Does ‘Religious Left’ Even Exist to Wage Counterattack?

At a recent Arts & Letters program at the Governor’s Mansion, Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, suggested a possi­ble counteroffensive against the rising power of the religious right.

Peters believes that it is high time that we hear from the “religious left” ­meaning liberals among Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and other mainline faiths, including Catholics.

A Gazette editorial agreed that these “tall steeple” churches hold opposite views from the religious right on most issues, from women’s rights to abortion to prayer in school, but yet they have not made their views heard. They have not stood up to be counted. Why have our mainline churches “let TV preachers become the voice of Christianity in America?” both Peters and the Gazette ask.

Human-rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr., whom the religious right prom­inently hated, might provide the answer to that question. Three decades ago, King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that the moderate white church, and, in particular, its liberal educated clergy, were a great disappoint­ment to the civil-rights movement.

In his non-violent 1950s and ’60s cru­sades (sit-ins, marches, etc.) for decent human treatment for African-Ameri­cans, King had hoped and prayed that church leaders, in the spirit of Jesus, might be supportive or join in. However, with very few exceptions, they remained aloof, he discovered. Or worse, they lined up behind the other side.

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncer­tain sound, an arch defender of the status quo,” King observed. ”The power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent sanction of things as they are.”

He concluded his letter from Jail with the warning that if the mainstream churches did not regain their voice and their courage, they would become “irrelevant social clubs social clubs with no meaning for the 20th century.”

Today our establishment churches are not essentially different from what they were 30 years ago. If they have not quite become “irrelevant social clubs,” as King warned, their religious practices have remained very comfortable. As well as “tall steeple,” one might call them ‘soft pew” churches; for, as King discovered, very rarely do comfortable Christians have convictions strong enough for which to take up a cross.

Even to refer to our mainstream churches as having an element so politicals as a “left,” as Peters does, is a deceptive misnomer, for it suggests that we still have a viable “left” in the establishment of this country, somewhere in waiting. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Historically, the left has been made up of people who were not receiving their proper recognition; for example, workers who were grossly underpaid for the wealth of their skill and labor brought to owners and management. What we have in the leadership of the soft-pew churches are not the poor or disenfranchised or unrecognized, but a well-staked social elite. They do now ant to fight for unpopular causes, for example, against superfluous military build up, or for minority rights. They have far too much to lose to give anyone an excuse to call them un-American.

As in King’s days, if the power structures of our establishment churches hold political views at all, they are closer to the religious right than Peters or the Gazette would like to believe. That’s why we don’t hear from them. I suspect that most “tall steeple” Christians are at least subliminally happy for the work of the religious right is doing; for now they can appear to be remotely considerate of the unempowered classes, whole someone else, supposedly on the other end of the political spectrum, does the dirty job of keeping American “clean.”

In consequence, as the last election reveals, today we do not have an effective counterforce to answer the rising religious right in America, with its intolerant and shortsighted viewpoints. The right feels totally comfortable to taunt and degrade its opponents. The principle of loyal opposition, basic to America politics, is on the brink of disappearing.

And if some comfortable professionals begin to slightly squirm in their soft pews, perhaps they are vaguely recalling a sharp rightward wing in another “chosen country” a few decades ago.

American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But then it couldn’t happen here.

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