By Daniel Schultz
It’s a question I get asked a lot, and am sure to be asked more, now that The Book (Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century), is out.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. In fact, there isn’t even one answer. Instead, many separate factors come together to create the knee-jerk equation of religion with conservatism that we know and love.
First, let’s face it: Conservative religious beliefs and practices are sexier than liberal ones. The drama of sin, conversion, and (usually noisy) salvation is much easier to grasp than the calm, rational consideration of God as the ground of existence and ethical imperative in community. Conservative religion also films better: You couldn’t make The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum playing a Unitarian pastor, for example. And what better way to shorthand religion in movies or television than with the rituals of the Catholic church? Imagine the baptism scene from The Godfather set in a Minnesota-nice Lutheran congregation!
So until someone finds a way to craft a compelling narrative out of committee meetings and quilting circles, I’m afraid we’ll always have a conservative bias in the media’s consideration of religion. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and Angelina Jolie will star as Katharine Jefferts Schori, kicking ass and taking names against sinister right-wing schismatics, as personified by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.*
In any event, point two: conservative religion appears to be on the move. The story goes that liberal denominations in the United States—such as my own United Church of Christ—are dying out. Supposedly, their liberal theology is being rejected by the people in the pews and being replaced by bigger, better, more conservative forms of faith.
It’s another compelling storyline, but it happens to be not very accurate. The mainline denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, UCCers—are shrinking. But their losses stem from their inability to replace aging members, not defections to more conservative faiths. Simply put, the mainliners haven’t done a very good job of keeping the kids around after confirmation; instead, they wander away to join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Mainliners also haven’t produced as many children as the evangelicals or Catholics, period. So as mom and dad age without the kids following them into the pews, the denominations dwindle.
At the same time, more conservative forms of faith—not just Christianity, but Islam as well—really are flourishing in the “Global South,” while wealthier parts of the world really are becoming less religious. (Think Scandinavia.) The one-two punch of apparent liberal decline and revival among conservative strains has convinced many journalists that from now on, “religious” can be used synonymously with “conservative.”
Four: the narrative of liberal weakness and conservative renewal serves the interests of certain parties. The death of the liberal mainline was helped along, if not actually created, by conservative believers eager to demonstrate that their model of faith could outperform the competition. It was also pushed by religious conservatives in order to accomplish secular political goals, such as weakening the support Democrats found in mainline churches, or refocusing the conversation about faith on conservative-friendly terrain. Multiple sources have testified that the religious-right movement did not begin in opposition to abortion, for example, but instead rallied against the IRS’ decision, during the Carter administration, to end tax exemption for Bob Jones University because of the school’s segregation policy.
But partisan politics are not the whole of it. Conservative activists these days like to portray themselves as leaders in a “clash of civilizations” against Islam, which gives them incentive to overestimate the strength of radical Muslims. Secularists and so-called hard atheists get in on the act, too. From their perspective, the religious world looks increasingly like a competition between crazy fundamentalisms to see who can blow up the world first. Liberal religion, or so they tell me, seems relevant only to the extent that it enables its more powerful conservative cousins.
Five and out: let’s not exempt the leadership of the religious left, such as it is. For one thing, there is no central coordinating group for the movement. The religious right had first the Moral Majority, then the Christian Coalition (among others). There’s nobody even analogous on the left. Sojourners (the organization, not the magazine that is its public face) comes the closest, but they’re not very left, when it gets down to it. The coordination and administration functions for the religious left used to be filled by the staff of mainline denominations which, among other things, helped bankroll the Civil Rights movement. But between right-wing attacks and decline, they’ve had to pull back, spinning a decentralized movement as if shot out of a centrifuge.
The remaining leadership hasn’t always done a good job, either. Jeff Sharlet once regaled me with tales of 1600+ word press releases on important social issues put out by religious leftie groups. How can you make yourself heard over such an endless drone? As for the choice of subjects to talk on, well, great googly-moogly. Here’s how one recent anti-poverty campaign led off:
1. Enact a domestic discretionary spending level no lower than the President’s FY 2011 budget and high enough to fund human needs programs adequately;
2. Refrain from passing any multi-year cuts or freezes on domestic non-security discretionary spending; and
3. Take a holistic approach in combating deficits and addressing the nation’s fiscal future.
This, mind you, was an agenda the organizers pointed their readers to with no little pride. Hardly inspirational, and certainly unable to compete with the religious right message: “don’t kill babies, don’t be gay.”
So there you have it. We don’t hear more from the religious left primarily because of confirmation bias. The ascendancy of conservative faith makes a nice, tidy (not to mention cinematic) little picture that allows many of us to see what we want to see in religion. It’s not as simple as it first looks, of course, but then there’s no waters too muddy for a liberal preacher to complexify. To put it another way, we don’t hear more from the religious left because of all the barriers to communication. But with communicators like us, who needs barriers?
*I have nothing against the man. I just think he makes a good creepy villain.
Daniel Schultz, a.k.a. pastordan, is a minister in the United Church of Christ. He serves a small and very patient church in rural Wisconsin. He is the author of Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century (Ig Press, 2010).