Changing the Script to Envision a Religious Left
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Sep 30, 2013 at 06:06:41 PM EST
I happened on this post from two years ago, that has some considerable relevance to today. I am reposting it with a few small edits, as part of the fourth anniversary of Dispatches from the Religious Left. (Note that comments may be two years old.) -- FC

As the mid-term national elections loom, it is worth considering where we are going in light of where we have been. That's why when others are writing on the zeitgeist of the political moment, I often find myself absorbed in the evolution of Recurring Themes here at Talk to Action.

We have, for example, discussed how the manufacture of a faux Religious Left by Beltway Insiders a few years ago didn't work out so well.  Then we further discussed the way that separation of church and state is a value that can be vigorously and successfully defended against theocratic candidates of the Religious Right. (Earlier this year, we discussed how a progressive minister running for local office navigated matters of church state separation.)

Today we return to our general, ongoing discussion of the Religious Left. Among the many reasons why we do -- perhaps chief among them -- is that a more dynamic Religious Left would be a major factor in thwarting the theocratic ambitions of the Religious Right.  There are now, and always have been, many politically active religious progressives and many significant organizations within the span of religiously based political progressivism. But a coherent contemporary movement of political consequence has yet to emerge.

The book of 19 essays by 22 authors I published in 2008 was an effort to get a more serious discussion going about an authentic Religious Left. This effort met with mixed results, in part due to a certain hegemony of discourse in which anything that did not neatly conform to the views of the Washington-based consultantocracy was marginalized, and sometimes if not worse.

In Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America (Daily Kos review here) we sought to highlight religious progressives who are unconnected to the faux Religious Left and, as I told Bill Berkowitz at the time that we intended that the book serve as "application of jumper cables to start a necessary conversation."

The conversation now continues with the publication of Dan Schultz's book Changing the Script:  An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century. (Daily Kos review here).  I am not going to delve into the ideas of the book here, except to broadly agree that his view that we need to be able to think for ourselves and to ask good questions, and not merely line up behind given answers, is an essential part of the project.

I started out this post wanting to highlight a review of Changing the Script by theologian (and friend of this site) Brent Hege at The Revealer.  Here are a few excerpts:  

He points a way forward for religious progressives yearning for a new order by tapping into that long and noble history and Christian hope. Taking his cue from Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann's critique of an American narrative of "therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism," Schultz suggests that just such a fundamental shift of narratives, a "change of scripts," is required to pull America back from the brink of economic, social and psychological collapse and to direct us toward a new, more just future where the dignity of every person is valued, where American power is expressed through mutuality and cooperation rather than force, and where inequality, not difference, is the scourge to be defeated.

The use of "narratives" to address the problems facing American society at the dawn of the 21st century and to suggest a progressive vision to correct those problems reveals the scope of Schultz's vision in Changing the Script. The problem, as he understands it, is not merely one of policy or individual motives or the trajectory of current events. Rather, the problem lies in the narratives we inherit and continue to tell ourselves in order to make sense of the world and navigate our way through it; the scripts we follow when living our lives. History does not unfold blindly, nor does it stretch bare before us for interpretation. We understand the world and the events of our lives always with the aid of a certain narrative, a comprehensive framework from which we draw meaning and value. We follow scripts prepared for us, often unknowingly, that instruct us on how our lives should unfold and we chart our paths forward with their aid, often, understood as "the way things are." We inherit them from our culture, from our history, from politicians, media and corporate advertising, and, yes, from our religious traditions. But there is nothing inevitable or obvious about these narratives; nor is there any reason why they cannot (and, Schultz argues, must) be changed if we are to chart a new course for our national life. From Brueggemann, then, Schultz borrows this theme of narratives to unravel the stories we tell ourselves and to reveal what we have long suspected, that our unexamined scripts are corrupting the "soul" of the nation and leading us into an unsustainable, perilous future.

What Schultz presents in this book is not a systematic description of American political life, nor is it a professional work of academic theology, biblical scholarship, or ethics. It is, true to his style, a work that blurs the line between church and society, between academy and populace, between religious and secular progressives (this is, I suspect, precisely what he means by subtitling his book "an authentically faithful and authentically progressive political theology for the 21st century). The vision of the "big tent" drives the style and the arguments Schultz makes, preferring coalition-building to the further entrenching of divisions, common ground to a siege mentality. What Schultz is after here is not the impossible dream of a sudden end to the divisions between Right and Left. Rather, he insists that among progressives (both religious and secular), there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Commonalities that emerge from our shared history in the struggle for equalities while navigating our religious differences, is a theme of much of my work, such as how to find a common narrative of religious equality in American history, and not allow religious and non-religious progressives to be pitted against one another.

But what I tried to emphasize in assembling Dispatches was that am authentic  Religious Left cannot be created in specific response to the Religious Right, or explicitly to counter it (although it may have that effect if it is a successful movement.) Rather, a Religious Left must become what it needs to be on its own terms.  To my mind, this means, as Dan and Brent say, that religious progressives must find and speak from their own identities and religious traditions.  I think it also means figuring out how these things can better shape our politics. I told Bill Berkowitz in our interview:


"...religious progressives seem to be politically stalled, distracted, and lacking a coherent strategy and effective tactics. Therefore, it is safe for government officials to ignore them, and we can see the results on just about everything that really matters.

Both the secular and religious left have generally failed to learn any lessons from the tremendous successes of the Religious Right over the past few decades. And what lessons have been taken are too often the wrong ones. Several Dispatches contributors are exceptionally well informed about the Religious Right, and discuss what lessons can be drawn from the experience of this formidable movement--and rightly caution us about others. One of the themes that emerges in the book is that the religious left needs to reestablish a significant capacity for "organizing" in the broad, social, political and electoral sense. It has been a key to successes in the past but seems to have been abandoned in favor of think tanks and public relations strategies....  it is time for a conversation about what is and is not working and to consider what might be done differently and to go out and get it done."

Two years out, [now four] I would add that any nascent Religious Left political movement must of course, not only not ape the Religious Right in organization and style, but to actively seek ways of acquiring and wielding power consistent with the values of justice. These values are rooted, as Hege notes, in the great religious traditions. But respect and advocacy for the democratic values of religious pluralism and separation of church and state are also essential, even as learning how to navigate it can be tricky.  While church and state need to be separate, religiously rooted values and democratic political and constitutional values must be considered together in order to achieve justice in an American political context.  Part of what this means, is learning to master the tools of grassroots electoral politics, which were intended as, and are still available to effect democratic political change. Failure to do these things, pretty much means abandoning the playing field and ceding the game.




Display:
Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted" cites the weaknesses of the electronic networks in creating REAL change. Networks are a step toward action, but they are built on low-sacrifice actions, things that don't cause the actor to break a sweat much less stay the course. He cites the lunch counter sit-ins in the pre-electronic era as a case of movement organizing through face-to-face relationships and commitment based on that trust. In contemporary movements he cites the power of the Black church - but it is the power of faith congregations everywhere, on all sides. The anti-abortion movement built their alliances and momentum that way, and the pro-choice movement flourished only when women and men came together outside clinics, week after week, to defend women and staff, then built a real organization resting on familiarity and trust. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples - these all are the real fundaments of social movement organization today. We know that the liberal-progressive faith organizations have massive capabilities since people already know and trust one another, know who's a good schedule planner, who is great at mobilizing members, who has the best long-term planning skills, who's a great talker and who's not, and who is super at organizing food and other supports. For the past decade those skills, honed in the civil rights, women's, and many other movements that once incorporated people of faith, have come back doing that work and more. The progressive faith community has built new skills in community and state or federal advocacy. It is not insignificant that during the press for federal health care reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a special shout out to the faith community. Missed in the mainstream reports of health care reform passage is the incredible work done daily by people in the faith community who never stopped pressing Congress to pass the bill. What distinguises this movement today is its commitment to full inclusion. Religious Right folks target limited topics designed to keep other people from their rights. The broad progressive movement is working to extend rights and protection of those rights to all people. The perception that all negative views of GLBT people come from religious leaders is accurate - because those who do not hate and reject LGBT men and women are given NO attention in the media. That does not mean they are absent or a tiny minority or mostly silent. What we are is ignored. Part of that reason is that secular groups, natural allies, also ignore the faith community. Fearful that all people of faith are just Pat Robertson Lite or, more to the point, creepy because they are people of faith, the secular community pays lip service to the alliance but runs the other way when it's time to stand in front of the cameras. Think what would have happened in California in 2008 were marriage equality to be affirmed by clergy. And there were thousands who stood with the No on 8 position, but the summation of our work was: "The faith community has nothing to say." Oh, yeah we did. And it would have changed history if we'd been present to say it. Elbowed out of the room, we were silenced by the very people we supported. The PR firms came to a few faith meetings - and handed us "faith messages" that were drivel and meaningless. Then, because we stayed on message but not on their words, we were cut out of press conferences. So here we are, the single largest organizational infrastructure in America or any given state, and we continue mostly to speak to one another on any given topic. If we are to get beyond low-sacrifice and therefore limited tweets in order, as Gladwell argues, mount real change with real staying power, the secular progressives must ally with us, let us reach our own members and bring them into the political arena. We can do it, we have the right messages and are the trusted messangers. And we can make all the tweets add up to something that can not be eroded - real organization with real outcomes that we all desire. With the partnership of secular and faith groups we can move mountains.

by Churchlady on Mon Oct 25, 2010 at 12:04:37 AM EST
simply needs to begin among people of some standing and vision.  

Dispatches was ignored and marginalized far more than it was discussed and I fear that the same thing may happen with Changing the Script.  

When people are ready take seriously the idea of forging a more politically dynamic Religious Left, I still think that these books will be helpful.  

 

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Oct 25, 2010 at 01:10:08 AM EST
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by The Christian Left on Mon Oct 25, 2010 at 11:24:53 PM EST

I'm really not qualified to speak that much about it, but the UU churches seem to have found a model that works really well.  They practice acceptance and not just tolerance, they are not dogmatic except against being dogmatic and for being accepting, they are very democratic, and work quite hard for social justice (and some are rather vocal about it).  Religious pluralism is not only a major part of the thinking, but I would say that it defines the core tenets of the church.

My short experiences with them (so far) shows that the structure would be defined by "Religious Left".  Needless to say, the dominionists (or Religious Right or whatever you want to call them) are quite hostile towards us.  Most of the churches in this area defines the UU church as a "cult".  Yet nothing could be further from the truth- in fact, I would call THEM the cult compared to what I've observed.  In the few short months we've attended, we've never encountered even the slightest hint of trying to manipulate or control us-  not even the removal of "welcome" in order to make us be more like them.  Indeed, they have expressed gratitude that we're active (and that is not our usual experience- our experience was constant, unending pressure to do and give more).

The only time they aren't welcoming (and I totally agree with this), is when a P/D/F (Pentecostal/Dominionist/Fundamentalist) tries to come in and "save" people.   Our little church has served as a refuge for people who have been harmed by those types, and they might even be accepted if they would accept others (which sadly, they don't) and not try to dictate the lives of others, which seems to be an addiction for the P/D/F types.

I had hoped to draw someone in from the church to comment on this thread.  We do need a viable "Religious Left" movement.

I rather laugh when I say this, but it seems that the UUs are very self-critical and always struggling with issues that would define a "Religious Left".  I think that might just be an attribute that would arise in the Religious Left, because of the 'nature' of such a movement.  

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Oct 26, 2010 at 12:08:15 PM EST



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