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Mar 8, 2005 10:10 pm


Liberalism and Religion



I was very intrigued by E.J. Dionne’s thoughtful piece in a recent issue (Feburary 28, 2005) of THE NEW REPUBLIC, "When the Religious Right Was Left." His opening paragraph says it all:

Preachers," the critic declared, "are not called upon to be politicians but to be soul-winners." As it happens, this is not some secular liberal denying faith's legitimate influence on politics. The words are Jerry Falwell's. His scorn-- he made the statement in 1965--was directed at the church-based civil rights movement in the South. Falwell knew that, without the black church, there would have been no civil rights movement. It bothered conservatives like Falwell that the civil rights preachers were, well, so judgmental, so eager to associate their cause with God's. "If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!" a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. declared in December 1955 at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth!"

Dionne makes a strong point in that it was not that long ago that religious activism and rhetoric were deployed in support of progressive causes. He argues, however, that the rejection of “moral values” and “religious activism” by contemporary liberals is responsible for the turning away from liberalism by faith-based activists. In this sense, he says, the Religious Right’s greatest victory has been to splinter liberalism by sparking internal conflict over religion. In my view, his point about the divorce between religion and liberalism, though interesting well-taken, but exaggerated. It is less that liberals have abandoned religion than that mainstream Protestant activism has abandoned liberals, by ceasing to exist. The mainline sects--Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and so forth--have lost their once commanding influence in American society. Their place has been taken by a Religious Right made up of a group of sects which claim to represent all believers against secularism, but which actually have long supported a quite consistent (and narrow) agenda. Perhaps it was inevitable. Abolitionism notwithstanding, there is a longer history of faith-based conservatism (especially in the Black community) than of religious liberalism.

Dionne calls for a new Reinhold Niebuhr to summon support for a moral vision mixed with progressive social action. These days, however, many neo-conservatives regard Niebuhr as a founding father, and interpret his ideas to suit their own. But then, Niebuhr was often inconsistent in his actual social prescriptions, particularly on race relationsThough he detested racial bigotry, his wariness about human reason and the ability of civil rights laws to foster lasting change caused him to call repeatedly for “understanding” of the White South, and to maintain quite a conservative position on the Civil Rights Movement until the mid-1960s.

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Brandon Scott Watson - 3/15/2005

Sorry about the comment problem; it's Haloscan, so it doesn't require sign-up, but every once in a while it gets a bit flaky.

As to the issue of the label, fair enough. For my part, I'm not at all convinced that these labels are (as a rule) analytically useful. One of the problems is that it seems that if we try to identify a right and a left among religious groups on one issue (say, death penalty), we will get a rather different division than we would get on another (e.g., abortion), and both would be different from what we would get with another issue (e.g., school choice), and so forth. And another problem is the vagueness of 'Religious': I would have (somewhat) less of a problem if we used more specific words like 'Evangelical' or 'Catholic' or 'Mormon'. I suspect most people, when they talk about 'the Religious Right' simply mean a small handful of media-savvy Evangelical Republicans.

In particular cases, though, when care is taken to anchor it to actual particulars, it may sometimes be serviceable. My worry is that these labels often give people the illusion of knowing who is being discussed when it usually isn't clear at all. But the labels are used by a great many people and groups even in self-identification, so I wouldn't want to say it's useless, or that it's unreasonable to use it. It can be useful in particular cases; although I'm still not sure those particular cases couldn't be better handled by other terms.


Greg James Robinson - 3/13/2005

This comment is addressed to Brandon Watson of SIRIS, since I was unable to get signed up and admitted to comment there. Mr. Watson complained about the use of the terms "Religious Right" and "Religious Left":

I realize that your beef is really with Dionne's article, rather than my post, but I feel I should respond. I think thatyou are right to a degree, since labelling any group conflates different sectors, some of whcih are hostile to each other. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that there is and must be a shorthand of terms which are analytically useful, if imprecise. I think it evident that there is a collection (if not a coalition) of groups claiming to speak in the name of Christianity and following an agenda which is substantially similar. When I see important dialogue and disagreement between religious groups (and their lobbying against each other) on issues sucgh as Gay/Lesbian rights, prayer in the schools, and abortion, I will abandon the phrase "religious right".


Hugo Schwyzer - 3/9/2005

Well, I think in the likes of Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Ronald Sider, we have a visionary Christian evangelical left. Whether anyone is listening or not is another question.


Greg James Robinson - 3/8/2005

I agree that Niebuhr's students were active with the Southern Tenant Farmers'Union (assisted by the Socialist Party, which was headed by Norman Thomas, himself a former Social Gospel minister), but Niebuhr himself was less directly involved. Actually, in the postwar period he was very much like Schlesinger in his position (who vainly usrged Nibuhr to discuss slavery and racial bigotry in THE IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY), save that he was more of a "Jeffersonian" and uneasy with an active federal role.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/8/2005

Greg, A couple of points: 1) my colleagues in the secular left have yet to assimilate the fact that Jerry Falwell's Liberty Road Baptist Church is now the largest black congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. I don't altogether know what to make of that fact, but it's a fact. 2) I posted about this issue at "What Battle Have You Fought? What Victory Have You Won?. The failure of the secular left to see that the religious left is essential to progress continues to astonish me. Reinhold Niebuhr was engaged with Southern radicals, including the Southern Tenant Farmers Union from his earliest tenure at Union Seminary through the 1960s. I don't even know why he would be made the touchstone of enlightenment on these things, but he was way more engaged than a secular counterpart like Schlesinger.

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