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The Religious...Left?

Ruth Graham, writing for Slate, looks at the demise of the religious right and wonders about the prospects for a different religious and political alignment.

The cracking apart of evangelicalism’s influence is more than the end of an era. It’s an opportunity—for Democrats picturing a broad victory in November, yes, and for Republicans who think their party needs reinvention. But it’s also an opening for another "silent majority" within American society: liberal Christians, a term that for a generation has been relegated to an oxymoron. That Christian belief can coexist with, let alone support, left-leaning social and political views has so disappeared from living rooms and community halls that any public embrace of the idea elicits surprise.

Despite the lack of publicity, Graham says religious liberals are ready to be a major force in the political sphere.

Liberal Christians today can be found in those who use Jesus’ inspiration to advocate for criminal justice reform, in feminists who view him as a disrupter of the patriarchy, and in the everyday churchgoers who see their values better reflected by the economic and social agenda of the mainstream left. They are mainline Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals. And if they are ever going to reinsert themselves into the heartbeat of American culture, this just might be their moment.

But is this a desirable outcome? If history is any guide, perhaps the U.S. would be better off without a resurgent religious left. We've just spent nearly 40 years watching the religious right work out its faustian bargain with the Republican Party. In order to help build a Republican congressional majority, conservative Christians agreed to reduce their faith to a narrow set of political goals—namely, opposition to abortion, evolution, and gay rights. In return, the Christians got…nothing. Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Creationism can't be taught in public schools, even under the name of "intelligent design". And as of 2015, marriage equailty is the law across the nation.

If liberal Christians strike a similar bargain, they may experience similar regrets. But maybe "religious left" leaders already understand this.

Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing for Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization, says shifts are due to young people choosing to identify with Jesus and his teachings as opposed to a particular political party. Harper believes the GOP is being pulled to the far right by extremists on issues like abortion, thus forgetting and alienating those whom Jesus affirmed and advocated for: poor people, ethnic minorities, and women.

"I think the focus on the person of Jesus is birthing a younger generation inspired by [Jesus' Sermon on the Mount]," she says. "Their political agenda is shaped by Jesus' call to feed the hungry, make sure the thirsty have clean water, make sure all have access to healthcare, transform America into a welcoming place for immigrants, fix our inequitable penal system, and end abject poverty abroad and in the forgotten corners of our urban and rural communities."

These are all laudable goals, but can they really lead to a Christian politics? Critics both inside and outside the Christian faith allege that social justice as a political goal is not rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

David Williams, writing for the Christian Century, wrestles with this issue.

The lie of race and the ever deepening concentration of power in the hands of an isolated, privileged elite are very real and a blight on the soul of our culture. Our willingness to trample on the disenfranchised and our abuse of creation is demonic, and must be resisted. Oppression is not something to be tolerated. The God who calls me is fiercely, terrifyingly, relentlessly just, and our failure to embrace that truth haswellconsequences.

And yet social justice as a governing purpose would misrepresent the primary commitment of my faith, if I am honest with myself.

What Williams wants to see is God's justice, not mere social justice.

Because justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around. Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity. It is about the balance of competing interests in a society. It's a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order. Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword.

Justice in the absence of grace, says Williams, will "either shatter or calcify a soul."

It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue.…

It calcifies a soul. The anxiety that arises from the immensity of human brokenness creates within those who resist it a shadow of that brokenness. The perpetrators of injustice become the Other. We cease to see the soul blight that curses them as fully as it curses those who suffer.

Therein lies the danger of social justice. If today's Christian liberals—like their conservative counterparts of the early 1980s—agree to reduce their faith message to a set of political goals, they are in danger of degrading the fight for justice into nothing more than class warfare. The result won't be to their liking.

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