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.
Gary Wills thinks that our ignorance-and the ignorance of liberals and intellectuals-about American religion reflects a deeper blindness about America. In Under God, he's blunt about his views:
"The learned have their superstitions, prominent among them a belief that superstition is evaporating. . . . Every time religiosity catches the attention of intellectuals, it is as if a shooting star has appeared in the sky. One could hardly guess, from this, that nothing has been more stable in our history, nothing less budgeable, than religious belief and practice."
The charge has a decided edge to it, but if you look at nearly a half century of polling data about Americans and religion, it's not hard to see why Wills feels the way he does. According to Gallup, for example
All this cuts against the confident belief once held that religion, whatever its past history, was in terminal decline-thanks to the "secularizing" forces of urbanization, industrialization, scientific explanation, and consumer culture. In Britain, France, and Germany, for example, barely more than a tenth of citizens say they worship weekly, with those who say they believe in God hovering between a quarter and third-both small fractions of the comparable U.S. figures.
Teasing out-and debating-the reasons for this "American exceptionalism" is a cottage industry among social scientists who study religion. What's perhaps more important on the eve of a new century is the simple fact of American religion's durability-and its implications for progressive politics in the decades ahead.
The first overwhelming fact about American religion is this: nearly 60 percent of Americans identify themselves as Protestants, 25 percent as Catholic, 2 percent each as Jews or Mormons, about 1 percent as Orthodox Christians, another 1 or 2 percent as "other religions" (mostly Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu). Barely a tenth of Americans say they have no religious identity. At first glance, of course, those numbers alone make America an overwhelmingly "Christian" country-more Christian, in fact, than India is Hindu, Israel is Jewish, or Latin America is Catholic. That 85 percent "Christian majority," however, is-and always has been-deeply and fractiously divided. For example, between 1,200 and 1,500 different denominations parse Protestantism's 150 million members into often wafer-thin subgroupings.
As a consequence, more relevant dividing lines turn on denominational identity and their rough "family" location. Another way to look at that immense Christian bloc, for example, is this: about a quarter of Ameri cans are Catholic, a quarter mainline Protestant, a quarter Fundamentalist Protestant, and a tenth black Protestants.
The lines between those "family" groupings aren't just ceremonial or superficial. To the contrary, they're powerful and real-and have long influenced not just religious boundaries but political and social beliefs. Catholics, for example, from their initial large-scale migration in the 1830s right up to the 1960s, found themselves isolated in a sea of Protestant ire and suspicion that imparted a distinctive pattern to their political allegiances. Protestant Fundamentalists, meanwhile, heavily concentrated in the South, placed themselves at odds with their northern and midwestern brethren even before the Civil War, not only over slavery but intractable issues involving the inerrancy of the Bible-and later the role of science.
Black Protestants-black Americans were, and are, overwhelmingly Protestant-when faced with the nation's enduring racism and religious isolation, constructed their own distinctive faith culture and denominations, blending the spiritualism and directness of the Fundamentalists with the more liberal social and political attitudes of the Mainliners' leadership. And no American Jew doubts the important divides among the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or the echoes even today of once-powerful divisions between German and East European immigrant traditions.
Despite all our talk about "postmodernism," at the end of the twentieth century those old divisions still carry measurable effects. For example, Catholics are second only to Jews as a group in deeply distrusting both TV evangelists and the Christian right-two groups in turn almost uniformly drawn from the ranks of Protestant Fundamentalists. Even among the Protestant majority, there are sharp differences: Mainliners as a group are much less likely to watch TV evangelists or support the Christian right than are Fundamentalists.
On a polarizing issue like abortion, similarly distinct divisions occur: 60 percent of Fundamentalist Protestants say they oppose abortion in virtually all circumstances, versus 41 percent of Catholics, 23 percent of mainline Protestants, and 3 percent of Jews. On the issue of public funding of private schools-central to the hotly debated "voucher" issue nowadays, 45 percent of Fundamentalists support it, as do 58 percent of Catholics, but only 34 percent of Mainliners and 24 percent of Jews.
Across a wide range of public issues, similar distinctions obtain: whether it's peace, the environment, civil rights, support for unions, and so on, simple grouping by these large religious "blocs" or by denominations produces variations in support or opposition that can range from 10 percent to 30 percent, even 40 percent, depending on the issue.
You can see these large fault lines in the denominations' social teaching as clearly as in the poll results.
The large mainline Protestant "family," for example, is generally doctrinally "progressive" on a wide variety of social and political issues. Here is an excerpt from the foundational "Social Principles" of the United Methodist Church:
"We claim all economic systems to be under the judgment of God no less than other facets of the created order. Therefore, we recognize the responsibility of governments to develop and implement sound fiscal and monetary policies that provide for the economic life [of] individuals and corporate entities, and that ensure full employment and adequate incomes with a minimum of inflation. We believe private and public enterprises are responsible for the social costs of doing business, such as employment and environment pollution, and that they should be held accountable for these costs. We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We further support efforts to revise tax structures and eliminate governmental support that now benefit the wealthy at the expense of other persons."
The Methodists go on to call for limiting the rights of private property, upholding collective bargaining, the advancement of more meaningful work and leisure, an end to celebration of consumerism, and immediate action against world poverty, as well as calling for specific measures to help migrant labor, limit gambling, break up corporate monopolies, and increase various forms of "work sharing" and decentralized management on the job.
Even a cursory reading of this and similar Methodist resolutions indicates that the Methodists' vision is much more progressive than anything emanating from Democratic Party platforms or policies in the past thirty years-and represents claims that are meant to serve as core social teachings for more than 10 million Americans.
Or consider recent formal statements by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to its 4 million members that demand "nothing less than a full-scale assault Taken together, the mainline Protestants form the cornerstone of the 52-million-member National Council of Churches, for fifty years the institutional forum for progressive and liberal Protestantism in the United States (and bête noire of groups like the Christian Coalition). The Catholic Church, meanwhile, can lay claim to nearly 60 million members alone, while the mostly politically progressive black Protestant churches count 20-million-plus Americans and Jewish organizations several million more.
Unlike untold numbers of political "causes" and "movements" that have arisen and then disappeared, these large denominations aren't going away. Moreover, many of them have been active pillars of progressive public policy throughout much of the twentieth century, and steadfastly (even increasingly) so since Vietnam and the civil rights era. In the 1970s, these were religious communities that actively sought greater equality for women, endorsed a new environmental worldview, and in the 1980s were often vocal opponents of Ronald Reagan's policies at home and abroad.
Yet the most intriguing feature today about this entire progressive tradition in American religion, and its history, is its invisibility to those not part of it. The reasons for that "invisibility" aren't always easy to disentangle. Partly it has had to do with the secularization of the nation's elites in both the universities and the press. As a group, these Americans have been uncomfortable with and distrustful of religion generally-and draw on both Enlightenment and modern liberalism's suspicions about religion's historical tendency to generate intolerance and bloodshed as reasons for its rejection. One study of the elite Washington press corps, for example, found that 86 percent seldom or never attended religious services.
Equally important has been the redrawing of the important "identity" maps in American life, especially since the 1960s. Religious affiliation (in particular, denomination) once served as a distinctive marker of one's location in America's social structure, as evidenced by a thriving social science literature on denomination and social class-most famously, H. Richard Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism.
After World War II, a new spirit of ecumenism and the softening of denominational and religious borders-most celebrated in Will Heberg's 1950s classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew-set the stage for what Sydney Ahlstrom, in his Pulitzer-prize-winning history of American religion, called the "coming of post-Protestant America." Particularly since the 1960s, gender, race, and sexual preference has taken on new defining importance-and powerfully submerged the older coordinates of religion, ethnicity, region, and class. Redressing the inequalities associated with those ascendent categories, needless to say, became in no small part the defining mission of liberals and progressives alike.
At the same time, the 1960s also marked the beginning of a decline in religious membership (compared at least with the decades immediately prior) and in the prestige of religious institutions-part of a decline of confidence and participation in civil society more generally. Nowhere was this decline felt more powerfully than among the mainline Protestants, Methodists, and Presbyterians particularly. Catholicism suffered its own declines among Americans of European descent but compensated with a dramatic inflow of Hispanic members, while Jews-who have dropped from 4 percent to 2 percent of Americans in the past fifty years (and have lost significant portions of their religiously active population)-arguably have sought new symbolic self-identification in part through images of both Israel and the Holocaust. Although the 1990s saw a partial reversal of those trends, the public rise first of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority in the late 1970s-and then (as the Moral Majority faced bankruptcy) of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition-seemed to firmly establish conservative Fundamentalist Protestants as the new religious ascendancy.
In their fascination with the Christian right, many liberals have openly wondered why religious progressives haven't created their own liberal "Christian Coalitions"-a fair question on its face, but in fact one that both misreads what the Christian right has (and hasn't) accomplished and ignores profound differences in the nature of religiosity and organizational structure between the liberal and conservative tradtions.
Whether progressive denominations could or want to "replicate" the Christian right's overt intervention in the electoral process is an open question. First, these faiths-particularly the mainline Protestants-draw on much different approaches to religion, which emphasize a more cerebral, less visceral embrace of faith. Belief in biblical inerrancy, the emotional reality of imminent salvation and the perils of damnation, the evangelical demand to save souls one by one, and the deep-seated suspicion of science and other powerful institutions that compete with religion for authority-all these are generally alien to mainline, and in somewhat different ways Catholic, belief.
Second, the Christian right isn't a denomination but rather a network of nonprofit groups that draws money and members from mainly conservative Fundamentalist Protestant denominations and free-standing congregations. Why the progressive religious community hasn't built its own competitor to the Christian Coalition, though, is a question partly answered by the difficulties in finding common voice among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as the fact that religiously progressive individuals already have plenty of opportunities to engage the electoral system.
Comparative studies of mainliners, Catholics, Jews, and Fundamentalists find dramatic differences in the kinds and levels of involvement by their members in other, nonreligious, civic and political organizations. mainline Protestants and Jews, for example, (as sociologist Robert Wuthnow and other repeatedly find) are much more likely than Fundamentalists to donate to a party, speak publicly, serve in some public leadership role, or belong to civicly engaged (and more liberal) nonprofit groups-by a margin of two to one or more.16 There's a second issue here about "replicating" the religious right. Recent research by a number of scholars and pollsters, for example, has suggested a more cautionary reading of the Christian right's successes. As several political scientists have found, rather than actually generating a dramatic rise in the number of adherents (as it claims), more accurately the Christian right found itself riding the Republican realignment of traditionally conservative Southern voters-a process initiated by the civil rights stance of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., not the organizing abilities of Falwell or Robertson.
In the midst of this realignment, the Christian right certainly helped crystallize the alienation and resentment of many conservatives-which had peaked in the wake of "the Sixties"-but even this is more uncertain than it may appear. In some studies, despite reams of news coverage, as few as one in ten Americans claimed to know much about the Christian right, while an equally small number actively identified themselves with the movement. Even among Fundamentalists, Gallup found that more claimed not to know about the Moral Majority than supported it (38 percent versus 36 percent).17 And despite repeated attempts by both the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority to "reach out" beyond their base within Protestant Fundamentalism to conservative Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews, the efforts proved dismally unsuccessful. In 1997, after Ralph Reed left and the coalition faced layoffs and budget cuts, for example, the first project closed was their "outreach" program to conservative Catholics.
People can reasonably disagree about whether the whole Christian right phenomenon has peaked and is in decline-or has merely gone "underground" to focus on state and local politics, as some believe. Significantly, though, both Paul Weyrich Jr. and Cal Thomas-major figures in the movement-now argue that the time has come for Fundamentalists to turn away from electoral politics and focus on traditional evangelical concerns.
Meanwhile, America's progressive religious community goes on-for the most part ignored by those who like to think of themselves as progressive but who have no connection to the nation's religious world. Of course, one can't count all the members or leaders of these churches and synagogues as avid supporters of their denominations' official views-like the Democratic Party or labor unions, large blocs of progressive religion's constituencies find themselves indifferent, even hostile, to the voices of their leaders.
Yet the central fact remains: in an era when progressive voices seem few in number, when many progressive organizations struggle to meet payrolls, let alone advance agendas, there is a large body of committed, enduring, and caring human beings-deeply bound, out of their own understanding of the connection between justice and the divine-who seek a world most of us could generously affirm.
Built on values untested by the latest polls, sensitive to their constituents but ever mindful that they are called to witness for more than immediate or personal advantage, they struggle with their own limitations, their own internal conflicts and weaknesses-and yet have emerged time and again over American history, resistant to the abuses of the human family, willing to fight for a world beyond this parsimonious age of ours.