To Change The World, Week Seven

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I thought Hunter’s chapter on the religious left wasn’t as strong as his chapter on the religious right, although I appreciated that he highlighted the long history of a politically-engaged religious left. I am baffled when people act as though the politicization of the faith is exclusively a problem of the right. The religious left is FAR more political than the religious right. It’s not even close. It is not unusual to hear overtly political sermons in religious left congregations whereas it is vanishingly rare to hear political sermons in a religious right congregation.

Something to keep in mind is that neither the religious left nor the religious right are above the partisanship that dominates America.

Given the resources of the Democratic Party and the special interests that drive it, there is little question that progressive Christianity is instrumentalized (or used as a means to an end) by the Democratic Party in its quest for power, just as conservative Christianity has been used for quite some time by the Republican Party. (page 148)

Hunter explain what he considers to be the driving force of progressive politics: a particular conception of justice illustrated by the French Revolution’s call for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The key word in the progressive lexicon, and arguably the paramount virtue, is justice. Justice, though, is defined as economic equity — the equality component. Within the contemporary left, there is a tension between the communitarian wing and the social libertarian wing, and the dividing line is far from clearcut. Over the course of the last two centuries, liberalism has had less to say about “fraternity,” though socialism has made this a central part of its agenda. In (p.133) contemporary America, most secular progressives define the “liberty” component in terms of individual autonomy and the freedom to choose one’s own lifestyle; that is, in terms of sexual identity and practice, relationships, entertainment, and so on. But religiously oriented progressives, Christians among them, tend to lean toward the communitarian side of this divide. For these, liberty is understood largely as liberation; often enough this means freedom for individuals and communities from poverty caused by economic domination and exploitation of the wealthy. As to community itself (the “fraternity” component), it is the idea of solidarity among equals — across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. (page 132–133)


Hunter mentions that the religious left has less visibility now than in the past, but I think his description doesn’t do justice to the extent of the mainline collapse. These denominations are imploding at a crazy rate. Researcher Ed Stetzer puts it this way, “If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.” (source)

Read that last sentence again. It’s stunning.

Those on the left and the right disagree about the reasons for the demise of the once-strong denominations. I think Rodney Stark put it well:

“The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded… Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.” (from America’s Blessings)

So due to their weakness, organizations on the religious left were not taken seriously by politicians and academics as they had once been.

Their political advocacy was also mostly ignored until the Republican presidential win in 2004. It was only then that the Democratic Party, for many decades tone-deaf to faith, recognized that it would not mobilize the American public and win elections until it learned to use the language and grammar of faith that has always informed the values and beliefs of most Americans. The problem was that most Democrats have been uncomfortable using the language of faith. From across the Democratic Party, many called for “soul-searching” and internal reform that would address the so-called God-gap.

I am sure at the time Hunter wrote this it seemed that the Democrats had learned the importance of welcoming people of faith, but although Barack Obama’s campaign did this very well Hilary Clinton’s campaign did this outrageously poorly. This is ironic because I believe Hilary Clinton to be far more personally pious than Barack Obama.

Emma Green interviewed Michael Wear about this in the Atlantic “Democrats Have A Religion Problem

“Barack Obama was the perfect transitional president from the old party to the new. He could speak in religious terms in a way that most white, secular liberals were not willing to confront him on. He “got away with” religious language and outreach that would get other Democratic politicians more robust critiques from the left. He was able to paper over a lot of the religious tensions in the party that other, less skilled politicians will not be able to paper over.”

An even more illuminating read is by Ruth Graham at Slate: “Why Hillary Clinton Bombed With White Evangelical Voters” -

This election cycle, Christianity Today made multiple attempts to request an interview with Hillary Clinton, according to Kate Shellnutt, an editor there. The campaign never responded. Of course, campaigns turn down interview requests all the time. But the Clinton campaign was the only one that didn’t reply at all. And this wasn’t the only sign this year that the Democratic candidate had no interest in speaking to evangelical Christians. She spent little energy explaining her views on abortion to them and little time talking about religious freedom. She didn’t hire a full-time faith outreach director until June and had no one focused specifically on evangelical outreach. She didn’t give a major speech to the evangelical community and never met publicly with evangelical leaders. Religious publications reaching out to her campaign with questions were frequently met with silence. Some evangelical insiders are now asking: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton even try to get us to vote for her?

And in a candidate for understatement of the decade:

“For all of the diversity one can find among progressives, one of the central catalysts of solidarity over the years has been their hostility to the leaders, organizations, ideology, and agenda of the Christian Right.” (page 139)

This is true of my friends on the religious left. Their anger at the religious right is a thing to behold. From afar. I am convinced that some of them are quite prepared to punch you in the name of tolerance.

Again, I thought this chapter was less strong (although I imagine the information in it was newer to many of you).


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