Nobody is laughing at the Religious Left in 2017

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins Reporter, Think Progress

There’s a well-worn joke that has circulated among religion writers for at least the past decade: every year, someone publishes a piece prophesying the “rise” of the Religious Left. And every year, the prediction turns out to be laughably overblown.

And then 2017 happened. These days, nobody’s laughing at the Religious Left.

Granted, the core catalyst for this shift was something few expected: the election of Donald Trump. His rise caught many by surprise, and sparked innumerable signal fires within activist spheres—a metaphorical call to arms against an enemy who threatens virtually every progressive cause at once.

One year later, that shift — combined with continued support for Trump among many evangelical leaders — has proven to be a game-changer for the lefty faithful. Although many have mistakenly lifted up a hypothetical Religious Left as a mirror image of the Religious Right (which attained power over the years through electoral victories), progressive people of faith found themselves at their most influential as agents of protest, not power accumulation. When secular activists sounded the horn to mobilize against Trump, a bellowing symphony of shofars, church choirs, and koras had already filled the air.

At long last, the Religious Left has awakened. And if the Religious Right keeps up its unwavering support for Trump, the progressive faithful may have miles to go before they sleep.

The “Resistance” as a spiritual movement

To be fair, the Religious Left was never exactly napping. Aspects of the movement—which constitutes an amorphous group of interfaith activists that goes by many names and takes many forms—have operated since America’s founding, marching and praying in support of abolition, labor reform, and civil rights. Recent years have seen their public influence eclipsed by the rising influence of the Religious Right, however, even as they continued to fight for immigrants, gun violence prevention, and LGBTQ rights—often as a crucial component of larger progressive campaigns.

But Trump’s rise gave progressive people of faith a powerful reason to coalesce, forging unusual alliances while offering a moral counterweight to the president’s rhetoric and policies. The presence of religion among the “resistance,” broadly defined, was almost immediate: when a Republican member of the Electoral College in Texas declared in late 2016 he would not cast his ballot for Donald Trump, he cited his Catholic faith as a core driver of his decision.

The presence of religion among the “resistance,” broadly defined, was almost immediate.

Meanwhile, religious groups began to band together in uncommon ways. As a rash of hate incidents—sometimes with a direct connection to Trump supporters—struck minority groups across the country in the immediate aftermath of the election, American Muslim and Jewish groups forged historic alliances. Mosques, Jewish centers, and immigrant-heavy churches that had never interacted suddenly found themselves locked together in common cause, their leaders often standing shoulder-to-shoulder during press conferences hastily arranged to denounce hatred.

The more overtly political elements of the Religious Left also found themselves emboldened. Faith leaders were decrying the administration’s proposed leadership as a “cabinet of bigotry” in December 2016, a month before Trump even took the oath of office. By January, groups such as the National Council of Churches—a historic organization whose media presence had all but evaporated in recent years—suddenly grabbed headlines with a harshly worded rebuke of the president-elect’s agenda.

The Religious Left’s visibility only escalated after Trump’s inauguration. Linda Sarsour, a Muslim advocate and one of the chief organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, hails from Religious Left circles, as did many of those who marched or spoke at what is likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history. When undocumented immigrants expressed concern of increased deportations, houses of worship from across the religious spectrum pledged to offer them sanctuary in their sacred spaces—or even in the homes of parishioners. When waves of protesters flooded into airports to decry Trump’s first Muslim ban, it was hard to miss how many identified as clergy members, or carried signs emblazoned with scripture. An atypically broad coalition of faith groups has since vocally condemned every subsequent iteration of the ban on certain immigrants and refugees.

The Religious Left was virtually unavoidable by June, when an above-the-fold feature story on the movement graced the cover of the New York Times’ Sunday edition. Yet organizers were just getting warmed up: the first major organized pushback emerged in opposition to the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Americans voiced faith-based condemnations to the attack on Obamacare from the beginning, and religious advocates quickly became a fixture of public protests. Faith groups hosted day-long rallies and “pray ins” with Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who is now often associated with the Religious Left—on Capitol Hill to decry the bill, and multiple clergy leaders were arrested in Washington, D.C. while protesting.

Although less successful, the Religious Left deployed similar tactics to decry the GOP tax bill later in the year. In addition to dramatic arrests, the bill was opposed both by progressive groups such as Sojourners and Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK as well as more theologically conservative entities such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The Religious Right is losing the moral high ground

The heightened tenor of progressive faith voices wasn’t just a product of anti-Trump sentiment. It was also rooted in brewing frustration among religious Americans with a bevy of evangelical leaders who offered uncompromising support for Trump throughout the year, particularly those who serve on the president’s amorphous, unofficial evangelical advisory board.

Some, such as Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, were already well-known among the Religious Right, whereas others, such as Paula White-Cain, are relative newcomers to the national political stage. But virtually all offered full-throated support for Trump at some point in the year despite his various scandals and transgressions. Franklin Graham defended the Muslim ban as “not a Bible issue”; Jeffress backed Trump’s attack on NFL players and others (including people of faith) who kneeled in protest during the national anthem, saying demonstrators should be thankful no one has shot them like “in North Korea”; Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., decried Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), two of Trump’s loudest Republican opponents, as “fake Republicans” and told Breitbart he hopes evangelical voters will oust others like them.

Falwell and Jeffress also supported Trump’s deeply controversial comments after a person protesting white supremacists was killed and several others wounded in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. Many were outraged after Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence, but his evangelical supporters stood by him: Falwell called Trump’s remarks “bold” and “truthful,” Jeffress blamed the media for misrepresenting his comments, and Graham cast aspersions on local politicians instead of the president.

Their position set up a dramatic contrast between Trump’s faith advisers and progressive faith activists, the latter of which were present in Charlottesville during the unrest. They preached against racism and defiantly stared down white supremacists throughout the chaos, a story that was eventually captured as part of a CBS documentary entitled “Faith on the Frontlines.” Coverage of Trump’s faith advisers “sticking by him” was often less flattering.

To be sure, there were points of division among Trump’s religious devotees. Members of the evangelical board sparred over the president’s decision to rescind the “DACA” program that offers work permits to undocumented immigrants who were bought to the country as children, and one faith leader left the evangelical board over Trump’s Charlottesville comments.

But the majority of the evangelical board remained loyal to Trump on most issues, and Religious Left leaders—along with pundits such as Charles Blow—began lifting up the Religious Right’s actions as evidence of immorality. Rev. William Barber said the evangelical board’s actions amounted to “a form of theological malpractice bordering on heresy” in July, and others began chiding them by name.

“We owe an apology that we have allowed evangelicals to distort and bastardize the Bible, and declare erroneously and outright lie that Trump is a man of God,” Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME told a crowd of religious leaders at a massive July progressive faith rally in Washington, D.C. “We repent on behalf of the likes of Paula White, and Perry Stone, and Jerry Falwell, and the board of Liberty University—they do not reflect the body of Christ at large.”

Some conservatives actually responded to the criticisms of the progressive faithful, which is rare. Right-wing pundits and religious leaders have typically dismissed or outright ignored the Religious Left. Yet Fox News mounted a small counterattack, describing Barber’s initial comments about Trump’s faith advisers as “hatred of President Trump.” Others lashed out at Linda Sarsour for using the word “jihad” to describe her advocacy efforts against Trump, even though she made clear she was speaking about about peaceful protest and the term is not inherently violent.

The general disposition of conservative faith leaders to the Religious Left’s efforts, however, has been resounding silence. When Jerry Falwell Jr. kicked evangelical speaker Jonathan Martin off Liberty University’s campus in October following a call for protest at the school, for instance, Barber and others challenged the college president to a theological debate. Liberty and Falwell have yet to respond.

The Religious Left isn’t slowing down—it’s gaining steam

The positions taken by Trump and his evangelical board, while possibly strategic in the short term, may come with long-term costs. Ascendent Religious Left leaders have positioned themselves to seize any moral high ground the Religious Right concedes in the public sphere. There’s ample reason to believe they’ve already lost some, even among evangelicals: a Pew survey released in December reported that Trump’s approval rating among white evangelical Protestants dropped 17 percentage points from February to December, down from 78 percent to 61 percent—the largest dip of any group polled.

Perhaps the most prominent example of such risks came in the form of Roy Moore, the Alabama senate candidate and ardent Christian nationalist who made headlines after allegations arose that he sexually abused a 14-year-old and dated teenagers while in his 30s. Despite the controversy, Trump, Jeffress, and Falwell all offered rhetorical and theological support for Moore, as did a smattering of local pastors (although not the exact number claimed by Roy Moore’s wife, Kayla). By contrast, Barber and other progressive faith leaders publicly protested Moore’s candidacy, as did a few evangelical leaders.

Ascendent Religious Left leaders have positioned themselves to seize any moral high ground the Religious Right concedes in the public sphere.

Exit polls indicate that white evangelicals did, in fact, show up for Moore, voting 81 percent in his favor. But they only made up 44 percent of the electorate, compared to 47 percent in the 2012 and 2008 elections—an indication that some were willing to stay home or write in another candidate. Black voters, on the other hand, made up nearly 30 percent of those who went to the polls on Election Day, and voted overwhelmingly for Jones. The combination was enough to defeat Moore in a heavily Republican state, losing to Jones by a little more than a percentage point.

Religious Left activists are already hoping to capitalize off this momentum, gearing up for what could be their largest year of activism yet. Energized by the success of 2017, PICO convened a “Prophetic Resistance Summit” in the fall to prepare faith-based activists for the 2018 mid-term elections. The event included a keynote speech by Rev. Traci Blackmon, a rising star in the Religious Left who was among those arrested for protested the GOP health care bill.

What’s more, Barber is teaming up with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary to re-launch the Poor People’s Campaign, the final organizing effort crafted by Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his assassination in 1968. Barber and others are billing it as a sprawling, national-level effort that appears to be modeled after the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina—a sustained protest that is credited with helping unseat the state’s Republican governor.

And they’re thinking big: Organizers hope to muster protests for a span of 40 days in 2018, coalescing thousands of demonstrators—many risking arrest—at least 25 state capitals and other locations, concluding with a march on Washington in June. Entire denominations have pledged to support the campaign, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Union for Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Such lofty aspirations for the Religious Left would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. But after 2017, “prophetic resistance” is rapidly becoming the norm, not the exception.