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."

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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