Jacob Lupfer: Can the Religious Right and Left Be More Than a Rubber Stamp for Their Parties’ Policies?

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, center left, holds hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while singing “We Shall Overcome” during a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago on June 21, 1964. Photo courtesy of OCP Media

In the media and in our popular imagination, the religious right towers over our political landscape. So much so, in fact, that one could be forgiven for thinking that reflexive Republicanism is the only widespread expression of Christianity in politics.

The religious right’s shadow is so large that it is usually the reference point for any discussion of the religious left. Each election cycle, a spate of articles, essays and columns, mostly by white journalists, appears, inquiring why the religious left is not as important as the religious right. Is there a religious left at all?

After their party largely neglected faith outreach in 2016, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates seem to have caught the religion bug, and to hear them talk some might think the religious left has a chance this cycle to counter the religious right’s decades-long hold on American politics.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., speaks to the Festival of
Homiletics on May 22, 2018, at Metropolitan AME Church
in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The truth is that both religious camps are more likely to follow than lead when it comes to who determines the two parties’ policies.

For all its power to move voters to the ballot box, the religious right has an agenda that’s unpopular even with many of its supposed constituents and has floundered when it comes to making legislation or overturning legal precedents.

And in spite of the Democratic Party’s great diversity and depth of religious belief, its leaders’ core commitment to pluralism and a secular state keeps them from adopting the language of faith in compelling ways.

Once upon a time, it might have been said that the religious left led the Democratic Party to new positions and priorities. From the Progressive Era to the civil rights era, it was common to see clergy — white, black, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic — constructing intellectual and theological arguments from the pulpit and marching on the front lines. The people in the pews were the rank and file of these movements.

Today, while the religious left may support the Democrats’ new vanguard of democratic socialism, it would be difficult to claim that faith has been the inspiration, much less provided the activists on the ground.

But the Democrats have a deeper disconnect with their religious wing: Many believers who are otherwise staunchly on the Democratic side are evolving too slowly, or not at all, on the politics of sexual liberation. Too many have not abandoned a belief that the unborn deserve protection, that marriage is between a man and a woman and that there are two genders, biologically determined at birth.

Hispanics, and to a lesser degree blacks, support legal abortion at lower levels than whites. And while white-dominated mainline Protestant denominations have supported abortion rights and now same-sex marriage, black church traditions have remained more traditional.

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Source: Religion News Service