Liberal theology has been present in American Christendom for over a century. And despite working its way into a variety of denominations across that time period, it has failed to, as FiveThirtyEight puts it, mobilize a throng of democratic voters in the same way that the religious right has.
This modern alliance between Christianity and democratic politics is weak.
FiveThirtyEight says this:
For the past four decades, the notion that religious beliefs should guide voters’ decision-making has been largely monopolized by the Republican Party. But the partisan “God gap” hasn’t gone unnoticed by some religious Democrats, who have urged candidate after candidate to make appeals to religious values and beliefs in the hope of turning the “religious left” into a politically relevant force.
First Cory Booker — who was literally anointed by his pastor ahead of his presidential announcement — was touted as a possible candidate of the “religious left.” Then Pete Buttigieg stepped in to claim that mantle, telling reporters that the left “need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.” Meanwhile, several other presidential hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, are all talking openly about their religion on the campaign trail, even making arguments for why their policy positions — whether it’s abortion rights or income inequality — are linked to their faith.
As Erick pointed out during the whole BootEdgeEdge Episcopalian debacle, one issue with the left’s use of Christianity is that their version of it is increasingly heterodox or outright heretical. Consider the Emergents from a few years ago… You have individuals in the movement claiming that the red letters are more inspired than others. You have individuals who embrace universalism while trying to twist the exclusivity of Jesus Christ in a way that supports their personal belief that Jesus will be sneaking unbelievers into heaven. You have individuals who deny the existence of hell. And a specific point from Erick’s articles, you have individuals who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Liberal theology has gotten so far away from orthodoxy that most attempts at connecting Christianity with liberal policy goals are inevitably going to be achieved by twisting scripture and doctrine.
Now, that is not to say that all Christian arguments for liberal policies are heretical. You are just more likely to run into heresy in doing so. And it’s that likelihood that makes it difficult for some Christians, who may be left leaning, to commit to this idea of a religious left even if they still vote for democrats.
And to some extent, forging connections between faith and politics makes sense for Democratic candidates — a majority of Democratic primary voters are religious. But there are several big hurdles facing any Democrat looking to use the language of faith to marshal voters in the primary. For one thing, the Democratic coalition isn’t dominated by a single religious group. In fact, the Democratic Party has been growing steadily less religious over the past 20 years… But in a diverse and increasingly secular party, religious rhetoric alone may not get the candidates very far.
Religious Democrats may not get as much attention as their counterparts on the right, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. About 65 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016 reported having some kind of religious affiliation, compared to 84 percent of Republican primary voters.
The result is that Democratic candidates are trying to reach a smaller and more splintered religious audience than Republican candidates are targeting in their own primary. “Talking about religion is a much more complicated task when you’re trying to simultaneously address white Catholics and black Protestants and Muslim and Jewish Americans,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, a research organization that studies religion and politics. “They may not have all that much in common, other than the fact that they identify as religious, which makes them harder to appeal to and organize.”
I started this article by discussing how the religious right is monolithic. FiveThirtyEight does an excellent job explaining how the religious left is not. And if we dig a little deeper, we see that this fractured nature of what might be the religious left is not limited to the different groups themselves, but we find that fractured nature within groups.
That is what the left has to overcome in order to be a political force in the same way as the religious right.
Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices by Robert Fowler et al offers us several chapters on the discussion of Hispanic and African American faith as it relates to political choices. FiveThirtyEight notes that about a fourth of the religious left is non-white and Christian. Fowler makes several points regarding the religious views of minorities. One, African Americans are overwhelmingly protestant. Two, religious African Americans are liberal on many issues yet find themselves agreeing with conservatives on some social issues even if they don’t vote that way. Fowler notes that African American women are a driving force in the religiosity of this demographic. Three, Fowler makes similar observations regarding Hispanics and their voting habits especially in terms of the relationship between government programs and social issues. But Fowler makes one distinction. Whereas African Americans are protestant and liberal, the split between GOP ID and Dem ID among Hispanics flips depending on denomination. Hispanic Catholics tend to be liberal. Hispanic Protestants are more likely to be conservative.
It is this chunk of the religious left that weakens the potential power of a unified religious left. The flavor of liberal theology found among white liberals like the Emergents and the old mainline protestants comes with some degree of universalism. This allows them to praise the religiosity of Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc. (also what kind of electoral strategy focuses on 3 million Hindus? Not to be rude, but it’s kind of pointless numerically). Yet that universalism and even some other aspects of their liberalism may alienate the more devote liberal Christians. How does an African American Christian, who believes in the exclusivity of Jesus, is opposed to gay marriage, but supports government assistance programs, react to an increasingly preachy gay white liberal Episcopalian? How does an African American Christian, who sees his or her faith in terms of their historic struggle against slavery and God’s concern for the oppressed, react to candidates who are more than willing to provide assistance to individuals who weren’t historically oppressed by our government? How does a devout Hispanic Catholic react to a candidate who has expressed anti-Catholic bias? Or how would a devout Muslim or Hindu react to a democratic candidate who discusses the exclusivity of Jesus Christ?
My guess is that practicality will win out, as it usually does. But if this idea, that there needs to be a religious left as a political force, makes any ground among the current candidates, the splintered nature of the would be religious left sort of defeats the very purpose of having a monolithic group.
It just can’t be done. Even among white liberals, the religious left is so diverse, in a bad way. You can go from simply wanting more governmental compassion in immigration all the way to a Lutheran “pastor” who melts purity rings into vagina sculptures. Somewhere along the line, the authority of scripture is diminished and doctrine is thrown out. It’s the inevitable slide of liberal theology. It turns into nothing more than a social club for people who don’t mind the idea of a higher being who is a nice guy even if they can’t be bothered to commit to the idea one way or another. Or it’s moralism based on liberal policy, using scripture when convenient. Or it’s a yoke of works righteousness where we are judged by how we treat the oppressed and the poor.
That variance does not exist on the right to the same degree. It is overwhelmingly protestant. We draw from the principles of historically protestant thinkers and governments. And regarding core doctrinal issues, there is little disagreement. Sure we may have to rebuke the prosperity gospel and the excesses of the charismatic movement, but even that insanity pales in comparison to the heresy that is promoted by the religious left.