Christian Left?

American Christian FishSteve Benen brought my attention to a report by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute. What it found was that there is a growing Christian Left movement. Not surprisingly, it is younger and more diverse compared to the old white Christian Right movement. A Christian Left movement would be most welcome, but I’m not as hopeful as Benen seems to be.

The big problem is the two sex issues: abortion and homosexuality. These are what give the Christian Right 99% of its vitality. It is all identity politics too. Those people who have casual sex are not good Christians like we. As I’ve argued in the past, there is nothing particularly Christian against abortion. There is nothing in the Bible, and the arguments against it are detailed and not particularly compelling. At least the Old Testament is against homosexuality. And before someone says anything, yes, abortion really has been around that long.

There are all kinds of things that Christians could have elevated to sacred status in terms of their politics. Just looking at the New Testament, one would predict that Christians would focus on eliminating poverty. But they don’t. And I think it all comes down to a small minded fear of sex and hatred of women. In that way, things do look better. I don’t see younger Christians getting older and suddenly developing all of the sexual hangups of their parents. Just the same, I don’t see them forming a strong political movement. After all, pretty much all modern religions believe in some form of life after death. Given that, why care about the suffering of others, especially when they are the other?

Benen also mentioned another fact that I thought was very interesting. Roughly 51% of Americans think that the United States Constitution set up “a Christian nation.” This is good news, because it used to be higher. This bit of ignorance ought to cause outrage on the right as an indication of our schools’ complete failure to educate children about our country. But they won’t. And there is a very good reason why people manage to go around thinking something so wrong. If any school teacher mentioned that the Constitution was created specifically to exclude God from it, he would be pilloried by conservatives.

The question is, are these polls believable? Almost 40% of Americans say they go to church each week. But research of actual attendance found that only 20% actually attend church each week. I think to the vast majority of Americans, saying that they “believe in God” or are “religious” is just another way of saying that they are good people. A self-proclaimed Christian once told me that he didn’t believe that Jesus was the savior. That struck me as particularly American. Christians like to complain that Christ has been removed from Christmas; I would say that Christ has been removed from Christianity.

For most Christians, it is just like a club. And they believe what they believe because that’s what people in the club believe. There is very little of the sacred in modern American Christianity. I know this from personal experience. I talk to Christians all the time and the one who knows anything about the real basis of their religion is as rare as a wheat penny. And so in order to signal tribal loyalty, they grab on to anti-choice and anti-gay hysteria. What will these younger, liberal Christians grab onto? If they stay in the church, I’m not at all certain they won’t develop similar cultural signaling mechanisms. In general, being a member of a church makes a person more suspicious of outsiders. And that leads to the same old in and out group politics that has poisoned the older generation of Christians.

There is, of course, a more pleasant take on all of this. The younger generations could be far more open to real spiritual thinking—to reaching out to the sacred. But in my experience, that kind of thinking leads a person to what might as well be secular. There is no sense of “us and them” when there is no dogma. All the major religions are little more than dogma. So my hope is not that there will be a Christian Left movement. It is more that the young would demand an expansive religion that speaks to our modern needs. None of the Abrahamic religions come close to qualifying. And I fear they will always lead to exclusionary (that is, conservative) politics.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Christian Left?

  1. I’ve mentioned Jim Wallis and the "Sojourners" people. Now, Wallis himself is far more pleased with his status as spokesperson/emissary to powerful folk than a Christian should be (at least by my lights), but the fact that a lot of people are members of Sojourners is important. They’re moderate on gay rights and abortion (don’t approve, but think the government should stay out of the way) and believe in "social justice" — anti-war, anti-inequality, pro-assistance to the poor. Glenn Beck, a few years back, went apeshit on how Christians who believe in "social justice" aren’t Christian at all, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    It’s going to be important to court people like this, flowers in hand. Also Hispanic Catholics, the only religious group (besides evangelicals) growing in numbers today. I have seen no data on what Hispanic Catholics believe, but I’m guessing it’s socially conservative and economically liberal. I can deal with people like that (my mom was one, after all.) Give me someone who hates economic unfairness but is uncomfortable with gays, and I can usually get through to them.

    Someone who’s socially liberal and economically conservative is, for me, much harder to reach. As a poor person, I already stand condemned in their eyes. Plus, unlike social conservatives who can reconsider their stances on homosexuality or abortion if they know someone whose life was affected by bad laws regarding those issues, economic conservatives tend to happythink away decades and decades of data showing that deregulation and privatization Just. Don’t. Work. It’s like arguing for a heliocentric conception of the solar system with these people. They’ve got their dogma, it suits them, that’s it.

  2. On religion-vs.-spirituality; well, organized religion is always going to be more of a club than a spiritual influence. I was having this discussion with a friend last week. She’s studying Buddhism, and wondering why there are silly, rote-ritual things in Buddhism that Buddha never taught.

    I mentioned that important spiritual leaders (we can call them "inspired," "enlightened," or "touched in the head") always first appealed to a very small group of spiritually-inclined people who questioned extant religious norms. Jesus, Mohammed, Siddhartha all appeared (or their formative legends did) in times where seekers had zillions of splinter groups and the mainstream treated religion as a club. They all attempted to focus religious devotion onto essentials that made connection with the infinite clearer and less ritualistic.

    What we think of as the ooky aspects of those religions came from latter-day saints; Paul and the Catholic dogmas, Islamic "hadiths" (sayings/teachings attributed to the Prophet but not in the Koran), the stuff Buddhist monks came up with.

    There’s always going to be a certain percentage of humanity that looks to examine the meaning of our brief existence, and finds transcendence in rare moments, visions, emotions, experiences, insights. Most people won’t.

    When you think of it, it’s rather remarkable that we live with major religions which, at their inception, were just one among many sects appealing to those who wanted more from faith communities. Luck (or providence, for adherents) made them ascendent over other sects. And now they’re primarily what they came into being as opposition towards; a ritualistic, convoluted "club." Luther hated, above other things he hated (Jews), Catholic "indulgences" which gave rich psychopaths free admission to Heaven. And what else is mainstream Protestant teaching today but exactly that?

    I like Hinduism. Not the real-world ramifications of it (rich people assuming the poor deserve their status via karma, which is hideous), but the inclusiveness of its theology. Everybody gets their own definition of God. Some are devoted to a quest for spiritual truth and follow gurus or their own path; others make a rote prayer and drop a coin into the offering box once a week/month/year and consider that their premium on Eternity Insurance.

    Religion will never go away (silly, silly Mr. Harris) and some will always take it far more seriously than others, inside or outside established schisms. The trick is to build a society where there is room for club members, fervent devotees, and independents on a spiritual quest without stepping on any toes OR allowing any of them to force their beliefs on anyone else.

    Putting up a legal framework to try and accomplish this is, to me, the best legacy our Constitution-writing, rich-white-slaveowning-guy forebears ever left to us. They’d seen corrupt established state religions and wars between sects aspiring to become corrupt state religions. To hell with all of that, they decided. Let Caesar have what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, and never the twain shall meet.

    Rant winding down. There ARE deluded folk who believe American prosperity came from God’s approval (apparently, He liked killing Indians, enslaving Blacks, working children to death, and denying women the vote, but the Pill and the New Deal pissed Him off and it’s all been downhill from there) and they are unreachable. They make up a sizable proportion of the populace; maybe 15-20%. Like Mitt Romney with everyone who’s not rich, we should just forget about their votes. (Unlike Mitt Romney, we want to create a society that benefits them as well as the rest of us.)

    It’s not impossible to envision a future with room for everyone and no political domination by any particular Eternity Insurance premium-paying sect. Likely? I don’t think so. But plausible? Surely.

  3. @JMF – I have one Catholic Latina friend and the thing with her is that she isn’t particularly ideological. But that fact alone makes her a Democrat.

    On my last religious article, I was pleased to get a nice comment from a Christian named Mary. I don’t agree with her, but I was pleased that she was open minded. I think that atheists make a mistake by mocking and pushing aside the very real questions that religion tries to answer. They are important questions. And pretending otherwise just shows that most atheists are as clueless and elitist as the worst Christians.

    There is a concept in computer science: scalability. It is a measure of how big a program can get before it breaks down. For a bad but useful example, a poorly designed database will work just fine with say 1000 entries. But it will grind to a halt at a million. The same thing is true with religious movements: they don’t scale well. Spirituality is a pretty individual thing. What’s more religions compromise in order to grow. That’s why I know that eventually the Catholic Church will accept homosexuality. That’s good, but it also shows how evil the religion is: all those years of oppressing people. And who will they be oppressing then?

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