The Common Good

Political Labels and the So-called 'Religious Left'

Recently I served on a panel at BookExpo America that explored evangelicals' changing attitudes toward politics. As each co-panelist spoke, I mentally applauded his assessment of how evangelicals are responding to, and changing, the current political climate. While there were some areas of disagreement, there was a much greater area of common ground among the four of us.

Except when it came to identifying and labeling political factions, that is. Who, exactly, comprises the evangelical left? How about progressives? Who are they? Or the "evangelical centrists" that David Gushee, a panelist, so effectively defined in The Future of Faith in American Politics? His use of a term he popularized was actually called into question, as was the panelists' use of the word evangelical --- even though the title of the forum was "Evolving Evangelicals."

Which brings me to a recent Q&A with John Green on the increasing influence and visibility of the Religious Left. Green is senior fellow in religion and American politics with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which last month sponsored its own panel discussion on "Religion and Progressive Politics in 2008."

Green rightly began by attempting to clarify just who the Religious Left is. Those of us who have been around for a while recall that even before the Religious Right inserted itself into American politics, all we had to do was utter the phrase "social justice" to be labeled a liberal; the "Religious Left" seemed to include anyone who cared about, or merely expressed interest in, those issues that fell outside the theological focus on bringing people to Christ.

But then the political Religious Right came to prominence, and the rift between the right and left was defined more clearly in political rather than theological terms (though it was assumed that your politics defined your theology and vice versa). There was little or no room for moderates until recently, as many evangelicals became disenchanted with and embarrassed by the Religious Right.

Certain labels came into more widespread use; evangelicals who were previously reluctant to use the term "progressive," for example, began feeling comfortable with that definition. Little did they know that the label identified them as theological liberals as well as political liberals, at least according to Green; many people who consider themselves to be evangelical progressives are also theologically conservative. The labels muddied rather than clarified who they were politically and theologically.

I don't know. I'm often referred to as a progressive (Green places me somewhere along the progressive-Religious Left continuum), but any more I'm not sure what I am. After reading Green's comments and his detailed, head-spinning definitions of political sub-groups (he identifies "progressive centrists" as political moderates who are theologically liberal, for instance), I'm more confused than ever about where I fit in along the religious-political spectrum.

Whatever labels people use to define us, one thing is certain: the likes of Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, and countless others who served in the trenches for decades have paved the way for liberals, the left, progressives, moderates, centrists -- and any other left-of-right category -- to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. But I agree with Green; even as others are heralding the demise of the Religious Right, Green says this:

If one means that the religious right no longer plays the dominant role in American faith-based politics, these analyses are probably correct. The new prominence of the religious left is one important reason why this may be so. But one would want to be cautious about assuming that the religious right's organizations, leaders and voters have left politics. They have not.

Yes, the influence of the Religious Right has waned, and I would add that in particular the influence of the right's leadership has waned. But firmly entrenched and heavily invested beliefs die hard, and it's likely that even those conservative evangelicals who have been feeling skittish about the right's political entanglements will revert to old habits come November.

Even so, given Green's estimate that the population of religious progressives -- broadly and imperfectly defined as I've just discussed -- just about equals that of the Religious Right, this newly recognized category could very well be a formidable political factor.

Marcia Ford is the author of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.

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