While the zeal and strategy of the Religious Right has been well-documented since the movement’s inception in the late 20th century, journalists have lately turned their attention to its alleged left-leaning counterpart. Stories, bearing equal parts documentation and speculation, of an emerging “Religious Left” have decorated the pages of major outlets such as the The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and Reuters since 2016. But the framing of these stories distorts as much as it uncovers.
Although progressive Christian organizing has deep roots and successful outcomes going back to abolition and the civil rights movement, recent faith-based activism has relied far less on the historical clout of Christian institutions, a fact almost entirely absent in coverage concerning religiously rooted resistance to the Trump administration.
Organizations such as Faith in Public Life* and movements such as Rev. William Barber II’s revival of the Poor People’s Campaign are doing important work in our time, but many easily overlook the organizing around immigration, religious freedom, hate violence, land rights, and environmental conservation that is owed to progressive Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, and indigenous groups. Organizations like CAIR, the Sikh Coalition, the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, and Stand with Standing Rock among many others have made monumental impacts on policy and political discourse in the last two years.
I saw it in the announcement of the Muslim ban and the ensuing mayhem as protestors flooded airports across the country. I saw it at Standing Rock, where indigenous peoples from across North America converged to combat the destruction of their communities and preserve local ecosystems. I saw it on the floor of Congress, as Sikh service members sought to solidify rules granting sweeping religious accommodations in the military. And I saw it in the aftermath of every anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hate crime and murder since the attacks on 9/11.
Yet, coverage regarding the “Religious Left” rarely centers these narratives — perhaps because the “Religious Left” is more of a journalistic fabrication. It’s a misleading moniker born out of dated and problematic assumptions about progressive faith-based advocacy in the United States. Why, then, use this term when one refers primarily to the work of Christians? Those who use “Religious Left” to paint broad strokes about progressive faith while describing a narrow set of experiences reinforce systemic Christian supremacy.
There are certainly reasons why Christians are centered in this discourse. The black church served as a spring for the civil rights movement, and Christian leaders have often been credited in the formation of interfaith coalitions and ecumenical groups. Historically, the United States has been a majority white Christian nation. Nevertheless, demographics are rapidly changing.
Today, only 43 percent of Americans identify as both white and Christian, according to a 2017 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. The youngest and fastest growing “religious” groups? Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and the unaffiliated. Non-Christian groups have come into their own, harnessing their independent and collective resources to begin building a nation that affirms their own power and potential. We saw this in last year’s midterms with the election of the first Muslim women to Congress.
Despite all this, journalistic constructions of the “Religious Left” remain largely Christian-centric, and they latch onto oversimplifications about movement building. Most recently, I was struck by a recent NPR segment on the "Religious Left," which begins simply with the mention of its long-standing conservative opposition. Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish activists are eventually mentioned but serve only as a simple addendum to a conversation centered almost entirely on Christians.
Othered communities of faith are not an addendum to the broader movement in progressive religion. In fact, we’re the beating heart. The stakes of politics are highest for those on the fringes of society, and our communities have been far from silent about the life-threatening injustice we face at the hands of the Trump administration. Framings of the “Religious Left” often deny non-Christian communities their agency. Ultimately, the onus is on journalists to abandon such simplistic constructions. Until then, they are complicit in reinforcing Christian supremacy and erasing our work.
*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article described Faith in Public Life as a "left-leaning Christian organization." A spokesperson contacted Sojourners to clarify that Faith in Public Life is an interfaith organization.