Waiting for Lefty

waitingActivist Frederick Clarkson asked me to contribute an afterword to his new book, Dispatches from The Religious Left. I wasn’t sure I could do it, because I wasn’t sure if I knew what the Religious Left is — or if it even exists. Then I read the essays Fred has collected by writers such as the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, “Pastor Dan” Schultz, Chip Berlet, Jean Hardisty, Deepak Bhargava, and others, and I saw — well, maybe not the light, just yet, but definitely a glimmer. Here’s my response:

It’s not working.

But it could.

The “it” in those two short sentences-diagnosis and prognosis-is the Religious Left that’s at the heart of this book, the movement-that-is-not-(yet)-a-movement. Too many of the recent books about the Religious Left declare easy victory, the triumph of modest faith and mild-mannered reason over vulgar fundamentalism. This one predicts a hard and uncertain fight, against not just a Religious Right more vital and sophisticated than commonly imagined but also the limited imagination of the Religious Left, as currently constituted. The essays gathered here draw on memory-most powerfully that of Martin Luther King, Jr.-and hint at a new vision even as they proceed from the unavoidable conclusion that American religious leftists lack one. This book isn’t the vision; that’s still to come. Rather, it’s something more exciting, more kinetic, more democratic: a collection of clues, leads, lessons learned, successful experiments, potential tactics, glimmers of-there’s no other word for it-that much-abused, worn-thin, still-sparking notion, “hope.”

But hope, the cultural critic Cornel West reminds us, isn’t a symptom of imminent victory, it’s what you have when reason alone leads you to despair. As writers including Frederick Clarkson, “Pastor Dan” Schultz, and the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou make clear in these pages, the weak alliance of amiable evangelicals, well-intentioned mainline Protestants, old school social justice Catholics, and Michael Lerner that’s currently heralded by mainstream media as a resurgent Religious Left is neither left nor surging. Rather, it’s a centrist coalition of the willing that’s reporting for duty-not to the task of prophetically challenging power but to a Democratic Party bent on peeling off undecided voters. The religious centrists call this initiative “faith outreach,” an ironic label for a process that is neither faithful-to the core value of both democracy and most of the believers involved, which is that everybody counts-nor particularly reaching anyone.

As the Rev. Barry Lynn reminds us in these pages, the Religious Right remains strong, if in flux. Religious conservatism’s new interest in global warming and AIDS aren’t signs of a chastened movement but of an emboldened one, a movement broadening its concerns and its influence as it discards the angry old men whose fury propelled it into the mainstream. The Religious Right isn’t dead; it’s been institutionalized.

And the lukewarm Democratic Party appendage that passes for a Religious Left isn’t so much offering a different vision than the Religious Right as a different version. It’s an ostensibly “kinder, gentler way to do politics,” as Pastor Dan notes, that in truth is simultaneously cynical and naïve: a crass attempt by Democratic Party hacks to make of religious leftists a loyal and unquestioning base; and a sincere effort by self-declared centrists to “transcend politics,” as if the rough and tumble of democracy, the sharp elbows of real debate, and the painful truths of prophecy were unpleasant distractions, best euphemized and then euthanized, sacrificed for the sake of “common ground.”

But life, Darwin reminds us, is not a value, it’s a fact, and one defined not by harmony but by struggle. The good news is that that is the good news: the rowdy, pluralist approach to politics embraced by religious leftists is the fundamental faith of America. Not perfect harmony; glorious cacophony. “The noise of democracy,” according to President James Buchanan, who was a failure in nearly every respect but for the high regard in which he held the American sacrament of arguing.

Brothers and sisters: Let us argue. It’s what we do best. “The genius of the Religious Left,” Pastor Dan proposes, “has never been in organizational heft or the ability to mobilize campaign contributions or stick to talking points pumped out of the blast-faxes of suburban Virginia.  Progressive faith has been generative instead in its eternal, persistent, damnably disruptive questioning of the seemingly self-evident way things must be.” That’s Dispatches from the Religious Left. It’s not ameliorative; it’s damnably disruptive. Just because we don’t believe in “culture war” doesn’t mean we’re all on the same side.

Several years ago, my friend Peter Manseau and I wrote a book called Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, for which we spent close to a year wandering what we came to term the “margins of faith” in America, interviewing not (self) important religious leaders but just living and occasionally praying with ordinary believers: a divinely inspired tornado chaser in Oklahoma, a pagan “crone” retired from the Air Force in Kansas, a “cowboy preacher” in rural Texas. The cowboy preacher, a rancher named George McVeigh who led a little church in a manger-literally, a church in a manger, with a portrait of a Texas Longhorn chewing her cud above the altar-happened to be of a fundamentalist persuasion. Apart from his conviction that cattle enjoyed a standing before Christ equal to that of humans, his theology matched up neatly with that of his better-known Texas colleague in ministry, John Hagee. And yet, he welcomed us into his church. He prayed for us. Hell, he even prayed for our book, even though he had no illusions about its contents or its authors.

That’s not quite right; he mistook us for a gay couple. Pastor George didn’t much like the idea of homosexuality, but he liked us well enough. And it wasn’t one of those “hate the sin, love the sinner” bait-and-switch kind of deals, either. It was a matter of honest disagreement: about who you’re allowed to have sex with, what happens when you die, and whether cows go to heaven. George made converts of us on that last point, but there was no reconciliation to be had otherwise. And still, George prayed for us. He didn’t transcend anything. He stood his ground and respected us for standing ours.

That’s what this book does. The writers and activists gathered here span the spectrum from liberal to left, from electorally-inclined to the theologically revolutionary. But none of them are willing to give an inch on that core value of both democracy and American faith: the conviction that everybody-soccer moms and sex workers, cowboy preachers and radical faeries-counts. The new religious centrists too often forget that fact. What we learn from this collection is that for the Religious Left to merit capitalization, for it to be a real movement, it’s going to need to bring the liberals and leftists and all the wild-eyed ones together.

The movement that can do that doesn’t exist. But it could. The pieces are all around us. Frederick Clarkson reminds us that many of the foundations have already been laid-and built upon by organizers who recognize that democracy is not something that just happens on its own but something you make fresh every day.  In Fred’s home state of Massachusetts, groups like Neighbor-to-Neighbor and Boston Votes are making democracy happen. Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava raid the Religious Right to reclaim the strategies they adopted from the activist left-not “message discipline” but ideological diversity and a recognition that electoral politics are nothing more than a means, never an end. And numerous writers report on the small victories that, gathered together here, begin to reveal a pattern, the possibility of greater things. “Hope is specific, not abstract,” Marshall Gans reminds us. “What’s the vision?  When God inspires the Israelites in Exodus, he doesn’t offer a vague hope of ‘better days,’ but describes a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ and what must be done to get there.  A vision of hope can unfold a chapter at a time.”

So here’s another chapter, but the vision is far from complete. It’s not even coherent, yet.  This book doesn’t give us the vision. This “chapter” isn’t a manifesto. It’s a manual for writing one. Or two, or a thousand. If you’ve read this far, you probably have a better idea of what it might look like than any one of the contributors on his or her own. Which means, of course, that next chapter is yours. The Religious Left is waiting.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).