The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump is paving the way for a revival of the ‘religious left’

Richard Montgomery High School junior Talea Kent marches with students during a protest at the school in Rockville, Md. (Lisa Bolton/The Washington Post)

This piece is by Jack Jenkins, the senior religion reporter for ThinkProgress.

On Election Day, much was made of exit polls that showed 80 percent of white evangelicals backing Republican Donald Trump, a sometimes vulgar, twice-divorced candidate who could not name his favorite Bible verse and once bragged about sexual assault. The result seemed inexplicable, and political analysts are now questioning the theological credibility of right-wing Christian leaders who embraced Trump, with some high-profile religious conservatives decrying such support as hypocritical at best, heretical at worst.

But as some members of the religious right wrestle with how to reclaim their moral authority, another group is quietly beginning to rise. Progressive, faith-rooted advocacy organizations, such as Faith in Public Life, Auburn Seminary and Sojourners, have all reported surges in donations and interest in activism since November, and are now organizing to counter any number of Trump’s policy proposals. Meanwhile, progressive Christians long absent from Sunday worship are returning to church in droves.

The shift comes as left-wing religious leaders increasingly find themselves in the spotlight. Conservative Christians have grown so concerned with the rising influence of progressive evangelicals, such as Shane Claiborne and Brian McLaren, that a slate of religious right leaders published a letter in September condemning them and others as “enemies of biblical faith.”

Some evangelicals question whether they have overlooked the rural church

Yet books by liberal pastors such as Nadia Bolz-Weber remain wildly popular, and groups such as PICO — which helps mobilize local churches for causes that usually lean progressive — continue to thrive. And the theology of Pope Francis, while he remains conservative on several issues, has re-energized a progressive strain of American Catholicism that champions lefty economics, immigration reform and action on climate change.

Many liberals have publicly lamented the lack of robust faith outreach during Hillary Clinton’s campaign, arguing that the need for emissaries fluent in the “God talk” of so-called values voters has never been clearer. Yet after years of dominance by the religious right, Trump’s victory may inadvertently trigger the ascendancy of a group sometimes called the “moral minority”: the religious left.

The origins of the religious left

The religious left has existed in various forms throughout American history, but it has traditionally functioned differently than its conservative counterpart. Unlike right-wing religious groups, whose swelling (and primarily white) Christian congregations often look and sound alike on the surface, modern progressive faith circles are far more diverse — theologically, racially and otherwise.

They typically operate as interfaith coalitions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other groups (including atheists) who unite around broadly shared concerns like immigration, LGBTQ rights and poverty. Historically “liberal Christian” institutions, such as Union Theological Seminary in New York City, have boasted of influential theological thinkers like Cornel West, but they now share the stage with media darlings such as Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and social justice activist.

Their efforts are built on an impressive legacy: It was religious left groups that helped facilitate the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, lift up the plight of Central American refugees in the 1980s and develop the religious intellectual movement known as liberation theology — the notion that God is on the side of the oppressed, be they poor, nonwhite, female or LGBTQ.

A church was defaced with ‘Trump Nation, Whites Only.’ The community had a different message.

But that was before Trump, whose meteoric rise inadvertently yanked prayerful progressives out of political obscurity, albeit in less than ideal ways. Hate crimes have skyrocketed since Trump’s victory, many perpetrated by people claiming to be his supporters. Reports abound of American Muslims beaten in the streets, Reform Jewish synagogues defaced with neo-Nazi propaganda, and LGBTQ-affirming churches desecrated with anti-gay slogans.

In the face of such vitriol, however, faithful liberals are providing a counternarrative of peaceful resistance.

When an Episcopal Church sign in Maryland touting a Spanish-language service was defaced with graffiti reading “Trump Nation. Whites Only,” it was quickly replaced by another banner declaring “Love Wins.”

When Trump’s administration-in-waiting again flirted with the idea of a “Muslim registry,” it was a band of Christians, Jews and Buddhists who stood in front of “The Nation’s Mosque” in Washington to declare that they would happily register as Muslims in solidarity. And within a week of Trump’s election, the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America forged a historic alliance known as the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council to develop “a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.”

In short, the more Trump and his supporters target progressive people of faith and their allies, the more those people band together — and the louder their voices appear to become.

Giving the Democrats moral language

Trump’s election comes as the voice of progressive faith is already rising from a whisper to a bellow. Political commentators expressed astonishment at the uncommonly “religious” nature of this year’s Democratic National Convention, where Democrats lifted up faith as a way to reclaim “family values” as a progressive term. The event stage was filled with faith-fueled speakers such as Khizr Khan, a “gold star father” and Muslim American who articulated a moving defense of the Constitution, as well as the Rev. William Barber II, a charismatic pastor and activist. Both earned widespread praise for their speeches, in part because they appealed directly to America’s sense of “civil religion.”

“When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith, but they love this nation, we are reviving the heart of our democracy,” Barber told the assembly, who responded with uproarious applause.

The potential power of religious progressivism is on display in North Carolina, home of the “Moral Mondays” movement — a faith-rooted protest partly organized by Barber to critique the state’s deeply conservative legislature. The movement has been one of the largest state-government-focused civil disobedience campaigns in U.S. history, and it is credited with helping unseat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Trump’s pick of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state upsets religious right leader

And in a strange twist, at least one subset of liberal Christianity is uniquely positioned to speak directly to the president-elect. While Trump isn’t a member of any specific congregation, he does claim to be Presbyterian, specifically the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of many “liberal mainline” denominations whose policies and leadership lean left. Trump hasn’t attended a PC (USA) church regularly since his childhood, but when he finally visited one while campaigning in January, he quickly became acquainted with what progressive Christians like to call the “prophetic tradition.” As Trump sat quietly in his pew, the pastor — a woman — calmly preached a sermon about Christ’s call to welcome immigrants and refugees. Trump, whose campaign remained rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment long after the visit, did at least listen.

To be sure, the religious left is unlikely to match the power and influence that the religious right has enjoyed. Although a sizable group, progressive people of faith probably lack the membership numbers required to mimic that kind of political machine. And while the various flavors of liberal theology are arguably more prescient now than in decades, it may not capture the hearts of many conservatives.

Still, the United States has a long history of embracing ethical exemplars in times of crisis. As such, the left wing of America’s faithful is well positioned to offer a more progressive religious vision for the millions of Americans dissatisfied with the incoming administration.

The precise dimensions of this vision are still being defined, but Barber offered a none-too-subtle hint at its focus in a sermon delivered shortly after the election.

“The role of the church is to engage in the dangerous ministry of telling the truth,” he said.

You can follow Jack Jenkins on Twitter at @jackmjenkins.

This story has been updated to correct Cornel West’s name.

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