The Rise of the Religious Left -- Why Christianity Isn't Just for Conservatives
The enormous political clout wielded by evangelical Christians in the United States is usually seen from the outside as a coup for rightwing zealots against any agenda that might be called "progressive". But we should think again. The recent revelation that Michael Moore's Catholicism emerges in his latest film as a centrepiece of his critique of capitalism is really no surprise. The claim in Capitalism: A Love Story that free markets are inconsistent with Christianity has wrong-footed Moore's rightwing critics, but the right's bid to monopolise religion has been challenged for some time.
As Austen Ivereigh points out, Moore's anti-capitalist preaching is quite in keeping with Catholic traditions of social activism. What's less known is that evangelical Christian churches -- the supposed mainstay of rightwing politics in the US -- are showing a leftwards drift. In fact many commentators believe that the presidency of George W Bush, which undoubtedly revitalised conservative Christians, was possibly their last act as a major force in the political landscape. The "religious right" has long played a pernicious role in US politics. Its insistence that preachers should be interested only in saving souls -- a good alibi for neglecting the material needs of the poor -- has consistently been contradicted by their complicity in free markets and vocal opposition to abortion and gay rights. But this is not the only story to tell about American Christianity. Arguably Obama's election -- won in part due to the successful courtship of a large section of the religious vote -- suggests that it is not the most important one either.
Nearly every major social justice battle fought in the US has been supported, if not driven, by religious groups -- which in statistical terms overwhelmingly means Christians. It's widely known that the historically black church has been a key player in promoting justice for African Americans -- from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movements -- as well as championing initiatives that support marginalised communities, both black and white. Beneath the more notorious rhetoric of Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who at one point looked likely to irreparably fracture Obama's presidential bid, we can find him preaching the acceptance of homosexuality and the importance of works as well as faith. Wright's work at Trinity United Church of Christ, the church Obama was a member of for over 20 years, involves programmes for HIV/Aids sufferers, drug rehabilitation, and housing support for Chicago's impoverished South Side communities. That Obama's association with such a church should have been so potentially disastrous for his candidacy is deeply ironic. But in the end, Obama's religious identity did help him win votes.
In his second book The Audacity of Hope, named after one of Wright's sermons, Obama points out that it was a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who introduced evangelical Christianity into mainstream politics. Obama claims that in subsequently handing religion over to the Republicans -- for whom Christianity became a powerful political weapon during Reagan's presidency -- Democrats essentially surrendered the opportunity to talk about values in public life. Obama insists against detractors that government can and should play a positive role, but he equally stresses the importance of government partnering with civil society, particularly faith groups. In turn many progressive faith groups, and not only progressive black churches, backed him for president, and are backing him again on health care.
The American Values Network is one example. It is promoting radio and television ads that make the moral case not only for healthcare but for climate change legislation as well. On health care the Network tells Americans that "scripture warns against those who pursue wealth at the expense of the lives and welfare of others". Its climate change campaign brings together the novel combination of faith groups and military figures to call on the nation's leaders to tackle global warming in order to be both good stewards of the environment and defenders of national security. For America's leaders, the Network claims, "will be held accountable not only by voters, but by their Creator".
The long tradition of religious groups championing progressive causes has been obscured by the shadow of the "religious right" -- whose financial backing has meant disproportionate coverage on media outlets like Fox News and talk radio. But many commentators agree that their star has been on the wane for some time. The movement has splintered over disagreements over how evangelical Christians ought to treat issues like poverty and global warming. This has led to the novel situation where an increasingly vocal "religious left" -- which often agrees with religious conservatives when it comes to the so-called "sins of the body" like abortion and gay marriage -- are finding common ground with evangelicals ostensibly on the right when it comes to the "sins" of society.
The increasing diversity among American Christians often defies our ability to brand as either left or right their religious interventions into the world of politics. The persistent power of the religious right is a measure of what Obama is up against, but Obama won the election in part because he too is invested in Protestant traditions of self-reliance that pay lip-service to the church/state separation while welcoming God into the public sphere. The idea that politicians are answerable to God as well as the electorate clearly poses a real challenge to democratic governance, and the outcomes are often notably illiberal. But stereotypes aside, American religion is not necessarily the enemy of progressive politics, and in US history has often proved to be its most powerful advocate.