Why is the Religious Left Not More of a Force?

The old liberal Protestant world is now gone or much deflated.

By Mark Tooley Published on April 7, 2017

Recently in Religion Dispatches Daniel Schultz criticized a Reuters column that claimed that the religious left is becoming a strong political force. Schultz is a United Church of Christ pastor, and very much on the left himself. He’s right that some media mistake slight bouts of liberal religious activism as signs of broader revival. Such stories may highlight a rally of religious leaders wearing clerical collars and robes for show. Do these demonstrators have a popular following among the religious? It’s not clear that they do.

But I don’t think Schultz understands why the religious left has so little influence. He thinks it has too much diversity — ethnic and otherwise — to ever unite and draw on a larger popular base. Perhaps, but I think that misses the larger point.

It’s true that the religious right is largely made up of conservative white evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Jews. But the religious left is largely made up of white liberal mainline Protestants, Catholic social justice activists and Jewish groups. It’s been that way for a long time. Black Protestant church leaders sometimes work with the religious left. But their religious and moral differences have hindered full unity.

So why isn’t the religious left more of a force in politics?

The religious left had weight years ago because it was made up of strong mainline Protestant denominations. It had large ecumenical groups like the National Council of Churches. The “God Box” at 475 Riverside Drive in New York was their headquarters. They had hundreds of staffers and millions of dollars. They were protected by church bodies that founded and sustained American democracy.

The religious right is inventive while the religious left is still stuck to declining liberal Protestantism. Even now, most lay mainline Protestants ignore their own denominations and vote conservative.

Most of that old liberal Protestant world is now gone or much deflated. Most of those church agencies have left New York. The old mainline seminaries became the hotbed of the religious left a century ago. Most are now marginalized with far fewer students and reduced funding. A few have closed despite storied histories.

What institutions represent the religious left today? There is Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, the Interfaith Alliance and Faith in Public Life, among a few others. Much of their constituency is the ever-dwindling base of liberal Mainline Protestants. They can organize petitions and small demonstrations. But they don’t have wide, broad-based followings. That’s why the media usually ignore them, as do politicians. The National Council of Churches worked with the Clinton Administration 20 years ago. There was nothing like this during the Obama Administration.

The religious right, in contrast, came about through groups that work with churches, not denominational heads. The right was often headed by well-known evangelicals followed by Christian media. They were supported by mail campaigns. The Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition were the early models. After the fall of a pastor or advocacy group, there were many early claims that the religious right was dead. But always there are new leaders and new organizations that have popular appeal.

The religious right is inventive while the religious left is still stuck to declining liberal Protestantism. Even now, most lay mainline Protestants ignore their own denominations and vote conservative.

Here’s the twist that most claims about religious left revival ignore or don’t appreciate: religious left activism is almost always the work of elites who have lost touch with their religious base. Take evangelicalism. It is now the largest religious demographic. But many evangelical colleges, relief and other groups have moved left. Many of the evangelical elite tilt left and don’t want to be associated with the conservative base in their own denominations. Most political witness jamborees for young college educated evangelicals are left-leaning. Much of the evangelical blogosphere is left-leaning.

In short, much of evangelicalism is retracing the steps of Mainline Protestantism 100 years ago. As the elites move left, they also lose touch with their religious roots.

This is why the religious left will never have a very wide following. Religion is about keeping traditions and holding fast to teachings that may go against the culture. Religious people are committed to Scripture, family, and real church institutions. They may engage in politics, but it will never be their top concern. The religious left may have religious motives, at least at first. But it’s often more wedded to politics than to the religious convictions of the ordinary faithful. As a result, it slowly loses its religious identity in favor of secular politics and activism.

This cycle at least in American Protestantism never seems to end. Religious liberals may stretch the boundaries of their faith or leave it altogether. Then, a new generation of excited converts rediscover the old orthodoxy and replace those who are content to provide a religious gloss to left wing politics.

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