If you asked a crowd of journalists to name two or three people who are the "faces" of the Religious Right, it's pretty easy to think of the names that would top the list.
The problem, of course, is that many of these people are either dead -- think the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly -- or they have faded from the scene, other than the occasional headline-inducing sound bite (here's looking at you, the Rev. Pat Robertson).
This knee-jerk tendency to favor the old Religious Right guard was crucial during the 2016 campaign. Why? Many elite political-beat reporters -- religion-beat pros did much better -- failed to notice that, while Donald Trump won his share of endorsements among older religious conservatives (or, well, their children), most of the rising stars on the moral right wanted little or nothing to do with him, in terms of public support.
You see, there is a problem with simplistic American political labels, when you try to stick them on religious believers. They rarely fit. While traditional religious believers tend to agree on many doctrinal issues that have political implications (think abortion, gender, the meaning of marriage), they often disagree when it comes to political solutions to problems linked to poverty, race, foreign policy, military spending, immigration, the economy, etc.
You can see this most clearly when talking about ancient forms of Christianity. Are the U.S. Catholic bishops at home with the political left or with the right? That would be the right, on sexual morality, but the left on many other issues, from immigration to health care. Is Pope Francis liberal or conservative when you are talking about hot-button issues in American life? Where is he on gender and right-to-life issues, in contrast with economics and immigration?
"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of this, and much more, when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.
Our news hook, however, was not on the cultural right. Instead, we were talking about my post critiquing a Reuters report about the religious left. The original Reuters report is here.
As always, it's hard to pin accurate political labels on biblical beliefs. There are political liberals who are pro-life. There are political conservatives who are strongly pro-abortion-rights. There are conservatives who totally oppose Donald Trump's perspectives on immigration and refugees. I could go on and on. But when in doubt, keep thinking about the politics of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Label that crowd.
The other problem is even harder to describe: Who, precisely, is in the religious left and what are the issues that define them?
Well, the old guard on the religious left found unity, in the 1960s and '70s, on issues linked to racial justice and the Vietnam War. These are not the issues that divide most religious believers today, if you look inside the numbers being served up by pollsters. Instead, the ties that bind liberals together now are usually linked to the Sexual Revolution.
Meanwhile, the ecclesiastical institutions at the heart of the old religious left keep shrinking, while the ranks of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" keep expanding. The new cultural left includes just as many, if not more, nonreligious people as it does people with liberal doctrinal beliefs -- Jewish, Christian or whatever.
Barack Obama was a perfect candidate for politicos on both sides of that coalition, especially with his doctrinally skeptical but stylistically warm approach to oldline Protestant liberalism (click here for a 2004 flashback on his famous "Awesome God" speech). But Obama is, sort of, on the margins right now. Maybe he will lead the European Union or the United Nations someday, making him eligible for "face of" the religious left status again.
Meanwhile, in what sense is the religious left on the rise? This is, after all, a story floated in major newsrooms year after year, decade after decade. I appreciated a Religion Dispatches piece by liberal Daniel Schultz that questioned this whole idea of religious liberals getting their act together these days. He writes:
Oh, yeah? Is that like the time they were emerging in 2006?
Those are links I found in about 30 seconds’ worth of googling. Some time spent with Lexis-Nexis would no doubt turn up many more. In case the point is not obvious, the same people have been selling the same story about this Religious Left that’s going to be here any minute now! for a very long time. Hell, I’ve even been a part of some of those efforts. And yet the movement never does arrive.
Why is that?
Well, once again, who are the charismatic leaders of the religious left? What personalities take the lead, in this crowd?
Hey, GetReligion readers, who would you nominate for this role?
It has to be someone with vague or clearly liberal views on faith, but with a commitment to liberal views on morality and politics. It would help if this person could (think Obama) unite white liberals with more traditional religious believers in African-American and Latino pews. This person also needs media clout and star power. Kind of an anti-Hillary Clinton.
Well, how about -- you know -- Oprah?
This Salon.com feature -- "Oprah Winfrey isn’t ruling out a presidential run in 2020" -- is only one of many who have proposed that she would make a great anti-Trump, since the Democratic Party's bench is getting rather gray at the moment. The overture:
During a conversation with billionaire philanthropist and Bloomberg TV show host David Rubenstein, she suggested that President Donald Trump’s shocking electoral victory has forced her to rethink the possibility of a President Oprah Winfrey.
Rubenstein asked the megastar if she ever thought she could do what Hillary Clinton could not.
“Have you ever thought that, given the popularity you have, we haven’t broken the glass ceiling yet for women, that you could actually run for president and actually be elected?” Rubenstein asked.
“I never considered the question even a possibility,” Oprah answered. “I thought, oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough. And now I am thinking: Oh.”
Trump was able to secure the Republican presidential nomination because, in part, he was a wildly popular TV star. But perhaps no one -- not even Trump himself -- can compete with Oprah’s celebrity. She is the Oprah of Oprahs.
Is anyone out there laughing at this idea?
Is anyone laughing at this idea, while The Donald sits in the Oval Office?
Oprah would be the real deal, however, for the religious left -- way more than Trump is a good fit for the Religious Right. Think about it.