I’m headed to Austin for Netroots Nation in a couple of weeks, and have been looking through the agenda trying to figure out what, if any, sessions I’d like to attend. Since I’m going as an exhibitor, I don’t really feel the need to go to any, though there is a part of me that says, since I’m there, I might as well go to anything that looks interesting, so long as someone on our team can handle the booth. Anyway, while perusing the list, there looked to be two items that would be interesting to anyone who is both religious and on the political left:

  • Revolution in Jesusland: A Rising Social Movement of Ordinary Radicals (Saturday, July 19, 10:30AM, Room 11): A progressive social movement is rising among evangelical and born-again Christians committed to eliminating poverty, saving the environment, protecting separation of church and state, aiding immigrants and promoting justice across racial, gender and class lines. Zack Exley and Jamie Moffett will facilitate a discussion about how all progressives can work with better understanding of each other across the Evangelical divide.
  • Whatever Happened to the Religious Left? (Saturday, July 19, 4:30PM, Ballroom E): There is nothing on the left corresponding to the politically dynamic religious right. But there are some promising elements with the potential to become greater than the sum of their parts. This panel seeks to address what’s going on and what should happen next. We will discuss how common approaches to electoral politics can be found and practiced in a way that respects the unique character of progressive faith.

And, of course, there’s the multi-faith service on Sunday at 9AM in Room 12.

Finally, given how conversations about religion (and, often, everything else)tend to go in Left Blogsylvania, there’s a panel called “Different Tones and Wider Nets” on Friday, July 19 at 9AM in Ballroom E. The description given is: “One of the great debates of blogging is the general rudeness and shrillness acceptable within the discourse. Does profanity exempt you from being taken seriously? Are you necessarily “calmer” because you don’t drop a few four-letter words? We’ll discuss the tone and attitude of various pockets of bloggers, and also why, no matter what, Michelle Malkin is still worse.”

For this post, though, let me focus on the question asked in the title of one of the panels: Whatever Happened to the Religious Left?

Well, we started asking questions like that, for one thing.

The assumption on the left seems to have long been that either (a) there has never been a substantial religious movement on the left, or (b) there used to be one but then the religious right won out and now there is no such movement. Impression (a) can be dispensed of easily – we could all name a few movements on the left with, at the very least, a substantial religious base: the Social Gospel Movement, for example, worked toward better health care, universal education, and end to child labor, and shorter working hours, as well as providing the poor with things like healthcare, education, daycare, and so on. I might also name the abolitionist and civil rights movements among those with a large religious base on the left, or the Catholic Worker Movement. Indeed, many people today recognize the teachings of Jesus as rather leftist (and, indeed, sometimes radically so). I suspect that, on a careful reading of the letters of Paul, or even of Leviticus, most people would find quite a few ideas that are embraced by the left.

The problem comes when we look around today and don’t see something like the Religious Right on the political left. It becomes easy to say, “Well, there once was this Religious Left thing, and then it vanished.” The religious left hasn’t gone anywhere… a fact that I find myself amazed I have to point out whenever I have to do so. The issue isn’t that the religious left has disappeared, only that it has learned to be invisible. Most people don’t know, for example, that Christian Peacemaker Teams exist, or that they’ve been working in Iraq longer since before the US invasion, or that Interfaith Youth Core works to bring youth of different faiths (and no faith) together to serve the wider community. There are, I suspect, four major reasons for this invisibility:

First, the religious left is not and never will be the same kind of movement as the Religious Right. The Religious Right is primarily a political movement led by a few well-recognized people – Pat Robertson, James Dobson, etc. No one seems to argue when these people are held up as the leaders of a right wing movement of religious people anymore than people argue when Karl Rove is allowed to speak for the Republican Party. The left just doesn’t, in general, seem to work like that. While Senator Obama might speak from the left and to the left, he just isn’t in a position to speak for it, and other people on the left will happily disagree with him publicly. Likewise, which Pastor Dan or Jim Wallis can speak from the religious left and to the religious left, I don’t think that anyone would pretend that they speak for the religious left. As a diverse, big-tent, people-powered collection of movements, we’re simply never going to be the sort of monolithic movement that the Religious Right is (or, at least, has tried to be for the last couple of decades).

Second, the popular conception of what counts as a religious issue remains stuck on the wedge issues of abortion and LGBTQ rights. Poverty, environmentalism, anti-war movements, and so forth get left out of the mix. Moreover, when those two ‘religious issues’ are discussed in the national media, the religious voices are damn near invariably those that are anti-choice and/or anti-LGBTQ equality. Part of overcoming the invisibility of the religious left, then, is convincing those who control our national discourse that the religious are concerned with much more than two issues, and that the religious sit on all sides of different issues. Of course, this by itself will probably end up showing that categories like ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t define people all by themselves, and people who are ‘on the left’ are, on some issues, more to the right, and vice versa. The point for those who are both religious and mostly on the left give voice on all issues, and a variety of voices at that.

Third, and counter to the previous paragraph, most people on the religious left don’t seem to be particularly interested in showing how good religious people are by acting for the general good. In other words, the people on the Christian Peacemaker Teams, or working with Interfaith Youth Core or the Catholic Worker Movement aren’t doing it because they want cookies, but because they believe that it’s the right thing to do. They, as it were, pray in their closets. To a degree, and perhaps with a faithful appropriateness, the invisibility of the religious left is self-imposed.

Fourth, however, is that many of us on the religious left have learned to be invisible for the sake of our own sanity. While it isn’t very nice to have to bring this up in so many conversations about religion and the left, we do have to face the fact that the left is often less than friendly to religion when it’s anything more than a list of empty platitudes. While very few people would argue that religious people ought to be kept off the political landscape, it is true that religious people’s policy ideas – even when derived from a particular religion – need to be open to public, secular reason and persuasion. Quite simply, even when one’s ideas are founded upon the principles of a specific religion, there’s little reason to bring up that fact when it is presumed that the political sphere is supposed to be religion-free. Indeed, we’re probably all familiar with the charges of irrationality that can come from naming one’s ideas as religious. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a point in being openly religious in the largely secular conversations that occur among the left netroots – not because of any hostility, but just because it doesn’t do anything to get one’s ideas across.

So, whatever happened to the religious left:

  • There Never Was a THE Religious Left: What there have been are many, many movements on the left with strong religious bases. I also strongly suspect that there will be a THE Religious Left, only groups on the left with strong religious bases that have learned to work well together and with the secular left.
  • The Frame of Religious Issues is Still Too Narrow: At least, that’s true in the popular conception of ‘religious issues’. In order for the religious left (recognizing that the term isn’t perfect) to have any sort of influence, the popular conception of ‘religious issues’ is going to have to grow to include poverty, war, the environment, free trade, healthcare, and everything else that we care about.
  • We’re Silent: Obviously, we’re not completely silent – organizations within the religious left have been maimed, jailed, and killed for speaking and acting out, and that will continue to happen. While those on the religious left should not seek praise for out work, so as not to cheapen it, there does need to be better publicity around it for only one reason: better publicity means wider education on the issues and the movements that are working on them, which gets more people working on them, which leads to a higher success rate in ending things like slavery, poverty, etc.
  • We’ve Gotten Secular: I think that too many religious people on the left have bought into the idea that political discourse must avoid the religious – even if the culturally religious is still okay. We’ve accepted that public discourse must be of a particular kind. However, in a pluralistic society, it is important to remember that people may hold ideas from a variety of sources, and that people who start from different sources can work together successfully. Moreover, a recognition that different sources exist can help us to better argue our (the left’s) point to those who start from different points. Think about it this way: an argument based upon a certain reading of the New Testament is unlikely to win over a Muslim or an atheist. On the other hand, an argument based solely on non-religious arguments is unlikely to win over a moderate to liberal evangelical Christian. By recognizing the value of translating our ideas and arguments into a variety of religious and non-religious languages, we can broaden the liberal/progressive coalition and put more people behind achieving our goals

“Whatever Happened to the Religious Left?” is simply the wrong sort of question… a better one would be “What is the Religious Left Doing?” and “How Can We Do It Better?” In other words, the very questions that the actual panel is going to be exploring. I’ll try to offer my own answers over the next couple of weeks.