Buffy, David, and the Religious Left
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 11:13:27 PM EST
There has been much discussion of late of the rise of a new religious left. While there are a lot of stirrings out there, I think that such claims are premature. While I look at this primarily from the standpoint of thinking about the various forces that might be cobbled together to better contend with the religious right, I want to offer a few thoughts about this going forward.

The idea that a religious left could provide a counterweight to the religious right seems to have several main components. One is the point that the Conventional Wisdom stresses; that the leaders of the religious right are not the sole voices of Christianity, let alone a Christian view of politics and public policy. True enough. (One wonders why it didn't occur to them sooner.) Another, is that there are great Jewish and Christian social justice traditions to draw upon -- that emphasize that Jesus and the Bible in general, had a great deal more to say about poverty than say, abortion or homosexuality. All true. But the main thing I have yet to hear any rumblings about is how all this connects to citizenship, ongoing active engagement in public life in general, and electoral politics in particular. Funny, about that. Since electoral politics has been the movement's main vehicle to power.

But generally, I think that anyone thinking about getting a religious left off the ground, and perhaps even engaging the religious right, has a lot to learn from young David of Bible fame, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of teen movie fame.

But first, let's consider Adele Stan writing about these things in The American Prospect, who ran into a bit of a firestorm.

It was a modest and, I thought, obvious proposal that I put forward two weeks ago on this page: That liberals give up the notion of creating a cohesive religious left movement that could act as an effective counterforce to the animus of the religious right. Instead, I argued, liberals would do well to claim our own moral agency by virtue of our own humanity and the essential values of liberalism, which encompass the most admirable tenets of the world's great religions.

My jumping-off point for this thesis was the latest strife in the Episcopal Church USA, which is riven with controversy over its 2003 installation of a gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and last month's election of Kathleen Jefferts Schori, a woman who supports the gay bishop, as the American church's chief prelate. With all of the mainline Protestant churches engaged in similar internal battles, I argued, it was counterproductive to expect the leadership of these grand old faiths to hold, for the rest of us, the line against the religious right.

I agree with Adele on this point. The mainline churches themselves are in no position to lead or become much of a religious left. I think this is so primarily for the same reasons that evangelical churches did not create the religious right. Institutions do not create activist movements. It was outside, independent organizations such as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition -- and many others -- that were primarily responsible for creating the religious right political movement. The institutional churches of conservative Christianity did not create the religious right political movement, although some of their leaders and members certainly did; and church buildings and other resources were often an important part of the supporting culture and infrastructure for the movement. of course, it was not all grassroots either. There were big financial contributors and many others involved to make it so successful so fast. But the same could be said of many religious based movements in American history. The distinguishing feature about the religious right in America is not that it is is defined primarily by a single issue such as opposition to war, or advocacy for equality for African Americans or indeed, abortion and homosexuality (important though these issues certainly are.) Rather it has risen to power based on increased engagement in electoral politics.

I think Pastordan gets at the roots of what could generate an authentic, nascent religious left in his running discussion of "prophetic" faith in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I do not believe that a religious left of any strength or integrity will be invented Inside the Beltway, or suddenly spring forth from major religious institutions. Rather, it will more likely emerge from a variety of indigenous and authentic forms of progressive religious activism; certainly, eventually in conversation with and perhaps even supported by major religious organizations and even some Beltway Insiders. But prophetic faith and activism is something that is likely to make established interests, well, uncomfortable. And that is as it should be.

Anyway, Adele Stan suggests that if a religious left is to emerge it will not be something massive or monolithic, rather, it will be based on "asymmetrical warfare." While some might object to the use of military concepts and language, there are certainly plenty of similar ideas of non-military varieties and applications.  

Simply put, it is the idea of playing very smart with the resources you have or can get -- especially if you are an underdog.  

This truth of life, politics, sports and more -- has been a theme of stories from the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, (smart use of a slingshot by David, having identified Goliath's point of vulnerability) to the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (in which the cheerleader Buffy, uses her "keen fashion sense" to defeat the big vampire). The latter is also an influential comedy and coming of age film. I think it is time for the religious left, or those who would comprise it, to come of age: which is to say, political maturity. And along the way, I think there is much for all of us to learn from David and Buffy.

Let us note for example, that one of the main "strategies" put forth from Inside the Beltway in response to the religious right over the past decade can be best described as school yard name calling. We hear this in action when people refer to the religious right and many individual members, as "religious political extremists." If David and Buffy had relied on name-calling for their epochal battles -- they would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, the shepherd boy and the cheerleader were wiser than many of those to whom we have looked for leadership in these matters. As Buffy might have said to those who think calling the religious right mean names is smart politics, "Well, forget you!" (Isn't it odd that the avatars of the conventional wisdom Inside the Beltway are now wondering how the party acquired a reputation for being anti religious? Hello.)

Meanwhile, one tool that David and Buffy would appreciate is the rise of the progressive religious blogosphere. Progressive religious folks are increasingly applying the technology in ways appropriate to their interests and communities just as political activists of all stripes have done in recent years. A number of leading bloggers (including Talk to Action's two Bruces, Prescott and Wilson), attended the gathering, which was held under the auspices of the new organization, Faith in Public Life.

Sometime ago I wrote, as part of a wider discussion about organizing in response to the religious right:

Can the progressive blogosphere live up to it's potential? And can it be effective in catalyzing, informing and enhancing the kind of social movements, and organizing strategies that Hardisty and Bhargava see as essential to counter the rise of the right?

I think so.

But it is uncharted territory.

Part of the good news for everyone is that an organized religious left of whatever sort, is likely to support the constitutional values of equality under the law --including religious equality; and the general idea of separation of church and state. Expressions of such things, differently framed as respect for diversity is fine as far as it goes; but absent a developed notion of citizenship, this means little. Respect for religious diversity means institutionalizing it in terms of legal and constitutional protections. It also means gaining and sustaining sufficient political clout ensure that the right to difference, is not eroded by a rising movement of religious supremacism that seeks special status under the law, and the diversion of public funds to underwrite its activities. The good news is that these legal and constitutional protections already exist. The bad news is that there is a well-organized movement seeking to undermine and overthrow these protections. (Hello.)

It remains disturbing to me that the mainline Protestant churches -- communions that have always been a political mix -- have been under sustained attack by the religious and political right for a generation with little to no acknowledgment from anyone in American public life -- including leading politicians who are members of the denominations under attack. (Let the record show for example, that Hillary Clinton, George Bush and Dick Cheney are all members of the United Methodist Church.) It is preposterous to think that the mainline churches can organize themselves to take on the religious right, when they cannot even acknowledge that they are and have been under concerted attack by the right from within and without. I hope that this changes. If it does, there is a chance they will survive this sophisticated, well-funded assault on the integrity of the historic churches of mainline protestantism without having been wedge-issued into so many schisms that they fade as a force in history.

Its not unlike when Buffy's friends are in total denial about the way that kids in school are turning up dead, and legions of vampires are snacking on their former classmates. Dance committee and cheerleading practice are their top priorities. And Buffy is ostracized for trying to explain to them what has happened to her, and what is going on around the school.

It also remains disturbing to me that although much has been made about the lessons that can be learned from the right, the lessons are often the wrong ones, and the right ones are ignored. Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bargava wrote last year, among other things:

Our current infatuation with the strategies and structures of the right has led some progressives to call for a more streamlined, hierarchical movement, but this is not how we've won in the past. Progressive movements have been successful when they have not had a top-down organizational structure. Also, this analysis fails to appreciate the comprehensiveness of the right's movement-building style. And it does not reflect progressive democratic principles....

Organizing has always had an uneasy place not only in the broader culture but also in progressive circles. It has frequently been sidelined by expert-driven advocacy or by charismatic figures who lead short-lived protest movements, and today it is at risk of being displaced by a focus on think tanks and communications strategies. Perhaps more alarming, however, is the relative decline of organizing as a strategy relative to mobilization. The work of many 527 organizations prominent in the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 (America Coming Together and the Media Fund, for example) seemed to be about parachuting into communities and soliciting votes, with little thought about what would be left behind.

While that is a conversation worth revisiting, in an essay awhile back, I also wrote about the way that the religious right exploits the religious left's commitment to pluralism.

This brings us to the worldview of pluralism in a constitutional democracy. Pluralism in our American context means religious equality, which is to say that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, whether we are non-religious or religious, or a certain kind of religion. It is all irrelevant to our status as citizens. It is this premise that underlies a vast amount of law and public policy and stands in the way of the dominionist tendencies of much of the religious right.

The challenge for supporters of pluralism, whether they are mainline protestants deemed insufficiently orthodox, or public school curricula deemed insufficiently religious, is what Christian Reconstructionist author Gary North described as "the dilemma of democratic pluralism." (Which I discuss in Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy). North astutely observes the difficulty faced by those who embrace democratic pluralism: They are often confounded by their philosophical acceptance of those whose views oppose and activities undermine -- the very nature and system of pluralism itself.

Opponents of pluralism in the U.S. are becoming quite skilled at exploiting the "dilemma;" for example by mocking liberals for being "intolerant." We see this in operation when IRD operatives claim that conservatives are not tolerated in the mainline churches -- even as these same "conservatives" or "renewal" advocates, are actively subverting and seeking to divide the very denominations from which they demand tolerance. People on the receiving end of the charge often do not know what do say in response. Hence the "dilemma." Similarly, in the battle over teaching creationism or ID, we hear the charge that the schools are intolerant of the supposedly competing theory of intelligent design.

Of course, there is nothing intolerant about thwarting those who would undermine pluralism and equality for all. Rather, standing-up for religious pluralism and constitutional democracy; defeating efforts by "renewal" groups to create division and schism in the churches; and refusing to teach religious doctrine dressed-up as science -- means standing-up for one's values and the values of the religious, constitutional, and educational institutions we hold dear.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's mentor Merrick (played by Donald Sutherland), as he lays dying, tells Buffy "not to play our game." Indeed, playing the game the old way had led to the defeat of all of Buffy's predecessors at the hands of Lothos, the head vampire. But Buffy, like David, benefits from being vastly underestimated by the greater warrior, who is accustomed to winning and having opponents who always play a loser's game. These young heroes use the resources available to them cleverly (Buffy turns a can of hairspray into a flamethrower at a critical moment).

Those who want to engage the religious right need to be willing to entertain new ideas and not play the game we are counseled by those who have led us into historic political failures. This is true of all of us, whether we are part of a religious left, or not. We are all, regardless of our religious orientation, citizens who care about the future of constitutional democracy, and the religious freedom we gain through a culture and constitutional system based on religious equality.

Like it or not, the great institutions of politics and religion, have yet to show they can lead a response to the religious right that can make a difference over time. We citizens are most likely going to have to do it for ourselves.

as a person who came from a Religious Right background to where I am now, I can assure you it has NOTHING to do with establishing a Religious Left entity for the Democrats.

I think there may be a few more people like me who can add to your equation - there are good, Bible Believing Christians who finally realize they're essentially lied to by their leaders and Dominionists and will choose to leave thru their own accord - I recall a church that tried to kick out 9 members for voting Democratic and twice that many left afterwards in protest.

Others will simply reject the faustian bargain they made with the Republicans to get their power and will leave it.  I believe the failure of Ralph Reed in GA is due in part because his hypocrisy was so blatantly obvious that even the hard core Baptists in GA couldn't stomach him.

Some like myself will become active, not for the politics, or to help the world, but in an attempt to save Christianity from being known as the world's bloodiest faith.  Obviously the best way to do that is to emphasis the non-violence that Christ preached and harp on his requests to help the poor, show mercy, love one another as He loves them, etc, etc.  - This DOES play very well into Democratic policies - and it suggests a selflessness that is totally devoid in the Republicans, but it'll be a marriage of convenience, not of love.

NONE of this galvanizes them into a Religious Left, but certainly their voice added to the chorus is enough to tip those .5% margins the Republicans always seem to squeak out.  I think the elections will come down to how many people believe their leaders have stepped over the line, esp. when representing Christianity.

I THINK this is why Obama made the comments he made.  In many ways, I still haven't seen a Religious Left - I've just seen a ton of disillusioned Righties - but that's where it starts.  

The Democrats have a chance to siphon a lot of votes away if they can avoid letting their rhetoric get too personal on Christians and just go after failed Republican policies - but if they try fighting dirty, it'll drive their base right back into the hands of the next GWB.

by whiskeytown on Fri Jul 28, 2006 at 02:48:47 AM EST

who are interested in a religious left. It is unlikely to be, and I hope would not be a mirror image of the religious right as we have known it.  

All people have a perfect right for their faith, whatever that may be, to inform their politics, left, right or otherwise. That is the nature of our democratic society.

For people who take their faith seriously, this can indeed be as you say, a Faustian bargain, and people need to be careful not to sell out their deeply held values.

As citizens, it is also incumbent on all of us to be aware of and have respect for the rights of others. This is one of the areas where the religious right has become deeply and dangerously antidemocratic (note the small d.)

While I hope that the Democratic Party is able to put the brakes on all of this, it is also clear tht the Democrats are starting to develop something of a religious right of its own with the way that top elected officials and candidates have pandered to for example, the federal marriage amendment. Or in a more eggregious example, U.S. Senate Candidate Bob Casey speaking at a political event organized by the Pennsylvania political affiliate of Focus on the Family.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jul 28, 2006 at 09:48:21 AM EST

Thanks to Frederick Carlson (as well as Buffy and David!) regarding his "thoughts about...going forward" on the Religious Left.  I don't want to challenge his analysis, but rather to point out something that must also happen, in my view, if what he calls the Left is, indeed, to get off the ground.  
     But, first, the elements of his analysis that I would certainly underscore: (1) The religious right is not the sole voice of Christianity, not by any means.  In fact, its "biblicism" (the idea that the biblical text is God Word, rather than the vehicle through which God's Word comes to us, and that the Bible is literally inerrant)  is a heresy that arose in the 17th century in response to Tridentine Catholicism.  Further, its virtual identification of faith and patriotism is what the Bible calls "idolatry."  (2) The mainline Churches are not in a position to provide the leadership needed if there is a progressive Christian movement.  They are badly divided and if they are survive, which undoubtedly they will strive to do, they will only be able to do so if they mute the voices of the Christian Left and the Christian Right. 
(3) A progressive religious movement will not be "invented" inside the Beltway.  That's true in part because no movement is generated from the top down.   But it is also true because the Beltway progressives (for example, the Center for American Progress, the Open Society Institute, and the Alliance for Democracy), good institutions to be sure, seem quite unsure what to do with respect to religion. 
     Progressive religion in general and progressive Christianity in particular will only rise up and have staying power over time out of local communities of faith-- grassroots groups and organizations that have come into being because of a passionate faith and practical (including political and social) concern.  On all of these points I agree with Clarkson.  
     But this last point relates to the additional need--which, if not met, will doom the resurgence of the Religious Left.  It is this: the absence of significant financial support from the philanthropic Left for the grassroots efforts which could birth a sustained progressive religious movement in American and could, in time, rejuvenate the denominations.  As crass as it sounds, the progressive gospel has to be heard among those who need to hear it, not simply among those who are already converted, and that will not happen unless it is (what an unbiblical word this is going to be...) unless it is "marketed" effectively.  
     We live in a communications culture, and communications that makes a difference is costly.  The Religious Left lacks the financial resources essential for the staffing and planning required for effective communications.  Therefore to this point the Religious Left is mostly a hodge podge of well-intended but unfocussed amateurs guided largely by hope rather than strategically directed marketing competence.  
     The Religious Right arose outside of conservative institutions, as Clarkson points out, but they were sophisticated, calculated and coordinated efforts because they had the resources to be.  There are no such resources on the Left, at least none given in support of religious progressives.  To illustrate, consider Faith in Public Life, which grew out of the Center for American Progress.  If any group should have money it should be FPL.  Yet judging from its website, FPL, a national organization, has three full time employees.  In contrast there is probably not a single local right wing religious organization in any dinky town in Texas or Arkansas that has only three employees.  Okay maybe one, but at least you get the point: the Religious Left is outspent by the Religious Right to such an extraordinary degree--in a marketing driven society, keep in mind--that it would take an "act of God" (of some sort or another) to give the Religious Left a chance.  
     That does not mean that progressive religion will disappear.  It does mean--I fear, and hope desperately that I'm wrong--that progressive forms of faith will for a long time remain only an occasional background note of exception in the running battle between the secular left and right wing religion.  And, if so, in this country the right wing will mostly have the upper hand, because in this country religion is a powerful causal factor in the decisions that a plurality (if not a majority) of people make about political and social issues.  Right wing philanthropists understand that.  Those on the Left do not.  

by doubtisdivine on Tue Aug 01, 2006 at 01:54:15 AM EST
I was at a recent conference of "Faith Bloggers" - "Faith Con '06" - and was impressed by the enthusiasm of the participants and yet nothing has so far emerged from that event.

Where is the nascent religious left ?

There are a few efforts with minor amounts of funding and considerable notoriety - Sojourners and Michael Lerner's "Spiritual Progressives"....

But, where are voices both prophetic - and also inclusionary - which both  decry the efforts of the Bush Administration towards inciting a widespread and very possibly disastrous Mideast conflict ( as does Sojourners ) and also denounce the rising tide of public hate speech in America ?

Such voices seem noticeably absent right now. Consider : Martin Luther King Jr. was an evangelical Christian but his religious and prophetic sensibility reached out to the American secular left and helped foster the collaborative spirit of the civil rights movement. Amidst King's rhetoric the  demonization of secularism we currently see coming from some on the ostensible religious left would have been more than out of place. That vilification would seem alien to the spirit of the movement King, Rosa Parks, and many others worked to build.

Such an inclusionary spirit of transcendence - where is it ?

Where is the shared consensus and sensibility - among the would be leaders of an American religious left - that would make effective political action possible ? Ties between the religious and secular left currently are thin at best. Who can build the needed bridges ?

Funding is very important, yes, but money is not everything. Vision has its place. At this moment I see little public vision in evidence. That  must change, but who will set that change in motion ?

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Aug 05, 2006 at 02:09:12 AM EST

has a different, but not incompatible take on Adele Stan's post.

It is worth wandering over to Street Prophetsto give it a read.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 11:18:03 PM EST

Going back a few weeks to the post on Barack stepping in it.

I got to that from Katherine Yurica's comments on Theocracy Watch.  In an '04 essay " How the Dominionists Are Succeeding in Their Quest for National Control and World Power" Yurica wrote;

"I have paraphrased the four immoral principles of the Dominionist movement as the following:

  1. Falsehoods are not only acceptable, they are a necessity. The corollary is: The masses will accept any lie if it is spoken with vigor, energy and dedication.

  2. It is necessary to be cast under the cloak of "goodness" whereas all opponents and their ideas must be cast as "evil."

  3. Complete destruction of every opponent must be accomplished through unrelenting personal attacks.

  4. The creation of the appearance of overwhelming power and brutality is necessary in order to destroy the will of opponents to launch opposition of any kind."

In addition to being the Domionist's immoral principles, they sure look to me like something the D's lifted from the major religions.

The 7/2 post quote from Obama:

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."

I think what a lot of Secular Humanists have been asking is that certain Christians leave their lies, the implications of evil, the unrelenting personal attacks, the references to power and violence, out of their comments at public events.

As a specific example. Denver has had a very large Jewish population for over a century. Before the Dems retook the state legislature in '04, a Denver Post article revealed the Jewish representatives would wait outside the chambers until AFTER the opening prayer - because the local Dobson faction always had someone who could not contain their exclusionary tone giving the prayer.

Mostly, I think the tactics that have been used by the Religious Right (and that they have been doing this since the early to mid 70's) need to be very clear to those of us speaking out.

I don't like talking points or other artificial means of expressing one's opinions. I do think that the use of personal experience and stories (parables) can be very effective in getting across a point. What I always try to counter are the misperceptions of secular humanism and atheism.

Just because you don't have faith or a belief in a higher being, doesn't mean you have no faith, no belief in something larger than yourself, are amoral or intolerant. It does mean that you would like the same respect you give others for their religious beliefs to be returned.

I have, on rare occasions, pointed out to a patient complaining about atheists and their lack of faith, that I am an atheist and I do have strong beliefs. The only response I have ever had to this is an apology and apparent growth of the individuals to realize that since they cannot recognize an atheist visually, those kinds of remarks should not be made casually with a stranger.

Those times have been far outweighed by the number of times I have been in a patient's room or house, and listened to tirades on the evil atheists and secular humanists - and said nothing.

However we go about trying to reach the people on the 'middle ground', the ultimate goal has to be preserving the right of all citizens to practice their own beliefs and to distinguish morality from legality.

by Ginny in CO on Fri Jul 28, 2006 at 12:33:18 AM EST

I like the sound of that!  Where do I sign up?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jul 29, 2006 at 10:02:01 PM EST

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