Can Liberal Christians Become a Real Political Force?

Liberal Christians have a rare opportunity to play an important political role. Here, Ohioans vote at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on March 15 in Cincinnati. (John Sommers II/Getty Images)
Liberal Christians have a rare opportunity to play an important political role. Here, Ohioans vote at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on March 15 in Cincinnati. (John Sommers II/Getty Images)

Trump’s rise has thrown the religious right into turmoil. How Democrats could become the party of God.

In late November of 1973, about 50 evangelical leaders convened at a shabby YMCA hotel in Chicago for what they hoped would be a generation-defining gathering. Attendees at the Thanksgiving Workshop of Evangelical Social Concern got to work assembling a document that would serve as a manifesto for the future of their movement. They condemned institutionalized racism, unfettered capitalism, and the Vietnam War, and they proclaimed that “God lays total claim upon the lives of his people.” The stakes were high, and they knew it. “For better or for worse,” activist Ron Sider predicted, American evangelicals “will exercise the dominant religious influence in the next decade.”

As we now know, Sider was right—just not exactly as he hoped. A few years later, Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other leaders began to coalesce around a right-wing political agenda very different from the one laid out at the Thanksgiving Workshop. Since then, conservative evangelicals have dominated election narratives and policy battles and prompted cultural skirmishes over things like Kim Davis’ visit with the pope. If you read only the headlines on religion in America, it would be easy to assume that Christians are a unified mob of anti-gay, anti-government caricatures—as President Obama uncharitably put it back in 2008, those clinging to their guns or their religion.

Look closer, however, and conservative evangelicalism is showing serious cracks, particularly as a political movement. Its leaders are in crisis mode over the candidacy of Donald Trump, with some begrudgingly supporting him as their best hope against Hillary Clinton and others deriding him as an immoral charlatan. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and the big new issue for conservatives is religious liberty, which presumes a subservient status for Christians—the onetime “moral majority” as a minority group requiring special protection. The future of conservative evangelicalism as the dominant expression of American Christianity looks dubious, if not doomed.

The cracking apart of evangelicalism’s influence is more than the end of an era. It’s an opportunity—for Democrats picturing a broad victory in November, yes, and for Republicans who think their party needs reinvention. But it’s also an opening for another “silent majority” within American society: liberal Christians, a term that for a generation has been relegated to an oxymoron. That Christian belief can coexist with, let alone support, left-leaning social and political views has so disappeared from living rooms and community halls that any public embrace of the idea elicits surprise. At a January campaign stop in Iowa, lifelong Methodist Hillary Clinton stirred up the blogosphere with a lengthy response to a question about what the Ten Commandments mean to her:

My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself. … But I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant, and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith, and I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on.

Clinton’s “But … ” captures the tension that animates liberal Christianity and the policy approaches that tend to flow from it. It’s important to follow God’s Old Testament orders but to leave many final judgments to him; to “love the Lord” butwith humility; to do justice but to “forgive and move on.” Implicit in that simple “but” is a subtle critique of the religious right, a movement whose public expressions are seen by the left as judgmental, narrow, and punitive—more “eye for an eye” than “turn the other cheek.”

British theologian Steve Holmes has summed it up more concisely: Liberal Christianity is “Christianity that is acutely alive to the challenges to belief coming from modern philosophy”—from experience as it is lived. As Clinton’s words indicate, this translates to a religious expression less focused on theological purity and more focused on social reform, or to put it another way, more interested in Earth now than in heaven later. Whether or not you interpret this as a triumph or a disgrace probably says something about where you fall on the theological spectrum, if you’re on it at all. It’s important to note that liberal Christianity and progressive politics don’t overlap perfectly—the evangelicals at the Thanksgiving Workshop in 1973 specifically pushed back against a watered-down theology by repeatedly referencing the “Lord Jesus Christ”—but they are allied closely enough that their futures are clearly entangled.

Liberal Christians today can be found in those who use Jesus’ inspiration to advocate for criminal justice reform, in feminists who view him as a disrupter of the patriarchy, and in the everyday churchgoers who see their values better reflected by the economic and social agenda of the mainstream left. They are mainline Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals. And if they are ever going to reinsert themselves into the heartbeat of American culture, this just might be their moment.

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Ruth Graham

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