With a churchgoing Democrat in the White House, faith becomes more complicated in America. Thank God.
Young and middle-aged Americans could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was a social conservative who denounced gay people and harangued the poor to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, until he was crucified for demanding corporate tax cuts.
That perception might arise because since the 1980s, the most visible Christians have been conservative evangelicals who often emphasize issues that Jesus never explicitly mentioned, such as abortion and homosexuality. But now more progressive Christians are moving onto center stage.
Enter Joe Biden, one of the most religious presidents of the last century, along with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Biden attends Mass regularly and inhabits faith as Donald Trump merely brandished it (as if speaking to two Corinthians).
Likewise, Vice President Kamala Harris is a Baptist who says she has regularly attended church. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Catholic who says her faith inspires her to address health care and climate change. Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school. Raphael Warnock, a new senator, is an ordained Baptist pastor.
Other Democrats, including Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, speak the language of faith fluently as well, so a critical mass has formed of progressive Christians inspired by religion not to cut taxes for the rich but rather to slash poverty for children.
At the same time, conservative Christians have taken self-inflicted hits, not least the way some invoked religion while invading the U.S. Capitol. (After seizing the Senate floor, insurrectionists prayed, “Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ.”) And while human motivations are complicated, the suspect in the massage parlor murders in Georgia is a Southern Baptist whom a former roommate described as having a “religious mania.”
Some prominent Southern Baptist pastors jeeringly referred to Harris as a “Jezebel,” a biblical reference to a woman who is wicked, wanton and manipulative in her drive to power. That backfired and underscored how out of touch they were.
Another blow to the Christian right came when Beth Moore, a best-selling Christian author who may be the most prominent evangelical woman in America, said this month that she was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.
Yet the Trumpian wing of evangelicalism is doubling down. Pastor Rick Joyner, a prominent evangelical leader, said this month that Christians should acquire weapons to prepare for a civil war that is now inevitable.
The Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, told me, “Some folks hijacked Christianity and decided that they were going to put up a lot of money to promote the idea that to be a person of faith was to be anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-gun, pro-tax cut.” Barber calls that “theological malpractice.”
Jerushah Duford, a granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, agrees: “We have seen homophobia, hostility toward women’s rights, xenophobia and lack of concern for the poor.” She compares the damage right-wing Christian extremists have done to Christianity to the harm Muslim extremists have brought to Islam.
The share of Americans identifying as Christian has shrunk in recent years, while the share calling themselves atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has grown.
The progressive wing of Christianity is not, of course, new. It began with Jesus.
“Woe to you that are rich,” Jesus says (Luke 6:24). He advises a rich ruler to “sell everything you have and give to the poor,” and then suggests “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:22-25).
In the 1960s and 1970s, when progressive Christianity was far more prominent, leftists cited such verses and carried pocket booklets like “The Radical Bible” and “Quotations From Chairman Jesus.” I think it’ll be healthy if progressive Christians reclaim a part of America’s public square and mix things up.
“My hope is that we move into a season where Jesus followers are no longer seen as synonymous with hate, exclusion and hypocrisy, but as beacons of love and grace,” Duford said, noting that her famous grandfather focused on a message about God’s love. (Families contain multitudes: Duford’s uncle the Rev. Franklin Graham remains a staunch supporter of Trump.)
Most churchgoers are still conservative, and white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But if the public face of faith becomes less dominated by right-wing figures, it may become easier for the country to heal its fissures. In the past, secular liberals sometimes stereotyped Christians as intolerant bigots, and conservative Christians sometimes stereotyped liberals as working to suppress freedom of religion. But when the religious/secular divide doesn’t neatly overlay the political divide, it may become a bit more difficult for either side to demonize the other.
“‘Right’ and ‘left’ aren’t so helpful here,” said Father Greg Boyle, who runs highly regarded Catholic programs for gang members in Los Angeles. “The more reverent we become, we see things not as black and white, left or right — but complex.”
Hallelujah for complexity! It might lower America’s political temperature, I pray.
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