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Are Progressives Harming the Cause by Attacking Organized Religion and People of Faith?

A loyal AlterNet reader raises key questions about the role of faith and religion in the battle for social change.

Editor's Note: ​A short time ago, AlterNet received a very thoughtful letter from one of our readers. Professor James Rohrer wrote that while he was a long-time loyal AlterNet reader, he was concerned about our coverage of faith and religion. His complaint was that AlterNet too frequently portrays religion as the domain of right-wing fundamentalism and carries an overall anti-religious editorial tilt. Rohrer argued this has the effect of alienating millions of our readers who are progressively inclined. He challenged us to consider whether this approach stands in the way of building the unity we need to achieve the broad social change that the vast majority of Americans want.

"One would never know from AlterNet that there are today significant numbers of evangelical Christians who work for peace and justice, such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams who embed themselves as witnesses for peace in the midst of war zones," Rohrer wrote to us. "One would never know that much of the history of socialism in America has been intertwined with religion.  One would never know that many brilliant philosophers, scientists, artists, and scholars in virtually every field of research are also people who have a deep personal faith in some traditional religion."

Rohrer's letter, which echoed concerns we receive from time to time from colleagues and readers, prompted an extensive internal conversation, and we concluded that something has to change. In that spirit, we asked Prof. Rohrer to write an article about his thoughts on the matter, published below. Over the coming weeks we will be relaunching our Belief section, and publishing a wider array of coverage on faith and religion and its role in daily life and politics. (We have already started down this path with Vision editor Sara Robinson's recent article, " Six Reasons We Can't Change the Future Without Progressive Religion.")


My brother and I took divergent spiritual paths at an early age. More than half a century ago my brother, now a high-school science teacher and a militant atheist, mortified my mother when he told a sweetly smiling Sunday School teacher that he planned to return the following week “to break every damned window in this place.” My mother was not shocked by his lack of piety—she was a feminist with Unitarian Universalist leanings and had left orthodox Christianity behind years earlier –but by his rudeness. In truth we rarely ever attended church because my mother refused to sanction patriarchal religion and my dad hated to worship alone. But mom was gracious, even to people that she disagreed with in matters of religion and politics.

While my brother over the years has steadfastly scorned all expressions of religious faith as irrational superstition, I have been drawn to a lively spirituality since my earliest recollections. As a child on our Appalachian farm I wandered the hills and forests and prayed to a God that I truly felt as a living presence. I did not acquire my beliefs by having them forced upon me by parents or any organized religion; they grew as naturally and effortlessly as my physical body.

Over the years I have participated in many faith communities, have studied religion professionally, and have taught history and religion at several colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, some of them public and some of them religious institutions. I know that the line between good and evil does not run between religions -- any more than it runs between nations or races (all three are social constructs after all); my colleagues and close friends represent many different faith traditions, and some, like my brother, embrace a wholly secular stance toward life. By choice, however, I identify myself as a Christian. After half a century, I could no more deny my religious convictions than I could deny any other part of my Self.

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