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The religious left is growing and already transforming the conversation about major political issues. Rev. Dr. Serene Jones explains why now, and what comes next.
For generations, American politics has been defined by the outsized influence of Christian conservatives, so much so that the intersection of religion and politics is often treated as the sole province of white evangelicals. And for generations, promises of a rising “religious left” have come and gone without any lasting political imprint.
But to look at America’s religious left at this moment is to see something genuinely different. Places of worship are participating in demonstrations for civil rights larger than any protest movement in American history. Democrats like Rev. Raphael Warnock and Joe Biden — political leaders whose faith isn’t just incidental to their public personas, but is a core component of both their identities and their appeal to voters — are staging important victories. The National Congregations Study, an annual survey of America’s places of worship, found 41 percent of self-identified liberal congregations lobbied or marched about immigration in 2018–2019; in 2012, it was only 5 percent. Long locked out of power, a growing religious left is pounding on the door. And it has the potential to remake not only American politics, but the way we think about big questions of fairness, justice and what Americans owe to one another.
“Having been a part of the religious left my whole life, yes, it is growing,” says Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. “Because of the pandemic, people are more open to spirituality in general. And I think that the public eye has been more responsive to seeing the religious left because they need to see them to have any hope at all.”
Though the religious left has deep roots in American history — from the abolitionist movement to the establishment of hospitals serving the poor — for much of the past several decades, liberal Christians have been relatively silent about their faith and how it informs their political beliefs, Jones says. But as America grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, yawning economic disparities and the legacy of racism, that’s changing. She points to universal basic income, for example, as “a religious foundational principle” that’s become a lively topic of political debate, and says that religious communities are also taking the lead on education and training to combat white supremacy.
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