directions. They provide a stabilizing force that allows the tower to resist the wind whichever way it blows.

I worry that a lot of people no longer see the value in this tension. Any pull in one direction is greeted with accusations of heresy while even the most extreme pulls in the other are tolerated. This will lead to the Church being pulled too far in one direction until it breaks.

George D,

Be careful of reading too much into the label of independents. Most people who call themselves independent have consistent partisan preferences, and usually growing numbers of independents is caused by people who are too disatisfied with their party to identify with them when asked by a pollster but who will still vote for their party on Election Day.

The true non-partisans also tend to not be moderate or centrist. They only appear to be so because their extreme positions on one side are often balanced by an extreme position on the other. One of the benefits of parties is that it forces people to come together and make a policy plan that can get the support of about half of the population.

George D. writes: "You will likely not find a liberal priest, parish, or person discussing the virtue of modesty."  Well I consider myself and some of my fellow sorters at our parish clothing center for the needy to be liberal Catholics. When we find in the donations a pair of short shorts or a         deep-V neck, It 's thrown into the recycle bin with a flourish! 

Isabelle, as a college teacher, I have seen my lifetime quota of front and back cleavage and then some (hip huggers are even worse offenders than short shorts, imo), so I understand where you're coming from.

However, think twice: I shop at the Salvation Army (and Goodwill and Volunteers of America) to look for fabric I can recycle into other projects. You can make a cute shoulder bag out of a pair of short shorts, and you can cut up a low-cut tee shirt to make tape yarn to knit rugs and baskets. 

If you're truly recycling those items into some other use, great. But if you're just destroying them because they exist, well, I don't see that as much better than book burning.

One of the benefits of parties is that it forces people to come together and make a policy plan that can get the support of about half of the population.

I would say that is the benefit of the legislature but not the party.It is the legislature that is the vehicle for consensus and not the party. Opposition parties exist for one purpose, to oppose!

Burn Books? Never! Even my parents, obedient to the Index, stashed Hugo, Dumas et al in the attic 

where I found them! And our "recycle" process involves my tossing our bag of cast-offs into another  

charity's bin.


Eugene McCarraher, you wrote: "I always took "left" to mean the extension of democracy from the "political" sphere as defined in liberal societies -- characterized by a demarcation of the "political" sphere from the "social," "economic," and "personal" -- into precisely those spheres."

Isn't it just possible that this is still the case, but that when the left expanded its scope to include African-Americans it blew up whatever "leftist consensus" it had built (among thinkers and true believers and politicians down to those who followed them in trust, probably among the most ready to abandon that consensus without understsanding how the alternative would affect them), and that those who aspire to more robust goals have been, and still are, in a defensive reactionary crouch until that consensus can be rebuilt?  The question I have is, how much pain will have to be inflicted before that happens?  I've been asking myself that for more than 20 years, but more urgently over the last 10.

Whatever else defines the religious right, it is overwhelmingly white.  It's frustrating to have to watch a social force play out over generations, and not to see resolution in one's lifetime. 

Tom B,

Close to that.   I take dialectic to be the dominant mode of political (sensu lato) discourse of the Left.  I think the overwhelming majority of Americans siply find that indigestible.  As Richard Rorty saw, we are - for whatever reasons- much more intuitively comfortable with Pragmatism, in something very much like its roots in Dewey, Pierce and James.

I read Rorty to be of the Left, but arguing in a clearly American manner.

Mark L

Mark. Thanks. You have initiated some pondering by me.

In my laundry list of former notables of the Catholic left, I was searching for a name that slipped my mind ... a man who epitomized that left during his time:  Ammon Hennacy. He was influenced by Dorothy Day, and, as a card-carrying "wobbly", Joe Hill.

Now I know that there might be a few of you out there who are not old enough to have known of Ammon -- or have a clue as to what "wobblies" were, so here is some info about him:  ( 

George D,

The concept of an opposition party in a presidential system is complicated.


For all intents and purposes, the US system functions as a parliamentary one. Members follow party lines and are punished for deviation (basically and with few exceptions). Only loyalists occupy chairs. The rest are just basically back benchers.

If the president does not have one of the chambers, he is basically done from a legislative point of view or must act basically as a minority government does in a parliamentary system.

I realize that this is not how the representative system was supposed to work, but that is how it functions in practice at least as far as i can see (e.g. Obama care, etc.)

It seems to me that what distinguishes a Catholic Leftie from a Catholic Rightie primarily is where the person's passions lie.

My observation is that most Catholics who self-identify as conservative don't get all huffy and puffy about same sex marriage, and in fact have, to one extent or another, made their peace with it.  But they don't feel any passion about it, don't see it as the Great Civil Rights Movement Of This Generation.  They won't pass out leaflets in the street to support it.

The same can be said about Catholic conservatives and the environment.  it's not that they're against the environment, but the deterioration of the environment doesn't engender any passion in them.

The same can be said about Catholic conservatives and racial justice.

Catholic liberals, from what I can tell, aren't particularly less financially responsible than conservatives.  But the notion that the government is in debt doesn't move them.  Intellectually and as a rather abstract proposition, they agree that a government should live more or less within its means.  But it doesn't fire them up, doesn't enrage them, doesn't cause them to go out and organize a grassroots group.

Most Catholic liberals I know are uncomfortable about the prevalence of abortion.  Some do join the parish's Respect Life group or even witness outside a clinic, but most don't.  That doesn't mean they're pro-abortion.  It's just that other issues get them more roused.

We could play this game with virtually any issue.


"The same can be said about Catholic conservatives and racial justice."  Can I just say here that there is no such thing as racial justice -- there is only justice, and if it doesn't extend across classes and groups it doesn't actually exist within society at large.  One on one, I would say that irrespective of ideology, a person who learns of an incorrect conviction is offended and would like to see redress.  But addressing the larger aspects of why it is that incorrectly convicted people are disproportionately found in certain classes and groups -- that's where the breakdown occurs.  There is a failure to tie the fate of individuals to the prejudices and circumstances of the larger community, and an undue focus on individual circumstance.  This, it seems to me, is a hallmark of conservative thinking, at least as it is playing out right now.

No matter where our passions lie, we are all called to exercise the virtue of justice. I'd like to recommend Herbert McCabe's little catechism, The Teaching of the Catholic Church. Here are two excerpts:

We exercise the virtue of justice by obeying the law and upholding the common good in a just society; by seeking to change an unjust society; by concern for the rights of others in their reputation, dignity and property; by speaking truthfully and dealing honestly with our neighbor.

We fail in the exercise of justice by depriving others of their due or failing to defend them against injustice: by murder, abortion, injury, including self-injury, torture, rape and adultery; by collusion with an oppressive and exploitative regime or with an unjust war; by indulging racism, sexism or religious bigotry; by avarice, by accumulating wealth and keeping it from the poor; by stealing or misusing the legitimate property of the community or individuals; by tax-evasion and inequitable forms of legal tax avoidance; by spreading deceptive propaganda or misleading advertising; by perjury and all forms of dishonest or sharp practice and by any form of cooperation with the injustice of others.

But the notion that the government is in debt doesn't move them.  Intellectually and as a rather abstract proposition, they agree that a government should live more or less within its means.  But it doesn't fire them up, doesn't enrage them, doesn't cause them to go out and organize a grassroots group.

I don't want to get into an argument about this, because I think Jim P. is essentially correct in identifying what trips the triggers of Catholics on the right and the disorganized few on the left. However, I would pointout that government debt DOES enrage liberals, but for different reasons than conservatives. Conservatives hate debt for itself. Liberals hate debt because of how it occurs (i.e., money on futile military actions) and how it siphons money away from what might be done to improve the lives of Americans and others (i.e., domestic health care or aid to Central Americans struggling with corruption such that living in a U.S. detention camp looks better than living at home). 

Jean and Jim, That's a kid of funny way of defining left and right -- by what they are against. But it works. Shortly after Obama took office, all my righwing friends sent me an email denouncing him for blocking the development of the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota. His refusal to allow drilling was part of his socialist, etc., etc., etc. Well, now, of course, the field is being so well exploited that railroad trains loaded with Bakken crude are blowing up all over the place. And those righties who were against Obama when he was blocking/doing nothing are not praising him, or even acknowledging that the oil field is being exploited. For all the ire about not exploiting, there is no joy over exploiting.

BTW, that old email promised gasoline too cheap to measure if Obama would stop blocking Bakken. I haven't noticed any change at the gas station. Well, when Keystone is running, gas prices will surely fall.

On the left/right question, this from Andrew Sullivan's blog:

Why Am I Moving Left?

Tom Ricks penned a mini-manifesto of sorts yesterday on why he finds himself moving to the left. He’s always thought of himself as a centrist, but now finds himself drifting further away from American conservatism and Republicanism. . . . Like Ricks, I don’t believe my general inclinations politically have changed that much over the years. I prefer smaller government in general; I too believe in a robust defense; I have few issues with the free market; I think marriage and family are critical social institutions; I’m still a believing Christian; I have deep qualms about abortion and abhor affirmative action; I’m a fiscal conservative; want radical tax reform, cuts in unfunded entitlements, and culturally, I’m a libertarian, with a traditionalist streak alongside radical tendencies (so, for example, I both love the Latin Mass and intend to go to Burning Man next month). I haven’t renounced my precocious devotion to Thatcher and Reagan, even as I have out-grown them, as the world has as well.

But I am now regarded as a leftist by much of the right and to some extent, they’re right. In today’s polarized political climate, I have few qualms in backing president Obama over almost anyone in the opposition, and am genuinely insulted these days when some people call me a Republican. Tom laid out several critical issues which have now placed him on the left rather than the right in today’s environment. They’re well worth reading through. Here are my critical reasons, as of now, for wanting the Republicans defeated in any forthcoming elections.  [NB: given the limitations on how much we're allowed to quote, I'm including only one of those "critical reasons"] . . . .

Ideological blindness. Any party that can respond to the fact of yawning economic inequality in the 21st Century by blaming the 99 percent for not working hard enough has put ideology before reality. Any party that even now thinks slashing taxes below their current historically low levels will cure our economic ills is utterly delusional. Any party that is unconcerned with the social dangers of an economic system that increasingly rewards only the very very rich cannot be trusted with government. There has to be a pragmatic element to any conservatism and an ability too adjust to new circumstances and new problems. There are some hopeful signs among reformocons, but the tenor of the discourse remains absurdly doctrinaire, treating Reagan as some kind of god and compromise as the ultimate evil. Over the last decade, the GOP has seemed like a church rather than a political party, with dogma rather than policies, and beset by heresy-hunts rather than genuine debate.


Gene, thanks for that Andrew Sullivan piece.  I forwarded it to some of my friends.


Jim Pauwels,

If you've never read Leszek Kolakowski's "How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist," I suspect that you'd like it (it's a great little essay):

Chris - yes, many thanks, it describes my confusion perfectly :-)

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