What Religious Progressives Bring To The Party

Sara Robinson

I spent several days over last weekend as a volunteer webworker covering the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Salt Lake City. These annual confabs are always a highlight of the summer for me as a UU. They’re also one of the best shows going if you want to remember, all the way down, what it means to be liberal in America — or understand, once again, why religious liberals are so critically important to the ultimate success of the progressive project.

There are a lot of theories of change; but like many of us, I’m particularly drawn to the one that says that if you want to change reality, you start by changing the story. Worldview, narrative, discourse, framing, whatever word you want to use for it — the stories we tell about how reality works are the frameworks through which we set priorities, evaluate the good and the bad, establish value, and make meaning. And those priorities, evaluations, values, and meanings in turn drive the more concrete political decisions we make about how we solve problems and invest our resources — and thus determine what kind of world we actually end up making.

So: if you don’t like the world you’ve got, the first thing you need to do offer people another more emotionally compelling and satisfying story, and a better vision of what the future could be. We get these stories from culture, education, and family. But throughout history, almost all cultures have relied most heavily on their religious traditions to tell their foundational stories, and preserve and transmit the most important information about how to thrive and survive in the world to successive generations.

The conservative experience

The leaders who launched the conservative renaissance in the early 1970s had tremendous faith in the power of religious narrative to drive political action. They knew that the first step in destroying post-war progressivism was to replace the liberal story — the one that proclaimed the moral imperatives of social and economic equality, education, public investment, and the common good — with another story that found its moral center in the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and insisted that “collectivism” in all its forms was pure unmitigated socialist evil.

Selling this worldview demanded that they create a deep, long-term shift in the country’s theological narrative. America’s progressive eras have been dominated by the communalist, egalitarian Social Gospel ideals that animated reformers from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King. Its conservative ones saw us adopt a more Calvinist creed that proclaimed our duty to revere and obediently serve a divinely ordained aristocracy of the wealthy Elect. In both cases, the majority of Americans have drawn their political beliefs from their religious imperatives: whatever they imagine to be unleashed in heaven is very quickly unleashed on earth as well.

This is why secular conservatives in the early 1970s so eagerly partnered up with the Religious Right. The conservative churches had a ready-made theology that provided ample moral cover for most of what the corporate capitalists wanted to do (in sharp contrast with progressive religion, which had an annoying habit of challenging those intentions at almost every turn). So conservative leaders aggressively seeded huge new national organizations to mobilize people of a certain kind of faith to spread their gospel of individualism throughout the land — be it the capitalistic Calvinism of the Moral Majority, the aristocratic Catholicism of Opus Dei, or the secular gospel proclaimed by Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mieses. Note that the names of the prophets hardly mattered: the plan was to develop and sell a wide variety of theological flavors that offered the same basic story to a wide range of tastes. They knew that once most Americans accepted some religious or secular variant of that theology, a whole new kind of previously unthinkable political, social, and economic revolution would become possible.

They also knew that people only make lukewarm and fleeting commitments to a politics based on “reasonable” plans and policies. Engaging them for the long haul — and the conservatives see their efforts as the work of generations — depends on enlisting them, body and soul, in a great cosmic struggle for righteousness and truth. It’s the kind of unifying mission you can commit yourself to for a lifetime. Issues come and go; but this kind of overarching, timeless story keeps people coming back, sending money, and pushing on toward a better future — even through the bad years when the odds look hopeless and the losses are mounting.

This early investment in converting America to conservative theology was one of the key investments that movement made. It instigated a shift in worldview that undermined the basic logic of progressivism, hijacked the language, redefined American ideals, and made it literally impossible for the country to even visualize progressive solutions or hear the progressive story for 30 long years. It’s only now, with the failures of that regime crumbling under our feet, that America is finally willing to question those essential assumptions and worldview. And they’re looking to progressives to give them something else — another vision of America they can believe in.

Lessons for progressives

Going to the General Assembly is always a potent reminder for me of how different the progressive moral story sounds — and how appealing and potent it can be in motivating people to make revolutionary political, cultural, and personal choices. (These are the very same ideas, after all, that lit the fire of moral imperative under America’s Founders, most of whom were religious liberals of one kind or another.) And I always come home wondering: Why aren’t progressives using liberal religious narratives to sideline conservatives the same deft way they used their theology against us?

A lot of progressives believe reason alone is — or should be — enough to drive political behavior. They’re fiercely proud of the fact that our plans and policies are based on science, fact, and logic; and believe that reasonable people will join up with our cause for reasonable reasons. And I’ve seen them get rather unnerved by the mere suggestion that sensible policy alone will not, in the end, be enough to move our agenda.

In this view, there’s no need for progressives to get down into that messy mythopoetic pit, no need to resort to “tricks” like drama, music and poetry to speak to people’s dreams and fears; no need to supply a vibrant, detailed, overarching vision of a world remade in the progressive image; no acknowledgment that “our kind of people” might also need a satisfying, soul-deep narrative to hold onto if they’re going to commit the rest of their lives to — and sacrifice endlessly for — an impossibly vast struggle.

Even those who intellectually understand the essential role conservative theology played in laying the ontological foundation for everything else that movement did aren’t convinced that we want — or need — that same kind of deep, enduring, gut-level commitment from Americans. Or they simply don’t see how we’d ever be able to overwrite that conservative worldview with new, meaningful, emotionally compelling story of our own — no matter how much we might stand to gain from doing so.

These are rational positions. Most progressive opinion leaders come from resolutely secular educational backgrounds where they learned that emotion is the chief enemy of reason, and that it thus has no place in politics or policymaking. And our recent bitter experience has shown all of us how just how far astray the conservatives were ultimately led by blind religious and ideological fervor. It’s not unreasonable to be terrified that if we start talking about squishy stuff like values and vision, hope and faith, commitment and meaning, we’ll end up somewhere just as irrational in the end — and perhaps just as irrelevant as well.

In this view, the fact that Barack Obama got elected precisely because he’s fluent in the language of progressive theology — a language that speaks not of God, but of the moral obligations we have to each other, and the power of politics to create a more just and equitable future — is regarded as either a fluke, or some kind of sinister and unethical chicanery that we all should be vaguely ashamed of. That discomfiture is keeping us from taking in the most powerful lesson of the Obama campaign: Well-reasoned policies based in well-established facts are essential to good governance; but on their own, they don’t have the resonant power required to win and keep hearts and minds. If we want the kind of commitment that engages people for the next 40 years, we can’t afford to be squeamish about this. We need to get over ourselves and learn to speak, work, and create community at the deeper levels of worldview, myth, and metaphor. And that is, precisely, what religious progressives already know how to do.

The potential of progressive religion

Secular progressives often assume that religious progressives adhere to the same kind of rigid, rule-based faith that our conservative cousins do. Mostly, this assumption is wrong. “Religion” in the progressive sense is a far different animal from the dogmatic conservative beast we’ve all come to fear. Progressive religions tend to be very light on dogma; and where God is concerned, many of them embrace people of all beliefs and no belief. (My own congregation includes about 40 percent atheists and agnostics, some of whom are world-class scientists and academics who are spiritually fed by the wonders they encounter in their own daily work. The more they understand the world, the more amazing it becomes to them.) Our inclusiveness springs from the knowledge that you don’t have to be “religious” in any sense to share our view of what’s most deeply sacred: commitments to family, community, creative and productive work, powerful ideas, encounters with friends and strangers, the ideals of democracy, the complexities of nature, the mysteries of life’s passages, and the intimacy that comes from walking a long path together. For most progressives — religious or not — these things form the basis of a demanding internally-driven moral code. When we affirm them together, we are affirming the ideals that lie at the heart and soul of our politics.

There are tens of millions of religious progressive out there who speak this moral language — though right now, they’re often shy about speaking it outside the shelter of their own congregations. Beyond my own Unitarian Universalists, you’ll find much larger groups like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians, some strands of the United Methodists and Lutherans, the Reform and Conservative Jews, forward-looking Muslims, liberal Catholics, various indigenous and earth-centered faith groups, more Buddhists than you might imagine, and even some emerging Evangelical congregations that are flirting with a return to the Social Gospel.

These groups are already forming strong local and regional interfaith alliances around environmental and social justice issues. For example, the New Sanctuary Movement, which advocates for undocumented workers, has become a huge piece of common ground; and the political conversation on this issue has often been transformed by the combined moral voice of the faith groups allied under its banner. These congregations often bring considerable political experience and cultural muscle to the table, in addition to a satisfying ontological backstory against which gives depth, meaning, and commitment to a life devoted to progressive change.

But progressive religion’s greatest gift may be its skill at growing the kind of thick connective tissue that can help turn our mass movement into a lasting community. Religious progressives of all stripes come to the party packing hard drives full of liturgies and rituals that help us mark important events and passages, express shared values, invest issues with symbolic meaning, and reinforce a strong gut-level sense of community. They know how to raise a prayer that includes and inspires everybody, including non-believers. They’ve collected marvelous music and poetry, ancient and modern, that expresses the deepest hopes and dreams that lie at the heart of the progressive spirit. They’re already fluent in a language of cooperation, compassion, and inclusiveness that provides a model of what a truly liberal society might be like. And their meetings provide a natural context for deep and honest conversations about what truly matters in the world — the kinds of conversations that create intimate bonds of trust and common purpose between people. Making a bigger place for progressive religion will give our politics the kind of deep moral grounding that all change movements require if they’re going to sink deep roots and endure for the long haul.

Celebrating the things that give life meaning is the work of spirit. Coming together to promote and protect them is the work of politics. As Jesus said: faith without works is nothing. But as Paul replied: so are works without faith.

Americans are a faithful people. Secular progressives resist or belittle that fact at their own peril, because even in the 21st century, a good theology is still the most important political motivator we know of. If we’re going to sustain political power for the next 40 years, we need to listen to our own resident experts: the tens of millions of religious progressives who are already telling our movement’s story in ways that make the world shimmer with hope and meaning. You can’t do politics without this stuff — not if you expect to win, and endure.

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