The left in American politics may be about to undergo a fundamental re-organization. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the growing “resistance” movement on the left is threatening to undermine the status quo, shifting funding and other valuable resources away from more mainstream liberal think tanks and organizations to grassroots efforts and activist startups. This “once in a generation” shakeup represents a rare chance for progressive evangelicals to establish themselves as a key part of this new order — advocating for the prioritization of social justice issues and offering moral leadership, to help unify the goals and rhetoric of a currently diverse and fragmented group.
Though politically important during key periods of American history, evangelicals on the left have lost much of the influence they wielded as abolitionists or as advocates for safe working conditions during the 19th century. The history of progressive evangelicals has been full of disappointments, notably declining as the “religious right” rose to prominence in the 1980s. These years ensured that in common parlance, “evangelical” is now a synonym for “conservative.” The continuing dominance of the “moral majority,” and the current nature of partisan politics in the U.S., ensures that Christians who are concerned about social justice issues are minimized in national debates.
Why should any of this change now? Post-election, the left in America — and the Democratic Party in particular — have been looking to reinvent themselves, and space is opening for less conventional actors to participate. Younger people and liberal advocates — many of whom supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary — are pushing back against the so-called “corporate wing” of the Democratic Party. In this context, soul-searching party leaders and establishment members still seeking to understand why so many people who voted for Obama in 2012 supported Trump over Clinton are keen to listen to fresh voices.
We are witnessing a potentially dramatic process that has the potential to have a democratizing force on the American left. And we are already seeing evidence that the Democratic Party, at least, is keen to take a big-tent approach to politics. This summer the party confirmed it will not treat abortion as a litmus test for candidates — something progressive evangelicals may feel more strongly about than non-religious progressives
And beyond issues, Christians active in social justice causes are likely to fit well into this decentralized, sometimes informal context. The neighborhood church remains a primary organizing force for faithful activists who promote racial justice, welcome refugees, or support healthcare access. This faith-driven grassroots activism dovetails smoothly with the locally-rooted progressive politics that are emerging on the left in the wake of the 2016 general election.
Without strong coordination and leadership, this reconfiguration process could lead to continued fragmentation, or the establishment of a vocal, left-wing minority focused on primary challenges — not unlike what Republicans experienced with the rise of the Tea Party in response to President Obama’s election.. Yet moving to the grassroots, where people are making change in their local communities, and reinvigorating activism from there, has the potential to reinvent progressive politics in this country — a process to which progressive Christians have much to contribute.