Years before the 2016 election, those who were paying attention noticed that faith-based activism was showing signs of a resurgence in the United States. Black churches were organizing against gun violence. The sanctuary movement, where churches take in immigrants to shield them from deportation, was being revived. The Moral Mondays protests, led by the Rev. William Barber, were starting to gain national prominence. But most of these stories were rarely mentioned in secular, mainstream news outlets. If you read about them at all, it most likely would have been in the coverage they received from left-leaning and religious media.
That changed post-Trump, when the Religious Left suddenly became part of the national conversation. The irony for those of us who had written about it for a long time was that the Religious Left had actually been there all along; Trump’s win just caused people to notice. Clergy standing with linked arms before white supremacists, hijab-wearing activists in the streets, Native water protectors at Standing Rock, Sikhs feeding Black Lives Matter protesters: it all formed a picture that many distressed and frightened Americans needed for a sense of consolation, even hope.
Jack Jenkins, author of the entertaining and informative recent book American Prophets, was there at Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and many other pivotal events. His dogged reporting for ThinkProgress and Religion News Service perfectly positioned him to write the narrative of how progressive, faith-based movements have grown, changed, and cohered (or not) over the past decade. Before Trump, the story of the Religious Left in America was mostly local and granular, rather than sweeping and national; Jenkins tries to bring the two approaches together, moving between the work of activists in far-flung towns and policy fights in Washington D.C. This newfound visibility and recognition means, of course, that pundits are scrambling to define the Religious Left—and therefore to have some ownership of it.
Take the example of an online spat in May, not long after Jenkins’s book was published, over whether the Religious Left actually existed, or had been willed into being by narrative-starved journalists. In the midst of these arguments, the New York Times’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote (in a now deleted tweet) that “there’s no meaningfully religious left,” because the Religious Left is just “people on the internet.” I don’t mean to single her out from among the debate’s many participants, but what she expressed is worth mentioning because it’s a common sentiment. Bruenig made her observation in the context of comparing the Religious Left to the Religious Right. On those terms, she is correct. The Religious Left still doesn’t and probably never will exist on the same institutional scale as the Religious Right, and it certainly doesn’t have the Religious Right’s electoral heft.