In 2008 Americans approached the election of a new president with trepidation and hope. Wearied of almost a decade of war, social division, and a sense of impending economic crisis, Americans responded to a new voice promising change and a different direction for the country. The election of Barack Obama marked, many believed, a new day in America—a more just, inclusive, and hopeful turn in the nation’s history. Four years later another presidential election is under way. The nation remains mired in war and is still struggling with the worst effects of the economic meltdown, whose burdens have been borne by society’s most vulnerable members. Meanwhile, the causes for the economic disaster go unaddressed, we are an even more divided nation, and our national government is characterized by a disabling hyper-partisanship.
As we confront the current election and the next four years, many progressives are reflecting upon how we reached this juncture and what role we should play moving forward. Gary Dorrien, in a narrative elaborated both in his Fall 2012 article in the print issue of Tikkun and in his incisive book, The Obama Question, sets forth an analysis shared by many progressives, including myself. On one side, the Republican Right has, following a forty-year trajectory, relentlessly advocated for unregulated markets, a diminished government and social conservatism resulting in out-of-control markets, the growth of income and wealth inequality, a dysfunctional government and threats to the rights of minorities, women, the poor and immigrants. The ongoing alliance of unregulated free market advocates and religious and social conservatives has continued to deploy a narrative of America that sacralizes individualism, unfettered capitalism, American exceptionalism, militarism and conservative Christianity. All this is often supported by an unacknowledged discourse of otherness in which racial, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities are assumed to be non-American and in which Barack Obama could never lay legitimate claim to the American presidency.
Such a context would render governing difficult for any president, especially the nation’s first African American president. Barack Obama’s every effort has been blocked by Republicans in Congress, attacked by the right-wing media, hampered by economic elites, and delegitimized by cultural and religious conservatives with ever-new assaults, including the recent assertions of a war on religious freedom. Still many progressives believe Obama missed the opportunity to really address the economic crisis by appointing persons implicated in the very policies that caused the crisis itself and failed to take advantage of a short-lived Democratic control of Congress. Moreover, Obama’s attempts to forge compromises with Republicans who have evidenced no interest in shared governance often have led to stalemates and a compromising of progressive principles. Dorrien, for his part, states that “conciliation was not merely Obama’s default mode…. It was his chief operating mode.” This strategy might have resulted in agreements to address the issues of our day in a less partisan environment. Instead, it has resulted in the compromise of progressive principles and one-sided concessions.
And yet Obama has accomplished, against all odds, significant achievements including health care reform, preventing a total economic collapse, securing greater rights for LGBT persons and working on behalf of greater rights for women.
Given the partisan character of our country and the mixed results of the current administration, what are spiritual and religious progressives to do? In the short run, the spiritual and faith-based progressive movement must follow Dorrien’s advice—support and pressure Obama and the Democrats from the left by urging him to return to his progressive commitments and to “redeem the transformational promise of his presidency.” We have a particular role to play in this election season of continuing the moral critique of the economy with an emphasis on the common good and taking on the current divisive rhetoric of the war on religion.
This, however important, is only one election season. Beyond the election, progressive religious and spiritual persons and groups have much work to do if we are to play a significant role in American society moving forward. That work includes the following:
1. Progressive religious and spiritual persons need to attend to the political life of the nation but we need to locate that work within a much broader commitment to society as a whole. It is imperative that the progressive faith movement not just be the mirror
image of the Religious Right. While politics are important, partisanship and identification with one political party is problematic.
2. Progressive persons of faith or spirituality have an especially important role to play in American society in crafting a new vision or narrative of our lives together as citizens. Much of the public narrative today stresses extreme individualism and freedom that is divorced from any notion of community or shared responsibility. We are often missing a recognition that we are both responsible for one another and that our individual successes and freedom depend upon the strength and wellbeing of the whole. Without such a clearly articulated alternative to the reigning narrative, we have little chance to make the case for fairer economic policies, universal health care, better educational opportunities, etc. We need to craft a much fuller, more coherent, and effective narrative of America that is grounded in notions of the common good, of individual rights and responsibilities within the community rather than as private interests, and of an economy that works for all.
3. Centrally important to this new narrative of the nation must be a profound recognition of the ever growing racial/ethnic and religious diversity of the country. We need a narrative in which diversity is a strength, not a weakness or problem. By 2040 America will be a majority minority country. Already states such as California and cities such as Denver have majority minority populations. Progressive religious and spiritual leaders must lead the way in bridging communities, building coalitions and imaging a vibrant diverse and inclusive society in which no one is left behind.
4. Religious progressives and groups must do a far better job at collaborating and coordinating our message and our work. There are real difficulties in this, including what historian Frank Lambert has called the Left’s “esteem for pluralism.” But we are also faced with genuine internal divisions, both politically and theologically, often related to social issues. The Religious Right has demonstrated a much greater theological homogeneity than have more progressive religious groups and organizations. Moreover, that theological homogeneity is tied closely to a shared political identity. Progressives are a much more diverse lot. Some hold strongly progressive theological views while others are more traditional. Progressives may agree on certain issues such as economic fairness but disagree on other issues such as abortion or marriage equality. For progressives the tent is bigger, both theologically and politically. This lends a vitality to the movement but also renders collaborative action difficult. Collaboration has become even more difficult as sponsoring organizations who do not share progressive views have cut off funding to groups who work with or are in coalitions with broader groups of progressives. If the progressive movement is to grow in numbers and impact we will need to find better ways of engaging our differences.
5. Another area that progressive faith leaders and groups face is the continuing suspicion by secular progressives of religion. This suspicion flows from many sources including forty years of the media equating religious faith with conservative values and political positions. While media coverage has improved over the last decade or so and progressives have done a better job of having a media presence the assumption that religion = Christian = conservative Christian = Republican is widespread. Often secular groups and funders treat persons motivated by religious or spiritual values in a transactional way, funding them or calling upon them only when a “collar” is deemed necessary. There are key examples of more cooperation in state-based efforts at cross-sector collaboration in places such as Ohio, Minnesota, and Colorado. Faith-based community organizing groups, such as Interfaith Worker Justice, have forged strong alliances with labor unions and worker rights organizations. And there is growing collaboration between secular reproductive rights groups and faith-based groups. Still, if there is to be a powerful and effective progressive movement in America we will need a much more robust reapproachment of the secular and the spiritual/religious left in America. Religious and spiritual progressives must be part of a wider progressive movement, not off to the side, trotted out at press conferences to lend an aura of moral authority to the proceedings.
6. Progressives need to identify, support, and promote new leadership. This is especially important as millennials come of age and more and more of them are joining the ranks of the unaffiliated. Recent polls by Public Religion Research Institute and Pew have testified to the fact that the so-called nones” are increasing rapidly and that many of them are younger persons. This means that religious and spiritual progressives need strategies to identify, recruit, train and promote a new generation of leaders many of whom are not to be found in traditional places but in interfaith work, community organizing, and nonprofit work.
7. There also continues to be a need to transform and reclaim resources for training and educating leaders through theological education and through the academic study of religion. In the last forty or fifty years there has been a growing disconnect between the intellectual work of the progressives interested in religion and religious and spiritual individuals. The audience of academic theologians is often the academy and much of the progressive movement lacks helpful theological resources to support the movement, especially around issues of economic and wealth inequality. Moreover, many religious leaders are trained for a world that no longer exists or is rapidly disappearing. And finally, liberal theological educational institutions face conservative assaults, dwindling student bodies and a profound lack of resources. If a new generation of younger leaders is to emerge, be supported and trained progressives need to rethink where and how this takes place in the context of our new reality. And such training needs to include the development of new and more adequate intellectual resources for the future this generation will face.
8. Progressives must continue work to extend our voices in traditional and new media, breaking the ongoing assumption that religious or spiritual equals conservative. Many efforts have been under way in this area that deserve greater support. Auburn Media has trained thousands of progressive leaders so that they can better articulate their positions, represent their organizations, and make their case in the public sphere. Online resources have multiplied, including Religion Dispatches, Huffington Post’s religion blog, the Revealer, the Washington’s Post’s On Faith, Patheos, BeliefNet, and a host of progressive religion blogs which have all attracted wide audiences. Print resources including Tikkun, Sojourner’s, and Catholics for Choice’s Conscience continue to attract readers. Faith in Public Life has emerged as a central media strategy and resource center helping progressive groups around the country. Still, after decades of a broadly accepted narrative equating religion and conservatism, much more remains to be done if progressive groups and ideas are to have impact.
9. Finally, the Occupy movement has captured the imagination and energy of many. But before the Left occupied Wall Street, the Right had been for decades deliberately occupying the political and cultural institutions of this nation, from school boards to political parties to the courts. Progressives must not just occupy parks but also move to the equally difficult work of institution-building and of occupying the national narrative that can guide us toward a more just society.
(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives on American Beyond the 2012 Election, click here.)