Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

One characteristic of our religion beat is that old story themes never die. Sometimes they don’t even evolve very much.

You know the headlines. “Local family redoes this year’s [pick a religious holiday] or “[Name of denomination] elects first [race or gender] official” or “Sensational find proves [pick your favorite Bible story]”or “Sensational find disproves [your most disliked Bible story]”

Another perpetual theme can be seen in the occasional announcements that a new “religious left” (lower case) is arising to challenge the “Religious Right” (usually upper case). This is rather strange, since through much of the 20th Century, religious politicking was largely liberal and it never disappeared. Activism remained especially central among African-American Protestants.


So the media were caught by surprise when the Rev. Jerry Falwell first joined the political thrum in 1979 with Moral Majority, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, et al. Such upstarts continued to monopolize ink through evident (though uneven) impact, amplified by their opponents’ continual clear-and-present-danger alarms.

Now the man-bites-dog angle works in favor of religious liberals and a good story hunch to keep in mind is whether the religious left might launch an effective counterattack. Which brings us to this January 24 item on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” by veteran, award-winning correspondent Tom Gjelten, now a religion specialist.

“The provocations of President Trump may finally be changing” the religious right’s monopoly, he reported, bringing forth “a comparable effort” by religiously motivated liberals.

Gjelten’s exhibit A is Faith in Public Life (FPL), led by a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, the Rev. Jennifer Butler. Her organization says it has recruited nearly 50,000 local faith leaders and seeks broad support from “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, Jews and those in other religions, in contrast with the right’s narrower religious constituency (as in conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics and many Orthodox Jews).

The FPL website assails President Donald Trump’s “white racist” policies. On immigration, the group opposes adding any miles to the border wall and the hiring of more border agents, wants the 2020 Census to fairly count people regardless of immigration status and fights “Islamophobia.” FPL favors “reproductive rights,” criminal justice reform, voting by felons, and “common sense” gun laws. It works for LGBT protections, and against efforts to “use religious freedom as a justification for discrimination.”

Gjelten admitted that “the religious left, having been largely eclipsed in recent years, has a ways to go before it can match the clout of the religious right.” Assuredly so, and take FPL as an example. It has been in operation since Bush 43 was re-elected and — unless the political press corps totally messed up — this or similar groups have had little discernible impact in the 2006 through 2018 electoral rounds or during the big legislative fights over those years.

As of yet this remains wishful-thinking journalism. Instead of coverage that proclaims the Left will arise, The Guy instead proposes asking the experts how come the movement's attempts continue to be so frail. Herewith, some hypotheses to pursue.

— In the case of FPL the staff and board lack nationally known religious and political figures who would attract attention and support.

— Such groups tend to echo the liberal Democratic playbook rather than offering something that is religiously distinctive (often a fair criticism of the Religious Right vis a vis Republicans).

— Those evangelical and conservative Protestants are a cohesive force in terms of religious beliefs and, to a fair extent, political outlook, while “mainline” Protestants and churchgoing Catholics are divided politically.

— Liberal Protestant churches have been steadily declining in numbers and vitality.

— Non-religious and anti-religious citizens are growing in number and form a major segment in the 21st Century Democratic coalition. As a result, the party is continually tone-deaf or hostile on matters that interest devout voters. Non-minority Catholics are a vital swing bloc for victory.

— Reporters and pols alike question whether liberal church pronouncements truly reflect thinking among grass-roots church members, which is not an issue on the right.

Despite the handicaps facing the left, reporters will of course be alert for surprises in 2020. And President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds.

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