For generations, American politics has been defined by the outsized influence of Christian conservatives, so much so that the intersection of religion and politics is often treated as the sole province of white evangelicals. And for generations, promises of a rising “religious left” have come and gone without any lasting political imprint.
But to look at America’s religious left at this moment is to see something genuinely different. Places of worship are participating in demonstrations for civil rights larger than any protest movement in American history. Democrats like Rev. Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden — political leaders whose faith isn’t just incidental to their public personas, but is a core component of both their identities and their appeal to voters — are staging important victories. The National Congregations Study, an annual survey of America’s places of worship, found 41 percent of self-identified liberal congregations lobbied or marched about immigration in 2018–2019; in 2012, it was only 5 percent. Long locked out of power, a growing religious left is pounding on the door. And it has the potential to remake not only American politics, but the way we think about big questions of fairness, justice and what Americans owe to one another.
“Having been a part of the religious left my whole life, yes, it is growing,” says Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. “Because of the pandemic, people are more open to spirituality in general. And I think that the public eye has been more responsive to seeing the religious left because they need to see them to have any hope at all.”
Though the religious left has deep roots in American history — from the abolitionist movement to the establishment of hospitals serving the poor — for much of the past several decades, liberal Christians have been relatively silent about their faith and how it informs their political beliefs, Jones says. But as America grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, yawning economic disparities and the legacy of racism, that’s changing. She points to universal basic income, for example, as “a religious foundational principle” that’s become a lively topic of political debate, and says that religious communities are also taking the lead on education and training to combat white supremacy.
“Both of those issues are going to continue to escalate in terms of the intensity with which the religious left is facing them,” she says.
On matters of white supremacy, Jones has personal experience sorting through the traumas of the past. Years ago, she discovered that a Black woman and her son were lynched in the Oklahoma small town Jones’ family has lived in for generations. She is certain that her ancestors — including her grandfather — participated in the murders. Jones suggests that the horror of that revelation — and how she processed it — offers a glimpse at how the religious left can inform America’s conversation about race and, potentially, lends insight into how reconciliation can occur at a broader level, too.
“Human beings in general are a mixture of the glorious things they’re capable of and the horrible things that they’re capable of. None of us can claim to be pure,” says Jones. “And the more honest one can be about one’s brokenness and the sins one has been responsible for, the more freedom one finds from that.”
What does an insurgent religious left look like? Where does it go from here? And how much of our political disagreements come down to differences in disagreements over what exactly it means to “love thy neighbor?”
To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Jones this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about a newly resurgent “religious left” in American life. Why do you think that’s happening now, and what is the religious left at this point?
Underneath all of the turmoil that we see are layers and layers of deep traumas that have been with us for centuries — moral and ethical struggles that plague us and, in a sense, are rising up through the cracks and fissures of this broken moment to take a hold of us. The pandemic in particular has turned cracks and fissures into gaping wounds.
I think we’re seeing [increased talk of the religious left] now because we’re at a breaking point, and everything is coming into stark relief. We saw it so vividly in Georgia, with election of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a graduate of our seminary of whom we are very proud, and [in the election of] Joe Biden. You see it in so many churches and synagogues and mosques across the country that’ve come to the fore in, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement.
Having been a part of the religious left my whole life, yes, it is growing. Right now, because of the pandemic, people are more open to spirituality in general. And I think that the public eye has been more responsive to seeing the religious left because they need to see them to have any hope at all. To them, it’s a relief to know that there are religious people out there whose view of society is [one of] embracing. They need that.
The big misconception is that the progressive religious voice in this country is suddenly coming to the fore. It has been there a long time. It has a longer history in this country than the evangelical right wing; in the 1920s in Oklahoma, you would be hard-pressed to find a Southern Baptist who was not a socialist. Much of mainline Protestantism all the way back before the Civil War were abolitionists. There’s a long history of deep care for the poor, setting up universities and hospital systems in our country — that all came out of religious communities that had a very progressive vision for what the United States can be.
The newer kid on the block is right-wing conservative Christianity, which gets most of the media attention as representing Christianity in the United States.
So, you describe yourself as part of the religious left. But what does that mean to you? How does your theology inform the way you see politics and America at this moment in time?
My theology informs the way I see everything all the time. I’m a theologian, what can I say? [Laughs]
When looking at this cracking open of all the fissures that run through the history of this nation, my theology demands that I not turn my gaze away from that; that I not pretend as if it isn’t there. My reckoning in my faith [has to do] with the reality of the cross: At the center of the story of my faith is a horrific act of violence, and that to have faith is to have the strength to be present to that violence because you know that God is present to you.
My faith gives me the courage and the strength — in fact, the moral demand — that I not turn away, but actually move towards the suffering and the sins, knowing that ultimately the love of God surrounds all of us, saints and sinners that we are. The love of God is universal.
You’ve said that “too often, progressive Christians get embarrassed about their faith.” Why do you think that that is?
I think it’s because they know that if they admit that they’re Christians, people around them are going to think, “Oh, they must be crazy,” or “They must be right wing,” or “Well, does she like gay people?” or “I wonder what she would think about the fact that I had an abortion.” All these questions embedded in what it means to be “Christian” are attached to a conservative vision. You feel you’re going to have to immediately fend off all of these misconceptions to say, “Look, I actually am deeply progressive and a deeply moral and ethical human being capable of rational thought.”
Throughout its history, Christianity, like all religions, has done harm as it has also done good. Being humble about claiming one’s religiosity is often tied to a recognition of the horror that has been done in the name of Christianity. There’s a sort of humility that comes with that — that while my faith as a Christian is absolutely essential to who I am, not knowing whether you may react to it with fear and not wanting to evoke that fear, there’s no need for me to shout from the rooftops. I think that’s a good intention.
It seems that for many Americans, religious belief is now a secondary description behind party identification — that, for instance, rather than being a Christian who happens to be a Republican or Democrat, you’re a Democrat or Republican who happens to be a Christian. How did that change happen?
We have seen the erosion of that large Christian “center” that might divide into Republicans or Democrats, [where] you might even be in church together and not know what your [fellow parishioner’s] party affiliation is. That was the church I grew up in: You could probably guess who was Republican and Democrat, but that was not central; it was your faith identity that mattered more.
As the political divide has deepened, “Christian” has become a secondary term to give a righteous edge to your political identity. So, not only am I a Republican, but I am a Christian Republican — which means I have God behind me. It becomes the adjective that adds the edge of divine sanction.
I don’t think it’s used the same way on each side. For the most part, when someone describes himself as a “progressive Christian,” they usually have pretty clear theological reasons for that, because it’s not like it’s an easy or popular thing to be: “Oh, I’m a progressive Christian.” You usually find theological grounds there. Progressive Christians feel very strongly about the central idea of the fundamental equality of human beings, the preciousness of the Earth, and economic justice — that we all deserve to be to be treated equally and to have the conditions for our flourishing as the baseline starting point for our lives together.
On the evangelical and conservative side, you can actually divide it into two groups. There are evangelical conservatives who are very articulate theologically and read the Bible and are grounded in their faith. But there’s a vast swath of people who have never read the Bible — who’ve never even cracked its spine and wouldn’t know the first thing about a theological discussion.
One of my greatest frustrations in terms of trying to find ways to bridge this deep divide within the Christian community in the United States is the inability to have a theological discussion, because you can’t assume that people have actually articulated theological reasons for their beliefs.
The Bible exhorts us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Does the divide between the Christian right and left boil down to, in part, a disagreement over who my “neighbor” and what “love” means? And in that context, do you see “love” as political?
Absolutely, I see love as political. All the people who say, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and who say that as a truth, need to think deeply about what that means. Can you love your neighbor as yourself and refuse to feed them, or put them in cages or deny them basic health care? Is that love? No, that is not love.
You know, most people in the United States would want — at least theoretically — to believe that God created all human beings equal. We are all equal. But do they actually believe that everybody’s equal? In terms of their political positions, probably not. Loving your neighbor and believing in fundamental equality are not moral givens in the political actions of people, and that’s the step we need to take.
Did the Trump years change the way you see Christianity in America?
You know, I grew up in Oklahoma around very conservative, even extremist, Christians. I even grew up loving people who could have been in the crowd that stormed the Capitol. None of the particulars of it are shocking to me.
But I had let myself be lulled into believing that that was a diminishing reality, and that we were moving forward somehow. And I have been shocked — and still have gently slap myself on my face to remind myself — at the magnitude of a very conservative Christianity that is willing to support hatred.
You often hear people talk about us being at an “inflection point” politically and socially. Left out of that characterization is that we’re at an inflection point spiritually and morally.
Part of that inflection point has to do with this sense of a national reckoning over racism in America’s past and present, a topic which has been especially salient over the past year. How much of the backlash to that conversation among white Americans is about trying to avoid the shame of being associated with the notion of America’s “original sin” of racism — original sin being something that you inherit at birth through no fault of your own? Do you see it in those terms or how is there some other way you think through that?
When we’re when we’re talking about whiteness and white supremacy, part of that rage is deflecting from taking responsibility for the generational legacies of racism. [But] I don’t think it can be entirely reduced to that, because that ignores the real economic suffering of millions of impoverished white people — people who are not just deflecting, but are actually enraged, as they should be, by the failure of the system to provide all of us with the possibility of healthy lives. So, it’s really both. And if either one gets lost, then you don’t have a sense for the complexity of race in America.
When it comes to generational trauma and the history of the United States, first of all, the fear of pain is, I think, actually much greater than the pain itself in terms of what it means to come to grips with the past. In my own family, we have wrestled with coming to grips with the terrible legacy of what my grandparents participated in — a lynching during the turn-of-the-century Jim Crow. It is shameful and terrible but telling the truth and coming to grips with it actually is liberating.
In trauma studies, we know that as long as traumatic events stay buried and unspoken, they cannot be processed. And if they cannot be processed, they just continue to circulate around in your mind and your body — and your collective body, when we’re talking collectively — and there’s no possibility for them to actually be undone and remade. Whether it’s personal or collective, telling the story of the trauma is a very necessary, painful [step]. And probably the bigger pain is getting the courage to tell the stories and be honest about it.
What I know about trauma is that when you’re in the middle of a trauma, it’s much more difficult to process it than it is once even a modicum of safety has been established. I anticipate that as the pressure of the pandemic begins to lessen, the reality of the trauma that we’ve been through [will sink in]. We have some pretty hard days ahead of us as the fact of what’s happened begins to come out of us and come into the public. You think that it can’t get much worse than it has been, but in fact, some of the hardest days with respect to conflict and pain are ahead of us, as we get the space to grieve and mourn and feel the rage of what we’ve been through.
You referenced coming to terms with your grandparents’ participation in a lynching. I can imagine that would be a horrifying, gut-churning revelation — one most people would not be inclined to talk about if they discovered. How did you unearth that bit family history, and why did you decide to go public with it?
In my case, it came quite unexpectedly: I came upon a postcard of a lynching of a young woman named Laura Nelson that happened in 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma — a small town where my family basically comprised half the population. [In the photograph,] many of the people in town were standing on the bridge off of which Laura and her son were lynched.
I was horrified. And I don’t have any direct evidence of who in my family was involved, but it’s impossible to imagine that they weren’t. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was quite a racist. He didn’t try to hide it. And I also know that Woody Guthrie, who grew up next door to my grandfather, has written about this particular lynching extensively, and even wrote a song about his father’s role in leading the lynching mob.
I decided to go public with it because when it comes to looking at white supremacy and the legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, it’s something that far too many white people project into the far past [instead of] part of the reality that you are still living in. That shift is not going to happen until people realize how close — and still in the middle of those legacies — we still are. Until more white people start telling these stories and unearthing them, it’s going to continue to be repressed.
I’m wondering how you reconcile the love that you perhaps feel for your family members with the reality of their participation in a lynching.
That’s a very hard question. In my case, the grandfather who would have been most directly connected to it, there was no love lost between us.
Being tied to those legacies of terror does have a corrupting effect on people’s souls. Even if it’s hidden or never spoken of, it’s not something that you can ever forget with regard to who you conceive yourself to be and the evil that you’ve done.
That said, this is where my faith comes in. I believe that human beings in general are a mixture of the glorious things they’re capable of and the horrible things that they’re capable of. None of us can claim to be pure. And the more honest one can be about one’s brokenness and the sins one has been responsible for, the more freedom one finds from that. I never have a pure understanding of who anybody is — most especially myself, but definitely my family.
In the U.S., the history that we — particularly white people — have told ourselves about our past has been much too pure for it to be real. Reckoning with its horrors is only going to make it more real. And history, as it becomes real, shows us the path to healing.
On the topic of history, I’ve heard you say that you see a massive cultural shift underway around the globe, and have likened it to what happened 500 years ago during the Reformation. First, what specifically do you see? And second, the Reformation happened in part because of the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, and was followed by decades and decades of religious wars throughout Europe. Do you think that what we’re seeing now is a result of the advent of the Internet — the printing press of our era — and if so, should we expect a few hundred years of religious wars in our future?
When the Reformation happened, we had new technology — the printing press allowed anyone who knew how to read to pick up a book and read. We had the emergence of the nation-state, new political alignments. We had the emergence of nascent capitalism, so we had a shift of economics. You could just go on and on.
These types of seismic shifts in how the world is ordered are manifest in profound spiritual shifts. When the world gets reordered, your imagination with respect to the reality of the divine, transcendent and who you are gets recomposed. That’s happening now: The old orders are breaking down, and our imaginations are being forced to think of the transcendent in new ways and to tell new stories about who we are.
When this happened [during the Reformation], you did see some incredibly positive changes that were, in a sense, totally covered over by a sustained, long, bloody war which wiped out large segments of the population of Europe and went on for many, many years.
In many ways, the history of the United States in its early years was a working out of the unresolved traumas of the wars of religion in Europe. And because that was never dealt with in Europe, so much of the “settling” of the United States by Europeans was done by communities that had been completely traumatized by the wars of religion — you had traumatized people coming over and traumatizing and violently subjugating others. That is a story that has yet to be told, and it’s an important one.
We’re at an inflection point like the Reformation, and we could go one way, or we could go the other. And it’s time for us to choose the path of more openness, more creativity, more love, more equality and a more serious grappling with that part of who we are as human beings, and not the hateful, bloody reckoning that the wars of religion were. Talk about a trauma.
Last question: Where does the religious left go from here?
In terms of political issues, we’re going to hear more and more about universal basic income as a religious foundational principle; we’re going to hear more and more about denominations, churches and religious communities at a mass level taking on the education and training and morally wrestling with white supremacy. Both of those issues are going to continue to escalate in terms of the intensity with which the religious left is facing them.
We are going to see more and more how the religious left is also an interreligious reality. It is not just the Christian religious left; it is a religious left that includes people from many religious traditions and spiritual people who may not have a specific tradition. That is going to keep growing.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.