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Opinion This religious season reminds us of faith’s liberating promise

Members of the Washington National Cathedral Altar Guild members arrange flowers in preparation for virtual Easter worship services in April 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
5 min

The proximity of Passover, Easter and Ramadan on this year’s calendar is a reminder that religion can set loose profoundly liberating human impulses. That all three are celebrated in our country speaks to the fruitful interaction between a tradition of immigration and a commitment to religious freedom.

Many who regard theism as a backward-looking social force might usefully consider how each of these holidays contains the seeds of rebellion. Thinking about religion’s progressive side is especially important in light of the single most striking development in the American religious landscape over the past two decades: the rise of the “nones,” those who decline to associate with any organized religion. A large share of Americans are moving away from faith altogether, because they associate it almost entirely with the political right or far right.

This season’s holidays, perhaps Passover most of all, suggest the problem with stereotyping faith in this way. As philosopher Michael Walzer argues, the Exodus story transformed deliverance from oppression into “a central theme in western thought.” Its message is that the “door of hope” always remains open. The Exodus, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, is “something of the story of every people struggling for freedom … the first story of man’s explicit quest for freedom.”

Easter honors a savior whose ministry was rooted in the social ferment of a moment when the spiritual was necessarily political. “To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation,” the Catholic liturgy tells us, “to prisoners, freedom, and to those in sorrow, joy.” The biblical scholar Marcus Borg has argued that the title the Gospel writer Luke uses for Jesus, “Son of God,” was a challenge to the rule of Caesar Augustus, who took that designation for himself.

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And for Muslims, Ramadan commemorates the season when God revealed the first verses of the Koran to Mohammed. Their prophet is widely quoted as declaring: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.” That, too, is a liberating idea.

In the United States, the idea that faith calls society to account for its injustices is especially powerful in the Black Christian church whose preaching highlights the Exodus, Jesus’ saving mission toward the marginalized, and the Hebrew Bible’s prophets calling down judgment against oppressors. All resonate with the experiences of its congregants and their forebears.

None of this means that religion is always progressive. Many believers revere tradition and seek to protect it from radical revision. Most try to balance tradition against progress and faith’s personal demands with its social implications.

But the balancing act has become harder and harder for those “nones.” More than a fifth of Americans overall and approaching two-fifths of those under 30 declare themselves unattached to religious organizations. Fewer than half of U.S. adults belong to a religious congregation. This trend is well documented in the 2020 book “Secular Surge” by David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman and John C. Green.

They and other scholars, including Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer, offer good evidence that much of the backlash against religion is a pushback against the political right, particularly on issues related to LGBTQ rights and women’s empowerment. The rise of White Christian nationalism has deepened the backlash.

Their work might serve as a warning to those who preach a tight link between religion and conservatism — and, especially, Trumpism. While claiming to be spreading the Christian Gospel, they’re doing a bang-up job at pushing people away.

Yet backlash is complicated, as Ruth Braunstein, a professor at the University of Connecticut, suggested in an important journal article last year in Sociology of Religion. She pointed to how radicalization among the religious right is draining many conservative evangelical churches of their moderates, prompting further radicalization.

Meanwhile, a large share of those drifting from the old religious institutions are still declining to identify as atheists or agnostic. Sociologists have long noted the growth of those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” but Braunstein sees this group as doing more than embracing vague feelings of transcendence. They, like members of more progressive congregations and traditions, are making a public statement “that not all religious people are conservative, and not all liberals are secularist.”

Braunstein also notes that some religious liberals have reacted against the rise of the religious right by “delinking religion from all politics.” In a polarized time, it’s an understandable response. Believers may be seeking interludes of peace in their congregations while rejecting the urge to put today’s political battles over the imperatives of faith.

But at moments of crisis, people of faith cannot avoid taking a stand. This was true during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and it is true now in light of the crisis confronting our multiracial and multireligious democracy. Making clear that no party, ideology or faith tradition has a monopoly on God’s blessings would be a good starting point.