Written by a friend

The label, anyway. I’m not as sure about the content.

I’m just back from a fizzled reading in town. One member of my congregation showed up, and the owners of the coffee shop where the event was taking place.

That’s really okay: it’s a rural Republican stronghold, what else could you expect? I only had hopes that we might get a turnout because I expected that a few friends, maybe one or two fellow travelers, would turn up.

But honestly, the response to the book has been underwhelming, at readings and elsewhere, and the whole idea of a “religious left” has been ebbing away for some time now. I think I know why.

The leaders and tidy, obedient followers of the Religious Right have so poisoned the well of a connected religion and politics that anyone who believes that God can dream of freedom, let alone fairness, for the dispossessed have simply walked away. Are you a liberal? you can ask them. Yes, they’ll say. Are you a progressive? Perhaps. …Are you a religious progressive? Well, no. They’re just religious. The ethical peg can no longer be jammed into the political hole for these people. They’re interested in what God calls them to do, and they’re interested in politics. They’re just not very interested in what the one might have to say to the other.

Jim Wallis, as much as I want to make a bête noire out of that pious old nincompoop, didn’t have much to do with it. He’s spent God knows how long shilling a politics redeemed from itself, based on soppy reconciliation and precious little else. But I have come to see that his pitch to the spiritual-minded, as soapy as it may be, responds to audience demand more than creates it. People see through him. The questions I get at my readings show it. They don’t see the case for surrendering reproductive rights for a mess of common ground, and they’re not afraid to say so. But neither are they about to slap a cross on their Mao jacket and wade out into the GOTV field.

The bullshit attacks on Obama’s faith have had no effect. He’s a generic Christian, just like most people in this nation. Even if he weren’t, lefties wouldn’t fault him for it.

The supposed secularism of the left has done nothing. As contemptuous of faith as some secular voices may seem (and sometimes they seem plenty), they’re no threat to anyone with a settled identity. Don’t like that I believe in God? Fuck you. Next question? It frustrates me to no end that I sometimes can’t get my non-believer friends to digest religious ideas—if you’re not reading William Cavanaugh, you’re missing one of the smartest writers on politics operating today—but that’s certainly not going to shake my religious or political commitments.

It’s not the Republican wave building this year. We all know that’s not true. Religious Democrats are like any others, which is to say, more used to catastrophe than they should have to be. And like any other Democrats, they’re deflated by the lack of delivery on the promises of campaign 2008. Obama’s shiny faith commitments did little to insulate him from disappointment.

What has finally killed the label of the religious left is a lack of interest in symmetry. People simply don’t want a Religious Left to respond to the Religious Right. They want something that works in a categorically different fashion. I’m arrogant enough to think that I’ve given them something like that in my book, but I probably would have been better off packaging it as some kind of conversation-starter for churches. In fact (memo to my publisher), it’s not too late to do just that. A Q&A supplement for discussion groups might be just what the doctor ordered for sales.

More to the point, it might be just what is needed to get the political message across. Religious progressives haven’t left the field. They’re just tired of wearing the uniform.

So, dutifully, I am stripping the insignia. It’s time to go guerilla. I will never be ashamed to be a religious progressive, but I don’t know how often I will volunteer the description. From now on, it’s: Religious Right vs. just plain religious, and, well, I have some ideas about what what “religious” might mean. Maybe in a few years, the country will have regained its senses and the term Religious Left can reclaim some of its meaning. For right now, though, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the label has got to go if the content is to survive.