The presidency of Donald Trump has emboldened liberal progressives to apply their faith to politics as a response to the religious right and as a weapon to fight a president many religious believers consider to be “morally unqualified.”
“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at the Jesuit Fordham University in New York, told Reuters. “It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square.”
Reuters’s Scott Malone tied “religious progressive activism” to various events in American history, from the abolitionist movement against slavery to the civil rights demonstrations. The connection between abolition and “progressivism” was exceedingly tenuous, as the “progressive” movement did not begin until the 1890s. Nevertheless, Malone correctly noted that religion — and Christianity in particular — has been used on both sides of political issues for a very long time in the U.S.
Malone admitted that support for the religious left is “difficult to measure.” There are numerous events which suggest a large movement, although exactly how religious the members are remains to be determined.
In February, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Raleigh, North Carolina, in a so-called “Moral March” to oppose the “hate” of both President Trump and the conservative movement in general. The Reverend Dr. William Barber declared that “God cares about the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the stranger.” He argued that “when so-called white evangelicals misuse and misinterpret the scripture to promote hate, standing down is not an option.”
— North Carolina NAACP (@ncnaacp) February 11, 2017
The “Moral Mondays” movement Barber started in 2013 has been partially credited for Democrat Roy Cooper’s victory over former Republican Governor Pat McCrory last year. Sojourners, a liberal Christian activist group, reported a 30 percent surge in donations since Trump’s election.
While God does indeed care about the “least of these” as Barber declared, conservatives would respond that charity is a job for individuals and churches, not government. Helping the poor does not give government an excuse to seize power and mandate charity, and blasting conservative policies as an example of “hate” is not an effective argument against them.
The religious left isn’t all Christian activism, either. “This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it’s the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community,” Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told Reuters. More than 1,000 people have signed up for the center’s annual Washington meeting on political activism, three times the normal number, Pesner added.
Faith in Public Life, a progressive policy group, protested the confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, and leaders remarked on their surprise at the large number of clergy who turned out to protest. A January rally reportedly attracted 300 religious leaders.
“I’ve never seen hundreds of clergy turning up like that to oppose a Cabinet nominee,” Faith in Public Life CEO Reverend Jennifer Butler told Reuters. The group also convened a Capitol Hill rally in late March, drawing hundreds of pastors from states as far away as Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas to protest health insurance losses as a result of the House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill.
While these events do suggest a rising religious left, it is easy to overestimate this movement. Malone, the Reuters reporter, presented the refugee issue as the strongest example of liberal religious activism. The problem? Congregations offering support for immigrants and asylum-seekers may not be considered particularly “left” or “liberal.”
According to Church World Service, a coalition of Christian denominations that helps refugees settle in the United States, the number of churches offering sanctuary to asylum seekers doubled to 800 in 45 of the 50 states. Indeed, over 3,000 Christian leaders signed a petition expressing “deep concern” over President Trump’s refugee order in February.
But this petition by no means represented the “religious left,” and the trend of offering help to refugees is widespread across conservative churches — many of those who voted for Donald Trump in large numbers last year.
Indeed, John Yates, rector of the Falls Church Anglican, signed the petition. Yates’ church lost its property after separating from the liberal Episcopal denomination in order to hold to traditional biblical doctrines of Christianity. Vice President Mike Pence himself has attended Yates’ church multiple times. The Falls Church Anglican does not support political candidates, and it remains fairly diverse, but it by no means fits the definition of the “religious left.”
Other religious conservatives, such as Timothy Keller, who recently came under fire at the liberal Princeton Theological Seminary for his stance against ordaining women and LGBT people as pastors, also signed the petition, as did avid writer Max Lucado. Indeed, early last year, Lucado denounced Trump for not being conservative enough — in his moral probity.
Christians on both sides of the aisle have seized on the refugee issue, for very clear reasons. The Bible does indeed call believers to help the widow and the orphan, and one of the reasons churches exist is to help the less fortunate. While Christian doctrine does not force believers to oppose Trump’s immigration order, it does involve loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and that includes refugees, and even enemies.
Trump’s presidency — like his candidacy before it — has presented complex problems for the religious right. Even the Christian Post, an online Christian outlet that avoids political activism for the most part, emphatically rejected Trump’s candidacy during the Republican primary. Into April, Christian leaders wrestled with supporting the candidate, and even in the general election (when Trump faced in Hillary Clinton an insidious threat to traditional Christianity) many young conservative Christians refused to support him.
Indeed, on Inauguration Day, John Piper, author of the book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary (and 33-year pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn.), said Trump “is morally unqualified” to be president of the United States.
Trump’s election made many biblical Christians sour on the term “evangelical,” with some complaining that it has developed the same negative political connotations as “feminist.”
In light of the many conservative Christians distancing themselves from President Trump in various ways, it is easy to overestimate the size and scope of the “religious left” which is rising up in opposition to him. Nevertheless, liberal Christians — and Jews and others — are indeed galvanized by the president, and will continue to pursue their agenda. The religious left is still a rising force in America, and it needs to be answered.