One of the great historical strengths of the progressive movement has been its resolute commitment to the separation of church and state. As progressives, we don’t want our government influenced by anybody’s religious laws. Instead of superstition and mob id, we prefer to have real science, based in real data and real evidence, guiding public policy. Instead of holy wars, othering, and social repression — the inevitable by-products of theocracy — we think that drawing from the widest possible range of philosophical traditions makes America smarter, stronger, and more durable over time.
That said: while we all want a government free of religion, there are good reasons that we may not want our own progressive movement to be shorn of every last spiritual impulse. In fact, the history of the progressive movement has shown us, over and over, that there are things that the spiritual community brings to political movements that are essential for success, and can’t easily be replaced with anything else.
Religion has been central to the formation of human communities — and to how we approach the future — for as long as homo sapiens has been around. Apart from God-belief (which varies widely between religions), all successful religions thrive and endure because they offer their adherents a variety of effective community-building, social activism, and change management tools that, taken together, make religion quite possibly the most powerful social change technology humans have ever developed.
What does religion offer that progressives need to make our movement work?
First: there’s nothing like it if you want to bond a bunch of very diverse people into a tight community of shared meaning and value. A religious congregation brings together people of all ages, backgrounds, educational levels, professional rank, and life circumstances, and melds them into an enduring tribe that’s centered around a shared commitment to mutual trust and care, and (most importantly) has a clear and vivid shared vision of the future they’re trying to create.
There is simply no other organizational form that encourages people to share their time, energy, and resources so quickly, completely, or enduringly; or aligns so much conviction toward the same goal. (This is why the leaders of corporations, the marketers of sports teams, and the military all study religious cultures, and try to appropriate their tribe-building techniques for their own purposes.) The resulting tribes can last for many centuries — and acquire a resounding moral voice that can reverberate throughout their larger communities, and well beyond. If you want to change the world, this is the kind of group — deeply bound by faith, trust, love, history, and a commitment to each other and to the world they envision that transcends life and death — that’s most likely to get it done. Religion is the best way going to get people to consecrate themselves, body and soul, to a larger cause; and to take on the kind of all-or-nothing risks that are often required to really change the world.
Second, religious narratives center people in the long arc of history, telling them where they came from, who they are, what they are capable of, and what kind of future is possible. History does this, too; but religion does it at a deeper, mythic level that gives these stories extra emotional and cognitive resonance. For most of human history, in fact, the task of imagining a different future and giving people the inspiration and courage to reach for it has been the primary role of religious prophets. (So has the job of warning the people that they’re wandering into grave error or betraying their own values, and must change their ways or face disaster.) Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice — the voice that calls people to transformative change. Throughout America’s history, our most evocative political prophets — both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Van Jones, Barack Obama — have invariably been people who spent a lot of time in the pews, learning to speak the kind of language that calls us to a better place.
Third, over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture — and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation. Many, if not most, progressives in America are progressive specifically because they believe that this is what their faith demands of them. They’re raising their kids in churches and temples because they believe, as the Bible says, that “if you train up a child in the way that he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Liberal congregations have etched our values onto the young souls of tens of millions of American progressives, over three centuries and dozens of generations. Do we really want to try to do without them now?
Fourth, progressive religion has always been America’s most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed. In recent years, as the “free-market” fetishists took over (and gulled American Evangelicals into shilling for their hellish utilitarianism), our liberal faith communities — mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims — are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.
The market says: Everything and everybody has a price, and is for sale. Faith says: The most valuable things in our lives — good health, safe food, strong families, a clean environment, a just economy, meaningful work, access to opportunity — are beyond price, and should by right be available to us all. Our faith communities (especially, but not always exclusively, the progressive ones) have always held this light up within our culture, and it’s never been needed more than it’s needed right now.
Fifth, in a nation where over 90% of everybody has some kind of God-belief — and the overwhelming majority of them ground their political decisions in that belief — abandoning the entire landscape of faith to the right wing amounts to political malpractice. For most Americans, our religious worldviews are the epistemological soil in which every other decision we make is rooted — the basic model of reality that we use to navigate the world. When we stopped engaging people’s basic model of moral order, we effectively ceded the entire moral landscape of the nation to our enemies. It was, in retrospect, perhaps the most self-destructive error we’ve made over the past 40 years (and that’s saying something).
To our credit, a lot of our best organizers and activists are starting to realize the magnitude of this mistake. We’re paying a lot more attention these days to learning to clearly articulate progressive values, to express ourselves in explicitly moral language, and to put forward more strongly progressive frames, narratives, and future visions to counter the bankrupt conservative worldview that’s brought us to this sorry place in history.
But while we’re working toward some new understandings here, let’s also remember that the right wing’s success on taking this field was rooted directly in their ability to mobilize conservative churches to carry the moral banner forward into the culture for them. If we’re going to overwrite their brutal and anti-democratic story of how the world works, the most important step we can take is to tap into the vast reach and deep moral authority of our remaining progressive faith communities, and amplify their voices every way we can. Churches and temples have always been the first and most natural places Americans turn when it’s time to have serious cultural conversations about value and meaning and the future they desire. If we’re serious about changing the national story and bending the future in our preferred direction, then that’s where we need to be.
Sixth: Progressive faiths, across the board, promote the essential belief that human communities are, in themselves, inherently and intrinsically sacred. In fact, progressive atheists may be surprised to learn that among their more religious brothers and sisters, there’s very little agreement about the nature of God — but a very strong consensus that the act of radical community-making is the most intensely holy and essential work that they do.
If there is a God (and progressives of faith debate that question endlessly), then we might most reliably see the face of that divinity in that permanent circle of friends with whom we celebrate life’s passages and joys, and wrestle with its hardest challenges — the people whom we trust to stand with us no matter what comes, and who will work with us tirelessly toward our shared vision of a better world. It’s this deep faith in the dream of the beloved community that also feeds our faith in the potential of good government, and our confidence in the unleashed potential of the American people. (And furthermore: I don’t think I’ve ever met a progressive atheist who would disagree on this point.)
Across all the long centuries of the American progressive movement, we’ve never launched a successful change wave that didn’t draw most of its leadership, its base, and its moral grounding from the country’s deep liberal religious tradition.
Our churches and temples have been the fountain, the rock, the mother source of our movement from the very beginning. Progressives of faith have always played a central role in our political victories in the past. It’s time to stop imagining that somehow, we’re going to take the country back without them now.