Is There A Faith-Based Foundation For American Progressivism?

Sep 26th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

A new book by Religious News Service reporter Jack Jenkins (American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country) argues that not only is the Religious Left alive and well in contemporary America—it is the “beating heart of modern progressivism.”  Modern politics in the Trump era often stereotype people into rather rigid categories.  This is not very helpful and is in fact often intellectually dishonest.  As I have argued on Issues over the last few months, genuine, biblical Christian leaders are all over the map in their political leanings.  Contrary to the current stereotype, many people in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are passionate Christians who see issues of justice as biblical issues.  Correctly, they see racism, prejudice and discrimination as sins forcefully condemned in the Bible.  I know some of them personally and have great respect for them and their convictions. For me, knowing this fact is a strong corrective to anyone who thinks the American Left is uniformly atheist and militantly secular.  In Metro Omaha, many of the BLM leaders are pastors or church leaders in North Omaha churches or other parachurch ministries.  But is Jenkins correct that the “Religious Left” is the “heartbeat of modern progressivism?”


Daniel Silliman, news editor for Christianity Today, helps us think through this question. In this Perspective, I want to summarize and expand on Silliman’s analysis of Jenkins’s important book.


  • “In the pages of American Prophets, we meet liberal and left-wing Christians, including black Protestants, white Protestants, and Catholics, as well as religious Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims, all motivated by their experiences of God to work for change on earth.  American Prophets promises something more, though. The subtitle, first of all, asserts a claim about progressivism’s ‘religious roots.’ There’s certainly a case to be made that modern progressivism has a religious history, even if one only goes back to Jimmy Carter’s ideas about a spiritual crisis, [or] Jesse Jackson’s belief in the power of a “rainbow coalition” . . . The book seems to want to argue that religious actors are central to progressivism. As Jenkins puts it, the Religious Left is a ‘secret weapon,’ hiding in plain sight, and ‘a core component of progressive social movements’ that ‘exerts growing influence on modern Democratic politics.’ Yet the stories Jenkins tells don’t quite show that . . .  it does capture a moment in religious activism and progressive politics. It tells the stories of diverse people motivated by their faith . . . .”
  • “There are, however, some big, outstanding questions about the Religious Left in America. What is its relationship to the growing segment of non-religious and anti-religious people on the left? What is the depth of its commitment to pluralism and religious liberty? Does the ‘prophetic’ approach to politics leave room for doubt, discussion, and reasonable disagreement? And why, with the long history of progressive religious politics in this country, do so many people not even know that the Religious Left exists?  American Prophets doesn’t answer those questions . . . .”
  • As I have thought through Jenkins’s book and then Silliman’s analysis, especially the questions he poses above, I have a deep concern about the “Religious Left” in America and its relationship with what is now called “Progressivism.”  [“Progressive” is now the label that has apparently replaced the phrase “political liberalism.”]  Here are a few of my concerns:
  1. Apparently, Progressivism is not very interested in the toleration of opposing viewpoints.  For example, in 2018, when interviewing Brian Buescher who had been nominated to sit on the US District Court in Nebraska, Kamala Harris of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii posed these questions to Buescher:  “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” “Do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?”  [The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal organization, which focuses on charity and has assisted persecuted Christians in the Middle East.]  These two Progressive senators were establishing a religious test for serving on the courts of the United States:  Adherence to orthodox Catholic teaching is incompatible with public service!!!  Thankfully, the position of these two Senators was forcefully condemned and abandoned by the Senate committee:  Buescher was approved as a judge for the US District Court for the District of Nebraska, taking office in August of 2019.  But, the interview does pose this question:  Can Progressives tolerate Catholics who take their church’s teaching seriously?
  2. In early July, Harper’s magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” describing the ferocious campaign of coerced conformity sweeping America’s liberal institutions as they purge dissent from the hard-left line.  “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class,” argues the statement, signed by over 150 academics and writers.  As the editors of the Wall Street Journal argued, “Society benefits when both its left and right coalitions accept basic free-speech principles.”  Toleration is apparently a virtue the Academic Left no longer embraces—and those that comprise the Religious Left should take notice.  Intolerance of politically incorrect language in speeches and academic lectures can also be applied to the religious convictions and beliefs of Christians as well.
  3. For most of the history of the American experiment in democratic-republican government, there has also been an effort to build a civilization that embraces and advocates for the values of free speech, democratic debate and cultural tolerance.  The political, entertainment and corporate culture of American civilization needs to take notice of what is happening.  The Progressive Left is fostering a culture of intolerance that takes no prisoners.  There is a risk that anyone who speaks up, however reasonably, will become a target.  The political, entertainment and corporate leaders of America need to stand up to the coercive tactics of the American Jacobins fostering this purge of free speech, democratic, reasonable debate and cultural tolerance.  The toxic and poisonous politics exemplified by both the Democratic and Republican parties are not calming this development; instead, they are feeding it.
  4. Here is where the church of Jesus Christ comes in.  Those who are a part of the Religious Left must exert their influence to defend the values of free speech, reasonable debate and cultural tolerance.  They are the only members of the Left that can moderate the extremism of the Progressives.  Those who are a part of the Religious Right must do the same thing—moderate the extremism of the Right.  Free speech, reasonable debate and tolerance apply to this Party as well.  As Christians, it is legitimate to criticize the polices, the character and the political agenda of the Trump administration.  It is legitimate to criticize the lies and perversions of QAnon, a bizarre element of the Radical Right that is feeding the conspiratorial extremes of the Republican Party.
  5. When it comes to the racial divide so prominent in America, with its racism, distrust and fear, the church of Jesus Christ can model something no other institution can:  The church of Jesus Christ can model the supernatural impartiality that refuses to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin.  The church can model the reconciliation of all races and ethnic groups.  The church can cut the radical path for all of society, for it alone sees people the way God sees them: All bear His image and all need Jesus Christ.  The church has the radical solution to society’s struggle with racism, prejudice and discrimination:  Disciples of Jesus Christ love one another with the supernatural love of their Savior. The church is the living example of racial unity and harmony, welcoming and including people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to full and equal fellowship in the body of Christ.


See Daniel Silliman, “The Beating Heart of Progressive Politics Is in the Street, Not in the Pew,” (21 August 2020); Wall Street Journal editorials (23 June 2020 and 9 July 2020); and Adam O’Neal in the Wall Street Journal (21 August 2020).

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