The overwhelming power of conservative Christians in the current Administration is deeply disturbing. But equally disturbing is the call that has gone out to what is now called “progressive religion” to counter the conservative Christian view of what God wants with a different list of God’s desires. The loudest call has come from the Democratic Party, which is undergoing its own scourging rituals. Religionists themselves are outraged by the way fundamentalists have hijacked their God. Memories of the important role played by religious leaders in the civil rights and antiwar movements are cited as proof of the good religion has to offer to the progressive agenda. And, of course, the post-2004 election obsession with “moral values” has enlarged the public space open to progressive religious voices.
The temptation to try to fight fire with fire is understandable. Conservative religious thought has had such a long free ride in the media that it is presupposed to be the true expression of religious belief. Progressives who speak out get covered only when they are the man-bites-dog story. Witness the hurrahs and amazement that greeted an evangelical Christian coalition that took the remarkably benign step of accepting the overwhelming evidence of scientists that global warming is real. At the same time, religious leaders who speak out against the war in Iraq or against draconian budget cuts get very little coverage, since the media still believe religious advocacy for peace and the poor is to be expected and is thus not news.
But there is much that is new–and bears watching–in the way progressive religion is operating these days. Political progressives and just plain old garden-variety Democrats are so desperate to be saved that they seem willing to accept unthinkingly the notion that progressive religion is not only the antidote to right-wing religion but also that progressive God-talk is the best way to express moral values. I sat in silence in the office of a Democratic senator last year as she told me she wanted to get up on the floor of the Senate and ask, “What would Jesus do about the budget? What would Jesus do about unemployment?” There seemed to me to be something seriously wrong with an elected official of a nonreligious state seeking to shape legislation according to anyone’s interpretation, however loving and justice-seeking, of what God wants.
In this context, it would seem that moral values–and the freedom to interpret what any one of us may think God wants–is best protected by a deep ethical commitment to the secular state, defined as a state in which the moral authority of government is derived from the consent of the people rather than the President’s link to or intuition about God. Legislators need to be asking what the people want and not what God wants.
This commitment to the secular state has long been challenged by the religious right, which considers itself a “victim” of the bicoastal liberal secular elites who want to drive religion into the sea. Sadly, as religious progressives have gained ground they have taken up this drumbeat. One repeatedly hears liberal religious leaders complain of how they have been ignored by the Democratic Party, the scorn with which academics and scholars have treated their ideas and the outright rejection they’ve faced from feminists.
Now, these personal perceptions and hurts might best be relegated to one’s therapy sessions if they were not so indicative of the enduring belief of many religionists that there is something special about their views that lifts them above other systems of moral inquiry and policy agendas. Ideas about justice and human dignity that are asserted in the name of God are not sacrosanct in the public square. Demanding that they be justified in rational, fact-based terms and that they serve the common good is not religion-bashing. It is what we demand of all public voices. And given the enormous damage that has been and is being done in the name of God, progressive religious voices should be especially sensitive to the danger that unexamined God-based public policy presents, whether it comes from the right or the left wing of religion.
In the end, religious leaders at their best are not policy wonks, message gurus or campaign consultants. They stand at the margins of power, with the powerless, seeking to change the status quo. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin and the Berrigan brothers did not have a seat at the table and did not want it. To the extent that today’s progressive religious leaders act out of that tradition, there is hope. If, on the other hand, they play the ancient role of theological adviser to princes and kings, we may all get more than we bargained for.