Should liberals attack religion?

An AlterNet reader raises key questions about the role of faith and religion in the battle for social change

Published July 23, 2012 4:43PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Editor's Note: ​A short time ago, AlterNet received a very thoughtful letter from one of our readers. Professor James Rohrer wrote that while he was a long-time loyal AlterNet reader, he was concerned about our coverage of faith and religion. His complaint was that AlterNet too frequently portrays religion as the domain of right-wing fundamentalism and carries an overall anti-religious editorial tilt. Rohrer argued this has the effect of alienating millions of our readers who are progressively inclined. He challenged us to consider whether this approach stands in the way of building the unity we need to achieve the broad social change that the vast majority of Americans want.


"One would never know from AlterNet that there are today significant numbers of evangelical Christians who work for peace and justice, such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams who embed themselves as witnesses for peace in the midst of war zones," Rohrer wrote to us. "One would never know that much of the history of socialism in America has been intertwined with religion.  One would never know that many brilliant philosophers, scientists, artists, and scholars in virtually every field of research are also people who have a deep personal faith in some traditional religion."

Rohrer's letter, which echoed concerns we receive from time to time from colleagues and readers, prompted an extensive internal conversation, and we concluded that something has to change. In that spirit, we asked Prof. Rohrer to write an article about his thoughts on the matter, published below. Over the coming weeks we will be relaunching our Belief section, and publishing a wider array of coverage on faith and religion and its role in daily life and politics. (We have already started down this path with Vision editor Sara Robinson's recent article, "Six Reasons We Can't Change the Future Without Progressive Religion.")


My brother and I took divergent spiritual paths at an early age. More than half a century ago my brother, now a high-school science teacher and a militant atheist, mortified my mother when he told a sweetly smiling Sunday School teacher that he planned to return the following week “to break every damned window in this place.” My mother was not shocked by his lack of piety—she was a feminist with Unitarian Universalist leanings and had left orthodox Christianity behind years earlier –but by his rudeness. In truth we rarely ever attended church because my mother refused to sanction patriarchal religion and my dad hated to worship alone. But mom was gracious, even to people that she disagreed with in matters of religion and politics.

While my brother over the years has steadfastly scorned all expressions of religious faith as irrational superstition, I have been drawn to a lively spirituality since my earliest recollections. As a child on our Appalachian farm I wandered the hills and forests and prayed to a God that I truly felt as a living presence. I did not acquire my beliefs by having them forced upon me by parents or any organized religion; they grew as naturally and effortlessly as my physical body.

Over the years I have participated in many faith communities, have studied religion professionally, and have taught history and religion at several colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, some of them public and some of them religious institutions. I know that the line between good and evil does not run between religions -- any more than it runs between nations or races (all three are social constructs after all); my colleagues and close friends represent many different faith traditions, and some, like my brother, embrace a wholly secular stance toward life. By choice, however, I identify myself as a Christian. After half a century, I could no more deny my religious convictions than I could deny any other part of my Self.

Lately the progressive blogosphere has been filled with pieces by humanists who apparently take for granted that religious faith is unhealthy for individuals and society, and something that the progressive community needs to combat with the same dedication it fights racial and economic inequality, militarism, and the rabid privatization of everything that even remotely smacks of a public good. Just as “liberal” and “socialist” are code words for “un-American radicals” in the weird world of Fox News, sometimes it seems that “religion” and (especially) “Christian” are code words for “twisted sociopaths” or “patriarchal fascists” in the otherwise generally saner world of progressive journalism. The problem is that in both cases the rhetoric conflicts with something that journalists of any ideological stamp should care a great deal about: truthfulness.

It is simply false that all (or even most) people of sincere faith—including those who are conservative in their religious commitments—are intrinsically irrational, anti-social, patriarchal, racist, or closed to meaningful dialogue. It is equally false that humanists necessarily see the light and embrace progressive politics. In my case, I am a Christian, a scholar, and for more than 30 years now a socialist who supports public healthcare, gender equality, separation of church and state, environmentalism, and pacifism. My humanist brother reads Ayn Rand, watches Fox News and is a dedicated member of the National Rifle Association. He opposes gun control, is a global warming skeptic and supports expanded use of fossil fuels, including fracking (he owns land in an area where you can scarcely hurl a stone without beaning one or two Chesapeake Energy employees). My brother and I do not conform to the stereotypes, and neither do countless other people.

That is, of course, always the case with stereotypes—they ignore flesh-and-blood human beings. We should know better by now than to engage in a politics of social typing, whether it is promulgated by xenophobic racial profilers on the Right or those of the secular Left who delight in demonizing folk who stubbornly choose to believe things that cannot be proven empirically.

Sara Robinson, who is one the most perceptive journalists in the biz today, recently posted a wonderful article on AlterNet that I hope all progressives will read and read over again. Robinson reminded readers that there is a long tradition of progressive religion, and rightly suggested that religious movements do a better job than secularists at building and sustaining authentic communities. If we are going to build a progressive community that has any hope of transforming the United States and the world, we are going to need religion or the equivalent moral force of religion to make it happen.

But we should be careful not to divide religion into artificial and inevitably arbitrary categories like “progressive” Christianity versus “conservative” or “traditional” Christianity, as though one is acceptable and the other beyond redemption. People are almost unimaginably creative, both individually and collectively, and they always defy easy categorization. The political behavior of religious traditionalists—Christian or otherwise—historically has been a moving target. We should not assume that theological conservatives think alike on every issue, or that they will inevitably vote as a block, or that they cannot be persuaded to join in support of progressive policies that affect the well-being of everybody’s children. There are today folk who identify as evangelicals -- even theological fundamentalists -- who work for racial equality, oppose U.S. military policy and hold economic views that might consistently be termed socialist. Sadly, one would never know this from reading recent progressive journalism.

The consequences of our myopia about American religion could be catastrophic, especially as we face an upcoming national election in which a swing of even a few votes could conceivably have a major impact upon the path our nation takes during the next critical years. For decades we have watched as Karl Rove and his cronies on the Right have repeatedly used volatile wedge issues to win the support of millions of religious conservatives who might otherwise have voted against their brand of radical individualism and greed. Contrary to what some talking heads of the Left and Right imagine, there is nothing in either the Bible or the Christian tradition that automatically pulls theological conservatives into alignment with antisocial political agendas.

Don’t believe me? Let me cite just one of many possible examples that underscore the malleability of conservative Christianity. Alton is a village in Sioux County, Iowa, which is statistically one of the most reliably Republican counties in the United States. It is a stronghold of evangelical Christianity, the sort of place where neighbors might scowl at you if you mow your lawn on the Sabbath. Every four years Republican presidential candidates swarm Sioux County during primary season the way bees hover over clover fields. Despite his Catholicism, Rick Santorum signs sprouted like dandelions across Sioux County this past year, as the overwhelmingly Protestant electorate set aside their theological views for the sake of political expediency. This is “red state America,” proudly dyed red, white and blue.

Most Sioux County voters are descendants of Dutch Protestant immigrants who settled the area more than a century ago. Their grandparents and great-grandparents were if anything even more theologically conservative, more pietistic, and more inclined to lace every conversation with biblical injunctions. But a century ago, the local folk opened their Bibles and found admonitions against rich rulers exploiting the poor. They found Jesus preaching that the "sinners” would enter the Kingdom of God before the Chamber of Commerce types, and understood that disciples must speak out against the Trusts and war profiteers. I just spent a week reading through the Alton Democrat for 1900, which routinely drew upon the Bible to editorialize against the imperialist ambitions of the United States --even dubbing its capitalist rulers “immoral” and “evil”-- and to denounce the moneyed aristocracy that unjustly controlled the destiny of the people.

The folk who now constitute the strongest base for the Republican Party have forgotten that they are descended from the Populists who once thundered their scripture-laced jeremiads against the railroads and the banks and who demanded radical democracy in the name of both God and the people. William Jennings Bryan, the “silver tongued orator of the Platte,” three times tapped into that moral fervor to make runs for the White House. Bryan, of course, hated the Trusts, hated militarism and waged holy war against the Gold Standard. (“You shall not crucify mankind upon this cross of gold.:) He was also a devout Presbyterian Sunday School teacher and fundamentalist who died shortly after leading the charge against evolution in the infamous “Monkey Trial.”

The Bible has not changed, and neither have the core theological beliefs of the people of Sioux County. But society has changed and the nature of political action has evolved almost beyond recognition since the turn of the 20th century. The Bible and the Christian tradition can be tapped as resources for an array of political agendas. That the “heartland” has in recent decades swung so far away from the populist tradition of Bryan is not because there is something intrinsically authoritarian or anti-democratic in the religious beliefs of the masses, but because Republican strategists in the last two generations have done a far better job than progressives at organizing, marketing and communicating their message in a way that appeals at a visceral level to the hopes and fears of many people. To change America, we must change this reality.

Although some progressive bloggers apparently think that organized Christianity is on the way to extinction, there is every reason to believe that religion is going to remain an important component of culture for as long as humanity survives. There is no conceivable progressive future—for America or the globe –that does not embrace people of diverse religious faiths. Within the American context any possible future will almost certainly include a Christian majority for many years to come. Militant secularists who care about building a better world for everybody need to accept this truth and start to learn how to communicate and build relationships more effectively with people of faith, including the evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics they most frequently tilt against.

Posting blogs on progressive sites that engage in simplistic stereotypes or that employ derogatory language is a bad start. In a college course on American democracy I routinely send students to AlterNet in the hope that they will open themselves to new ways of thinking about racial politics, inequality and the public good. Sadly, the religion posts too often serve as static, distracting them from the urgent issues that I want them to engage.

Most of my students are hardworking middle-class folk from rural communities, who grew up in places where life revolves around family, the church and the local school. For the most part they are sincerely idealistic and intelligent people who recognize quickly when they have been insulted or patronized. It is difficult for them to hear and trust progressive analysis of healthcare, civil rights, militarism, and economics when it comes packaged with attacks upon their most deeply held spiritual convictions. Insulting intelligent voters is simply bad politics, whether it is done by dogmatists of the Right or the Left.

James Rohrer is a professor of history at University of Nebraska-Kearney.

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