The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Talk of a rising religious left is unfounded. It already exists.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at the National Action Network convention on April 4 in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

When South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg started talking religion on the 2020 campaign trail, people listened — for better and for worse.

Right-wing pundits were apoplectic — Fox News host Laura Ingraham called him “sanctimonious and self-righteous” — but the effect was even greater on the center-left. “Buttigieg is a symbol for a rising Christian left,” one CNN op-ed enthused. “Buttigieg is telling Democrats that they should concede nothing to Republicans on the topics of faith and values . . . because Democrats advance policies that happen to be consistent with our deepest faith traditions,” The Post’s Jennifer Rubin declared. Even Mayor Pete himself seemed to embrace the talk of a revitalized religious left with real electoral power. He told The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.”

The religious left — perhaps a bloc of Democratic voters waiting to be mobilized, perhaps a segment of faithful people waiting for a leftward awakening — is always just about to happen. It lingers, always, on the horizon, a shadow cast by the electoral power and political clout of the religious right. Will it ever arrive? And what would it look like if it did?

Talk of a rising religious left is puzzling in part because there is an already existing religious left — it just lacks the money, numbers and partisan leverage of the religious right. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that roughly 59 percent of registered Democratic voters described themselves as Christian, with the single largest bloc inside the Christian set being black Protestants. The presence of these religious voters in the Democratic coalition is probably why so many presidential candidates do engage in faith-talk: Setting Buttigieg aside, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have also been vocal about their Christian faith on the stump this season. (Indeed, Booker, too, was once hailed as an emblem of the rising religious left.)

But the composition of the Democratic Party is changing, which is likely why, even as some Democratic candidates talk God on the trail, Hillary Clinton’s team reportedly chose to run a “post-Christian” campaign in 2016. While white evangelical Christians make up the single largest religious bloc in the Republican Party (and have for decades), the biggest single bloc in the Democratic Party belongs to “nones,” who claim no religious affiliation. And their share is growing. In 1997, nones made up just 9 percent of the party; in 2017, 33 percent. Democrats do not appear to be growing more religious with time; neither does it appear likely that any particular religious constituency will gain the kind of dominance within the party that evangelical Christians have achieved on the right.

Nor are America’s faithful moving to the left. Ryan P. Burge, an instructor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, recently looked into the political shifts taking place among the United States’ religious population. Using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Burge tracked changes in party identification among Christians between 2008 and 2018. Of 34 traditions, Burge wrote, “just seven moved leftward on the partisanship spectrum, while 27 moved to the right.” In a phone interview, Burge theorized that, as churches move to the right, their liberal members don’t necessarily respond by forming religious-left offshoots, but instead leave religion altogether. A person in that situation, Burge mused, might simply say: “I think I’m done with religion, because there’s no place for me.”  

None of which means that there aren’t leftist activists who are religious: The Poor People’s Campaign, co-led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, is an excellent example of contemporary left-Christian organizing. Members of the Catholic Worker movement continue to protest war and injustice, and smaller, grass-roots religious-left activism still regularly springs up at the local level.

But religion simply isn’t the mass mobilizing force on the left that it has been on the right. Republicans have been successful in fashioning a unified identity for right-wing Christian voters regardless of denomination: The religious right, after all, includes any number of evangelical-adjacent groups, including “evangelicalized” white Catholics. The crux of their alliance is opposition to abortion and liberal views on sexuality — but the religious left has no such unified identity, in part because it has no such unanimously agreed-on priorities. And while the Republican Party has many millions of right-leaning religious voters to draw upon, Democrats face a much more fractured, increasingly nonreligious base. If the left isn’t becoming more religious and the religious aren’t moving further left, it’s hard to see where the rising tide of a religious left will swell from.

And that may be, in some sense, for the best. The religious left is at its most authentic when standing in opposition to earthly power, serving as a prophetic conscience for all those who wield it for ill — consider, for example, the successes of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Aligning with power on a large, institutional scale does not necessarily improve the political prospects of a religious constituency; neither does it guarantee a fair bargain spiritually. Activism and organizing seem much more the natural mode of a religious left than intra-party power playing, and in those small but meaningful ways, the religious left lives on.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise on community and religion

Michael Gerson: Politics is religion, and the right is getting ready for the end times

Jennifer Rubin: Faith, not sexual orientation, is what’s most interesting about Buttigieg

Henry Olsen: No, religion is not antithetical to liberalism

Jennifer Rubin: The ‘faith and freedom’ party is Democrats’ for the taking