Rising force in American politics? Define the 'religious left' and give three examples

Since the very first days of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have been asking for mainstream journalists to pay more attention to the religious left.

If there is a Religious Right, which almost always receives big "RR" treatment, then it would be logical to think that there is a religious left. I have long argued that, without the beginning of the sharp statistical decline of the old religious left in the 1970s and '80s, you would not have had a large gap in the public square into which the Religious Right could move.

The key questions: "What is the religious left? Does one define this term using doctrinal standards, political standards or both? Is there more to this than the Democratic Party at prayer?"

Every now and then, mainstream reporters write a round of features about the return of the religious left. The rise of Barack Obama inspired one recent set of these stories. Now, Reuters has released a feature that, in Newsweek, drew this headline: "How the 'religious left' is emerging as a political force in Trump's America."

So what is the "religious left"? It is, readers are told, primarily "progressive" Catholics and Protestants. OK, so what are the key issues here?

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the "religious left" is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.
This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump's policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.
"It's one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn't done a good job of organizing," said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

What about the history of this wing of American religion?

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.
Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

So here is my main question: Are the U.S. Catholic bishops on the right or the left? What religious groups are part of the religious left? Also, what is the unique doctrinal stance that separates the left from the right?

The problem, of course, is that it's easy -- if you use doctrinal standards -- to find conservative Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, etc., who would take "liberal" stances on most of the issues mentioned by Reuters.

The doctrines that Pope Francis references when he speaks out on immigration and race -- that all human life is sacred and worthy of dignity, from conception to natural death -- are the doctrines he quotes when he speaks out against abortion. So is that "left" or "right"? Hey reporters, can you name a group in American life that has been cheering for health-care reform longer than the U.S. Catholic bishops? And what about this puzzle: Cheering for religious liberty used to be a "liberal" thing. Now it's, for the most part, a "conservative" thing.

The Reuters report places a strong emphasis on the sanctuary movement, as a defining issue for the religious left. That's appropriate, I think, in most cases.

But what were (and are) the essential issues that divided the old religious left -- by which I mean liberal Catholics and Jews, along with the leaders of the oldline Protestant denominations -- from conservatives? Once you passed the conflict in Vietnam, one would have to focus on Roe v. Wade and, eventually, gay rights.

The key: These divisions were doctrinal, as well as political.

In the Reuters report -- which is stunningly free of specific facts about numbers and specific religious movements -- pays next to zero attention to Sexual Revolution issues, even though these debates are at the heart (to name one example) of liberal identity in studies by the Pew Forum and others.

Toward the end there is this:

"This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it's the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community," said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center's annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Another crucial question: Is the current religious left surge -- if there are national statistics to back the existence of this trend -- simply part of the anti-Trump world? If so, how many oldline Protestants in pews, as opposed to pulpits, opposed Trump on election day?

I was especially disappointed that this story didn't focus on what many observers -- left and right -- have hailed as a major development on the liberal side of American life. I am referring to growth of the "Nones," the religiously unaffiliated, and their role in a growing coalition of old religious liberals, along with atheists and agnostics.

That's a trend that combines the secular left and the old religious left.

Remember this material from an earlier post, drawing on 2008 statements by scholar John C. Green?

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies.

So, in terms of doctrine and anti-doctrine, who is showing up at these new rallies for the religious left? Do we need a more accurate label for this camp, a label that is more inclusive of the left's diverse religious and non-religious points of view?

Journalists should chase that story and see where it goes. Reuters gave us an interesting, but very thin and simplistic, look at one piece of that larger pie.

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