What’s Left?

A month ago, the U.S. Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, let loose on the “professional left” in an interview tucked inside a tiny Beltway publication. He derided liberals inside Washington for being hypercritical of the Obama Administration. His remarks were innocuous and—coming from the highest press person in the nation—surprisingly daft. But in the sleepy lull of August, liberal bloggers leapt at his comments. They found them emblematic of a rift between the President and those that worked tirelessly to build the movement that shuttled him into office.

It’s a frustration born out of deep disappointment. Consider the fragmentary “Religious Left.” It is composed of left-leaning believers who saw, with Obama, not merely a landmark election but the beginnings of a major cultural shift. It was their religious ideals and values that would finally take center stage. But they have been loudly upended, seized by Tea Party rallies and resurgent attacks on Islam. At this moment, America’s leading religious export is a lunatic Floridian.

In a new book, Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century (Ig Publishing), Daniel Schultz attempts to give his movement a purpose and churn it forward. It’s a timely book. And Schultz, a fearless, extremely well-read writer, is a qualified candidate to take the inchoate idea of the Religious Left and give it some legs.

Schultz builds his book around a theory crafted by Walter Brueggemann, a prominent Old Testament scholar. Brueggemann identifies a set of social “scripts”: narratives that dictate our negotiation with the world. Four of these (the therapeutic, technological, consumerist, and militaristic) control us, to our detriment. But they can be wrested away by countervailing Biblical “scripts.” Schlutz takes these four and matches them with a contemporary political problem. He sizes up the issue, then walks us through the path to transform it. In a revealing gesture, Schultz passes on the broadly palatable efforts religious communities have taken up, like immigration reform and climate change. Instead, he focuses on the quagmire of the financial crisis, or the “Big Shitpile,” the blogosphere dubbing he uses. His first chapter dives into the abortion debate. He dwells less on Obama’s tenure but does include some of the left’s rage, namely the continuation of George W. Bush’s counter-terrorism policies. For his treatment of the “militarist script,” Schultz addresses torture.

In his definition of “political theology,” Schultz borrows the smart distinction between the transactional (the minutiae of parties and elections) and transformational. It is in the latter, he argues, where progressives of faith can make the strongest, the most “religious,” contributions. An apt response to torture, he writes should be aimed not at changing the behavior of political or security leaders, but at transforming the beliefs and attitudes of religious believers so as to deny the implied social permission for torture and to provide an alternative witness to the work of the state.

Our public sphere, he contends, is in dire shortage of this prophetic edge. (“Pharaoh at least had to face Moses.”) This central point is reiterated throughout, but the gritty details, on how to flex and employ the “prophetic imagination,” are often scant.

Schultz is better known as “pastordan,” a prolific blogger and co-founder of the website Street Prophets who now resides at Religion Dispatches. The snarky wit that marks his blogging surfaces only once or twice in the book. Instead, his tone is steady and serious. The book does, however, retain a blogger’s sensibility of sourcing; it is saturated with other authors, in tiny footnotes and big blocks of text, culled from everywhere—so much so that it might work best as an e-book. This technique also reflects, in part, Shultz’s creed: no authority should be left unchecked, and all believers should be lent a prophetic potential. Call it a netroots theology. Although the ample citation reveals a deep, careful research, it often disrupts Schultz’s voice. The book is strongest when he gives ideas flesh with his words alone.

His most potent chapter deals with abortion. He directs plenty of ire to the conservative Christian movement, that has—as the well-tread story goes—steered the abortion debate. Yet he reserves his fiercest blows for the “mushy middle.” To the religious moderates, like Jim Wallis, who push for consensus on “abortion reduction,” Schultz gives no ground.

This stings a bit. I sit to the left of my Evangelical parents. Someone like Wallis offers us space for a rare compromise on this tender issue. But Schultz is uncompromising in his rebuttal, and ultimately convincing. Abortion, he argues, is fundamentally about power. An undeniable gender imbalance exists where one group has far more power than another. He uses Paul’s concept of radical equality to argue that Christians are obligated to combat this gender disparity. “No amount of support for pregnant women or adoption assistance,” he concludes forcefully, “will be able to change the equation until the fundamental imbalances of power are dealt with.”

Still, I would not give this book to my parents. It is written specifically for those comfortable in “progressive” skin; and, to a certain extent, to Protestants, those in the tradition from which a bulk of the theological backbone emerges. This narrowness is fine. Schultz is wise to identify his location on the political and religious continuum, aim there and hit it hard. He presses his fellow religious progressives is to shed their timidity. You can still be religious, he says, and politically potent. In fact, your religion brings something unique and intimately valuable to political life.

Schultz is not interested in a deep exegetical work. He frequently leads a theological claim with the axiom, “God is free,” without parsing it out. (At times, I wish he would, digging further, for instance, into the sticky but fascinating concept of “power” in Pauline theology.) Yet, thankfully, he deals with tangible policy issues rather than theological abstractions. He does not, however, take an interest in some of the practical hurdles to his proscriptions. He ignores the obvious dilemma: there are simply fewer and fewer progressives in pews, at least the mainstream Protestant ones. Although he leans heavily on their ideas, he has very little explicit dialogue with his progenitors—the liberation theologies of the past and present. This is a noticeable gap. It stands out considerably when one notes that a rising majority of religious Americans that face leftward, at least electorally, are black and Latino.

For him, an “authentic” response to the financial crisis yields a twofold prophetic witness: a sharp critique to the powerbrokers behind it, and an offering of “hope” to those in its wake. Schultz, I can safely imagine, would contend that this can be done outside the confines of a church. Yet, if that’s the case, he doesn’t elaborate fully on what this form would take.

Changing the Script feels like a good first step: a foundation for further theological writing that is politically relevant and vital. Schultz pastors a small, United Church of Christ congregation in rural Wisconsin. No stories from the congregation make it into the book. Although I understand why, this is a little disappointing. I would have loved to read about the attempts, undoubtedly messy but rich, to deliver hope and a prophetic voice here in the heartland. Surely, there are those in his church and community buried under the Big Shitpile, or wrestling with the abstraction of torture. In these lives lies the yeoman’s work to transform these scripts. This focus would save Schultz from coming across as merely another aggregator of our collective sins.

You can join Schultz for an online Q&A about Changing the Script on Thursday, September 16th, beginning at 12:00 P.M (EST).

Mark Bergen is a contributing editor at KtB. He lives in Chicago and blogs here.