Excerpted with permission from "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?," edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and John J. DiIulio Jr. Excerpts from the book will be featured on Beliefnet throughout the convention season.
What does come to mind when someone mentions "American religion" nowadays? Aren't Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, or antiabortion or antigay picketers probably the first images? Or is it perhaps Bill Clinton, lachrymose at a Washington prayer breakfast last year, earnestly "repenting" his affair with Monica?
More recently what about the House Republicans voting that schools post the Ten Commandments as the answer to gun violence? Or the discomforting sudden embrace of religion by this year's crop of presidential candidates and their minions?It's not a list designed to warm most progressive hearts. Nor should it.
Yet it's far from all we need to know or care about American religion. Contrary to what many may think, not only is religion alive and well in America, but it's growing in scope and influence today-and a good deal of what it says and does is progressive.
Of course, religion has always been present in America's life. John Winthrop's "City on the Hill" provides a starting point, and Tocqueville reports on its centrality to civic life and politics 200 years later. Even Marx saw we were different. "America," he wrote, "is pre-eminently the country of religiosity, as Beaumont, Tocqueville and the Englishman Hamilton unanimously assure us. . . . We find that [American] religion not only exists, but displays a fresh and vigorous vitality."
No one who reflects even for a moment on abolition, suffrage, temperance, various utopian and reform movements, or the Progressive Era-or more recently, on civil rights, the Vietnam era, and the 1980s battles over Central America or nuclear weapons-can miss the vital role of religious leaders, religious visions, or religious communities in any of these transformative struggles. But what about today?
Here's what surprises a lot of my liberal friends: in Los Angeles, you'll find that progressive religious tradition alive in CLUE, a broad-based coalition of ministers, priests, and rabbis, that was at the heart of the city's successful Living Wage campaign last year. In Boston, it's in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), a new ecumenical social justice organization working on local job creation and school reforms. At its founding meeting, nearly 5,000 people heard religious leaders from Cardinal Law to inner-city black Pentecostal ministers and suburban Unitarians and Episcopalians preaching a new era of faith-led urban renewal.
In Washington, a liberal evangelical group called Sojourners regularly challenges its conservative brethren on issues from their stances on women and race to economic inequality and support for organized labor. Sojourners, to the surprise of skeptics, is drawing increasing attention and influence among America's largest bloc of white Christians, many of whom seem to be increasingly uncomfortable with the "Christian right" legacy of the 1980s and early 1990s. A few blocks away, coordinators for the religious alliance Jubilee 2000 are pressing Congress to abolish the foreign debts of the world's poorest countries, drawing on the Old Testament example of "the Jubilee Year" when debtors were to be forgiven their debts, and slaves set free.
In New York, meanwhile, working out of offices at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a new religiously based environmental group called the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (with the help of $10 million from Pew, MacArthur, and other foundations) is pressing churches to take up global warming, toxic pollution controls, Brazilian rainforests, and ecological sustainability as part of their everyday ministry. Not far away, over in East Brooklyn, a group of mostly black and Hispanic activist ministers and laypeople, calling themselves the Nehemiah Project, is putting the finishing touches on the latest round of nearly 5,000 units of low-income housing it has built or rehabilitated in the past fifteen years.
Along the southeastern seaboard, stretching from Delaware to Georgia, faith-based groups are working to organize thousands of mainly black and female workers in the enormous low-wage poultry-processing industry. Down in Texas, the Industrial Areas Foundation has, with religious funding and religious support, been building effective ecumenical, faith-based grassroots coalitions among lower-income black and Hispanic communities for two decades that have campaigned for housing, jobs, education, and community investment.
Unknown to most of my progressive friends, America's Catholic bishops, mainly through their Campaign for Human Development, meanwhile regularly contribute $10-$20 million a year to grassroots progressive groups around the country, working on everything from inner-city community renewal in Chicago, to tenant organizing in California, to minority issues in more than a dozen states. And millions more flow each year from Catholic orders like the Maryknolls and Jesuits, as well as mainline Protestant denominations and liberal Jewish groups.In short, there's a great deal going on in America's religious life that too many of America's liberals and progressives should know more about-and support. Yet the fact is we often do neither.