Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: 'Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America'

Review by Laura Clawson
Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America 
Edited by Frederick Clarkson 
$15.95, 220 pages 
Ig Publishing: Brooklyn, 2009
There's something frustrating about getting to the afterword of a book and finding that it begins by saying essentially what your book review was going to say. So it is here, in Jeff Sharlet's afterword to Dispatches from the Religious Left:

It's not working.
But it could.
The "it" in those two short sentences -- diagnosis and prognosis -- is the Religious Left that's at the heart of this book, the movement-that-is-not-(yet)-a-movement. Too many of the recent books about the Religious Left declare easy victory, the triumph of modest faith and mild-mannered reason over vulgar fundamentalism. This one predicts a hard and uncertain fight, against not just a Religious Right more vital and sophisticated than commonly imagined but also the limited imagination of the Religious Left, as currently constituted. The essays gathered here draw on memory -- most powerfully that of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and hint at a new vision even as they proceed from the unavoidable conclusion that American religious leftists lack one. This book isn't the vision; that's still to come. Rather, it's something more exciting, more kinetic, more democratic: a collection of clues, leads, lessons learned, successful experiments, potential tactics, glimmers of -- there's no other word for it -- that much-abused, worn-thin, still-sparkling notion, "hope."
Where Sharlet and I would differ is in the final sentence of that passage. What he finds exciting, I find frustrating. My frustration is not with the essayists, who as he indicates have put together interesting and potentially useful pieces. Rather, my frustration is with the "not-(yet)-a-movement" part. This book moves the debate on and the project of a religious left movement forward in several ways, but shouldn't we be past that by now?
That there are many people in this country who are religious and politically left is by now old news to people who pay even cursory attention, and there's been a lot of thinking and writing about what that means and could mean, and yet...still not yet a movement.
So there's that overarching frustration to reading this book. Where's the lefty megachurch? Where when I turn on the television are representatives of a religious left movement on as pundits, assessing the day's news as so many religious right pundits are frequently given the opportunity to do? But given that we need a way forward, Dispatches from the Religious Left offers some steps forward, some signposts further down the road, and a lot of interest.
The book is divided into three sections: "envisioning a more politically dynamic religious left," "memos on hot button issues," and "getting from here to there." Opinions will certainly vary but from my perspective of interest in movement-building, the first and third sections were most important.
In the essay that introduces the fundamental problem ("it's not working") I've already quoted Jeff Sharlet referring back to, Rev. Daniel Schultz (aka our own beloved pastordan) breaks down just a few challenges a religious left movement faces:
First of all, we are far too varied and complex a movement to speak with one voice. We are made up of congregations, denominational offices from local to national levels, other religious representatives, ecumenical and interfaith organizations, social-justice and peace activists, single-issue groups, Washington insiders, Democratic Party outreach initiatives, seminaries, institutes, and bloggers. None of us work the same way, or on precisely the same concerns. And where secular progressives have to deal with political and strategic differences, religious liberals also have to factor in theological and ecclesiastical gaps. In many ways, our diversity is our core strength, but this diversity also requires a common, coherent, strategic vision. Currently, we do not have one.
But where many writers would stop with the diagnosis, or falter in addressing the possibilities, Dan devotes the majority of his space to answers, arguing at length that
there is no need to water down the identity of a nascent Religious Left by soft-pedaling core social beliefs in order to reach swing voters.
Similarly, the idea that the Religious Left can somehow show the nation a kinder, gentler way to do politics without partisanship is also useless.
Instead, he argues for a political theology that creates question-askers, not foot soldiers, an "engine for transformational progressive politics." In a sense, this is an argument for a new model of movement. It does not quite address the question of how this engine gets enough horsepower to drive a national politics. But he provides an overarching vision, a sense of fight, answers to some of the hard questions too many people have been unwilling even to face. (Edited to add: It strikes me this paragraph may sound more critical than intended -- this essay was an exciting and engrossing one, and I'm just pointing to the degree to which it broke through some barriers and in so doing moved us ahead to others.)
Another essay in this section, by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, reminds us that at least one engine of a powerful religious left has long existed, in the African-American church. That tradition, he argues, "has always read the biblical narrative in close proximity to the nation's founding documents -- the Constitution and Declaration of Independence." Reading in this way, linking these traditions,
can offer us a narrative of religious and civic discourse that is centered on the expansion of democratic opportunity....I believe such a narrative can energize and inform a revival of the best of the prophetic tradition and provide a clean break from neo-liberalism and all its variants. This narrative is so powerful, so integral to our nation's history and our highest aspirations as a society, and has played such a profound role in the boldest, most successful movements for social justice, that it can salvage our democracy with an authenticity worthy of the founding of Christianity, and on a scale that could exceed the Protestant reformation.
Sekou points to the intellectual and theological traditions of a sector of American Christianity that has also offered organizational models through the years. Many scholars have written about those organizational models (which of course can never be fully detached from the intellectual and theological) -- see for instance Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 or Aldon Morris's The Origins of the Civil Rights Movements among many others.
In the third section of the book, several essays, including those by Marshall Ganz, editor Frederick Clarkson, Leo Maley, and Anastasia Pantsios, give specific examples of how successful organizing can be or has been done. Such examples are mostly localized or focused on specific issues (or both), so would need significant scaling up and grappling with new and difficult problems to become more widespread mass movements. But given that writing about the religious left has tended to be long on rhetoric and short on examples (even as we know that members of the religious left are accomplishing things on a daily basis), having these examples collected and in print is an important contribution.
This is the more true because these are uncompromising examples -- activism addressing not simply poverty but a multitude of inequalities around which there is less agreement than the general "poverty is bad." Leo Maley, for instance, looks at the role of clergy in the successful fight to maintain marriage equality in Massachusetts, an equality that may initially have been delivered by the courts but had to be defended in the legislature.
Maley is not alone in taking on an issue often left out of accounts of the religious left -- but there's not space or time here to address every worthy essay in the volume. As a whole, the book cannot overcome the limitations of the not-quite-movement it covers, but in crucial ways it breaks out, moving things forward intellectually and in our understanding of what is already being done.
And, on a closing note, how could I not mention this book's Daily Kos ties, from the aforementioned pastordan to editor Frederick Clarkson to a substantial list of others I won't try to single out for fear of missing one.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.