Politics and the Limits of Religious Optimism

The way in which the Right and Left of fallen short of ideological challenges.

Will the Left be able to develop a lexicon of political engagement that pushes beyond a religiously limiting grammar and vocabulary of social change? Credit: Creative Commons/Rick & Brenda Beerhorst.

The manner in which the current political discourse in the United States is marred by shortsighted discussions of the “good” and the nature of morality capable of pushing the nation toward its better self is glaring. While neither seems willing to acknowledge this, both the religious Right and the religious Left have fallen short with respect to these ideological challenges.

For instance, both Reinhold Niebhur and Jerry Falwell showed little creativity and little insight regarding the politics of difference and the difference of politics. Both camps have done little to enhance the workings of the public arena of discourse, if for no other reason than an ongoing embrace of certain forms of exceptionalism.

This is not to suggest religious progressives march into the public arena to the same drumbeat marking the religious-political right. Yet, the religious Right and the religious Left draw from the same source materials—scripture and so on—but interpret them differently.

Both camps are optimistic; yet it appears that little about the politics of collective life has changed as a consequence of this optimism. In other words, there is embedded in religiously inspired thinking an optimism of a greater weight than bodies can carry—a grand language of transformation that dwarfs the human ability to “do.” This religiously inspired optimism wants to deny the nature of politics as simply an arrangement of human potential and limitation, a system of bargaining that gives a charge to the dynamics of human relationships that both highlights and downplays difference. This optimism pushes those holding it to find in political maneuverings the outline of some deeper concern for life—a destiny that speaks to our internal greatness wanting to flow outward. And so, the religious left and the right are both frustrated.

This is not an Augustinian sense of human frailty, the type that informs liberal religious thought of the twentieth century. Instead, it is simply recognition of limitation not premised on damage to the soul, but rather the workings of the senses. If anything, the typical and shopworn vocabulary for collective effort shows through the inability to capture Obama with the usual language of progressivism or conservatism.

Gary Dorrien’s book The Obama Question hits its high point as it begins to frame Barack Obama’s presidency explicitly in line with particular and clear markers of religious progressivism. At that point, near the end of the book, the tone and texture of religious Left sensibilities are most vibrant, and the tensions in President Obama’s thinking most apparent. As Dorrien notes, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy surfaced the forms of Christian engagement marking Obama’s perception of human accountability and human potential to act in life affirming ways, in light of the promise and pitfalls of twenty-first-century political maneuverings.

President Obama’s embodiment of a complex, layered, and fluid blackness, and his rhetoric of hard-fought possibility have exposed the shortcomings of our democratic process. Furthermore, responses to his actions on both the right and left show our political system tainted by unresolved difficulties with difference (e.g., race and so on).

The tension between advancement and stagnation undergirding Dorrien’s take on the Obama presidency raises a question not only concerning political will, but it also begs the question of the religious left’s ability to forge an adequate grammar for political change. Perhaps the tensions within the Obama presidency stem not from political naïveté but rather point to the limits of religious optimism, and the boundaries of (Christian) religiously inspired language of progress?

This is not quite Reinhold Niebuhr’s “impossible possibility” in that it does not mark time and effort in light of a cosmic source of assistance or reference point, but rather simply appreciates the outlines of human movement through the world. And, while I am a non-theist humanist and this shapes my perspective, I would venture to say the proper work for progressives at this point involves acknowledgement of this dilemma and reasonable effort to develop a lexicon of political engagement that pushes beyond a religiously limiting grammar and vocabulary of social change that may have held significance in the twentieth century but that fails to capture the current moment—both its challenges and opportunities.

(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives on American Beyond the 2012 Election, click here.)


One thought on “Politics and the Limits of Religious Optimism

  1. The religious right, as it acts, instead of what it professes, has far more in common with the materialist “left” in that they consider people and other living beings as being objects for use or neglect or, in some extreme cases, disposal. Both of them, in practice and, to a great extent, in profession hold people to be subject to the category of commerce based on different valuation. I’ve come to think that materialism will, inevitably, degrade into some variation of conservatism, one with a libertarian twist, based on the self-interest of the materialist, at most on the basis of the culture of their club.

    A left that doesn’t reject that materialist analysis and attitude is a left with no real basis, no real motive to exist and no prospect of ever gaining power and making real change.