We Don’t Need a ‘Christian Left’ to Replace the Christian Right

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Donald Trump Delivers Convocation At Liberty University
Just changing the political goals of Christians won't address the fundamental problem of confusing religion and politics.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2016 Getty Images

It was inevitable, I guess, that the latest talk of the Christian Right “dying” — or at least suffering under divisions created or exacerbated by Donald Trump — would revive hopes of a “Christian Left” emerging to compete with, or even displace, the alliance of Republicans with conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics that has played so large a role in American politics since 1980. And now, at Slate, Ruth Graham has expressed these hopes at considerable length. Though I will not blame her for a sub-headline that fatuously refers to Democrats as a potential “party of God,” Graham’s piece begs for a dissent from a liberal Christian perspective. To put it simply, must Christian progressives replicate the politicization of the Gospel that Falwell and Robertson and Colson and so many others undertook? 

Yes, Graham is right in identifying this as an opportune moment to disrupt the popular stereotypes (promoted equally by secular and conservative religious folk) of Christian faith connoting conservative politics, or of the only “good” or “real” Christians being the conservative variety. And it never hurts to protect the First Amendment rights of American Christians to vote and think and speak as they wish, which historically (viz. the abolition and agrarian reform and urban reform and civil rights movements) has been on the Left as much as the Right.

But like previous apostles of a Christian Left such as Jim Wallis, Graham implies that the grievous error of Christian Right leaders is misapplying biblical lessons for contemporary culture and society, and elevating concerns about personal morality and “family life” above commitments to peace and social justice. The idea is that God does indeed have a preferred politics (if not necessarily a party) that just happens to be very different from those the Christian Right has endorsed.

The alternative argument is that believing there’s any comprehensive prescription for political behavior in religious scripture or tradition betrays a confusion of the sacred and the profane, and of the Kingdom of God with mere secular culture. That’s what one prominent liberal Christian named  Barack Obama maintained in his famous Notre Dame commencement speech of 2009, in which he described as essential to faith a healthy doubt about what God wants human beings to do in their social and political lives. And it leads not to a desire to replace the self-righteous Christian Right with an equally self-righteous Christian Left, but to a renewed commitment to church-state separation — on religious as well as political grounds. After all, church-state separation protects religion from political contamination as much as it does politics from religious contamination. And what the Christian Right abetted was political contamination, not just recourse to the wrong politics.

Needless to say, Christians who are also political progressives would get along better with their non-Christian and non-religious allies if they stood with them in staunch support of church-state separation instead of implying that progressive unbelievers are pursuing the right policies for the wrong (irreligious) reasons. And they would also tap into the true legacy of this country’s founders, largely religious (if often heterodox) people who understood the spiritual as well as the practical dangers of encouraging the religiously sanctioned pursuit of political power. 

So with all due respect to Ruth Graham and others like her who dream of a Church Militant marching toward a progressive Zion under the banner of a rigorously left-wing Party of God, thanks but no thanks. Progressive Christians would be better advised to work quietly with others in secular politics without a lot of public prayer about it, while also working to help reconcile with their conservative sisters and brothers, who may soon — God willing — be emerging from the Babylonian captivity of the Christian Right.