Mayor Pete and the Resurrection of the Religious Left

L. Benjamin Rolsky

April 18, 2019

In recent weeks, South Bend, Indiana’s “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg has been front and center in the news. Just this week, in addition to officially declaring his candidacy for President of the United States, he was called out by the Vice President on account of his religion. In what was made to appear a defensive move, though ultimately one performed from a position of power, Vice President Mike Pence accused Buttigieg of “attacking” his Christian faith. In classic conservative fashion, Pence redirected Buttigieg’s (fictitious) attacks away from him personally, and towards a more politically efficacious target: the First Amendment. Not unlike the President’s redirection of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests away from police brutality and towards the military and the American flag, Pence argued that Buttigieg needed to “reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.” As a result of these accusations, and in addition to comments questioning President Trump’s Christianity, Buttigieg has been linked to something the media is calling, “the religious left,” a religio-political position taken up explicitly in and for the public square. But what exactly is this “religious left”? Where did it come from? And does it foretell a liberal religious revival? 
According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the term “religious left” found its initial traction during the mid-1960s. Beginning around 1963, the term began to gain momentum as the Civil Rights Movement garnered national attention with the nationally-televised March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place in April that year. This moment also witnessed the emergence of a “New Breed” of Christian pastor who took to the streets in the name of civil rights and the social gospel, sometimes at the expense of their oftentimes more conservative congregations. 
As the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, the ascent of the “religious left” leveled off and even began to fluctuate for a time as Kent State, Vietnam, and Watergate bludgeoned not only the American public in general but also the aspirations of its liberal religious reformers. Undeterred, a number of progressive evangelicals came together in 1973 to sign the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. In it, the writers called upon the evangelical community as a whole to better address racial and economic injustice on behalf of the marginalized. “Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.” Three years later, President Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech would echo many of the same observations made in the Chicago Declaration, suggesting that the postmillennial vision of the prophets was applicable to America’s deepening economic divide between the haves and the have nots. 
As the 1970s gave way to the ’80s, “religious left” reached its apogee in usage, perhaps surprisingly (but perhaps not), at the same moment as the “rise of the Christian Right,” marked by the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. In this sense, the rise of the left mirrored the rise of the right as these newly invigorated constituencies began mobilizing on behalf of their respective interpretations of the gospel.
In many ways, the religious left is an artifact of the culture wars that began to consume the American electorate during the 1970s. If theatres of war had largely remained beyond the shores of North America, television and feature films came to serve as their domestic equivalent during this period—the theatre of primetime television in particular. Drawing upon the newfound discursive power of “the social issue” in recalibrating the terrain of American political deliberation spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement, both the religious left and right engaged one another over the most controversial subjects of the day: gender, race, and sexuality. Conservative strategists took full advantage of this change in political key, using it to stoke the flames of polarization and resentment (but that is a story for another day). 
The takeaway from this history is that both sides negotiated the same set of questions: How does one engage the public square and its various inhabitants? And what methods are most effective in disseminating a given electoral argument? The religious left answered such questions in the affirmative, meaning that the gospel spoke most clearly to structural inequities instead of individual sins. As such, civil rights served as the cultural and political backdrop against which liberal pastors formed their understanding of how Christianity was to manifest in the public square. This decision, while laudable, ended up rupturing congregations the country over as pastor after pastor took to the streets in defense of the marginalized. But those in the pews tended to remain in place, perfectly content to do what they had come to do that day: worship in the house of the Lord. 
The religious left has not recovered from this socio-economic impasse in either theological or political terms. Combined with the move from an emphasis on class to one of culture as outlined by sociologist Daniel Bell, liberals within the religious left gradually lost the ability to communicate with those who remained behind—the Middle Americans. “When they turned to culture,” argues historian Jennifer Burns, “liberals lost the ability to understand how conservatives connected with a larger audience, for they stopped taking conservative arguments seriously.” 
Since the 2016 election, both the religious left and right have re-emerged in American public life. This largely mirrors what took place over thirty years ago following the election of Ronald Reagan, as Google Ngram demonstrates. The religious left exemplifies religious and racial diversity because it seeks to make such realities possible in the broader culture. At times, this confidence can turn into a potent form of cultural smugness, yet just as often it has served as the key catalyzing factor in making the broader society more equitable for all. 
While the emergence of “Mayor Pete” has energized religious liberals hoping to finally see “the religious left” coalesce into a viable political option, it is still largely unknown how he’ll speak to or from his Protestant faith as a public servant. He's also been accused of not being Christian at all by some on the right. But this shouldn't concern the religious left, at least not too much, because this reaction hints at a modicum of fear in those who have arguably dictated the religious script of American public life since the late 1970s. In my estimation, Buttigieg and others associated with the religious left must think long and hard about the relationship between the prophetic and the pragmatic when it comes to American politics. The message has never been the issue for those looking to make social justice a reality across US society. What has been a problem, however, is poor argumentation and messaging. Social justice does not, and cannot, speak for itself; it must be defended. 

c2da8234-c2d0-4f92-a959-82cab820c07d.jpgAuthor, L. Benjamin Rolsky, is a Research Fellow at Lehigh University in Religion Studies. He is also an Adjunct Instructor at Rutgers (Religion) and Monmouth Universities (History/Anthropology). He is the author of a forthcoming book this fall, published by Columbia University Press, titled The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond. You can learn more about Rolsky's scholarship and public writing here.

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