No, Liberals Don’t ‘Need To Find Religion’

When I saw this Washington Post article yesterday, it wasn’t the overly long headline that caught my attention. It was the preachy subhead: “Liberals need to find religion again.” Undoubtedly, it’s because I came across the story on Facebook, where the subhead was shifted up to the top.

Though I had an immediate reaction to the phrase — it always bugs me when someone tells me what I need or have to do — I read the story anyway to see if possibly the subhead was in error.

It turns out that the subhead was an accurate rendering of the story’s point, while the main headline more closely resembled a word salad. Writer Patrick Lacroix reminds his readers that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t only fighting for racial and economic justice, but that “the liberal interfaith coalitions of which King was the foremost actor marked a new and important chapter in American politics and American religion.” This is a long way of saying left-leaning Christians were a big part of the movement. And LaCroix isn’t lying when he calls the 1963 March on Washington “an unequivocally religious affair” — the stage was entirely filled with pastors, ministers, rabbis, bishops, etc. He further lists many ways in which moderate or liberal-leaning religious groups strengthened the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s. And he says “the religious left quickly collapsed at the end of the 1960s” (though this is arguably untrue).

However, LaCroix — who is a historian rather than a logician — fails to make any logical case for why “liberals need to find religion again”. He bemoans the growing power of the conservative Christian movement that sprang up after King’s death, and wallows in misery because “in the past 50 years, white liberals in particular have lost the ability to set faith in conversation with the world as King effortlessly did”, but fails to give any reason why it would be helpful.

First, I think LaCroix is incorrect about the disappearance of the religious left. Many liberals I talk to today are religious. According to Pew (here), 85% of liberals believe in God — only 7% identify as “atheist” and 8% “agnostic” — and 62% of liberals identify with a specific religion. (Weirdly, a different chart on that same page says 19% are atheists, so perhaps those polled misunderstood the questions.)

Second, I think LaCroix is missing the fact that liberals have more religion than conservatives do. What!? If you look at Pew’s numbers for conservatives, you’ll notice that almost every conservative in the U.S. identifies as Christian. Whereas liberals embrace people from any religion — or people with none at all. Conservatives resist any attempt to frame the U.S. as “multicultural” or “secular”, while liberals by definition promote everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion (or none at all) while understanding that government itself must be secular.

Third, LaCroix has ignored the toxicity of mixing religion with politics — it’s harmful to both. Evangelical Christianity is now forever tainted with ultra-right politics, forever associated with bigotry, and forever tied to the Trump presidency that they embraced. So much so that many are abandoning the label (though often keeping the harmful viewpoints). And right-wing politics likewise is now tainted from its association with backward theologies, because right-wingers used the “moral majority” as a crutch for so long. They used each other and were both left unsatisfied. Christian conservatives used politics to fight their anti-women, anti-gay wars, and politics used Christians to implement harmful fiscal policies.

Much better would be if religious people were free to practice their religion while government was free to govern without religious trappings — which is exactly what the liberals who founded our nation envisioned, and exactly what liberals today advocate.

Fourthly, and most personal to me: one thing we do not need more of in this country is people telling us to join a religion. Most of us, even religious people, have had enough of proselytizing. (Even when I was a radical Godist, it was irritating when someone of a different religious group knocked on my door.) I was religious for half my life and eventually decided against it. Since then, I haven’t gone a single day without someone pushing religion on me. Yesterday, it was Jason LaCroix and The Washington Post. Today, it will be a movie or TV show casually dropping “thank God”, “I know Someone’s looking out for me”, and other faith-based language. Tomorrow, it will be a cashier or librarian or the Lieutenant Governor of Texas.

There is no question that the religious fervor in many of King’s speeches is stirring. “I’ve been to the mountaintop”, for example, evokes Moses looking over into the promised land. King, like most of his followers — and like most Americans today — was a Christian. And he knew well how to incorporate religious language into political speeches to prime the pump and excite emotions.

But I insist that whatever ground they gained was in spite of religion, not because of it.

Because, as even LaCroix acknowledges, religion bit back in a big way — and that way was regressive. This is to be expected. Religion at its core is conservative — doesn’t like change. And when big changes happen, religion responds with regressivism — trying to go back to “the way things were”.

If you’re liberal and religious (as most liberals are), and if that works for you, then more power to you. But the minute you feel the need to taint your politics with religion, you’re playing the conservative’s game and you’re playing it on the conservative’s field.

EDIT, 2018.01.17: A comment below reminded me that I’d intended to link to a few more articles from years past that said basically the same thing, with or without references to MLK Jr. Here are a few:

* A Come-to-Jesus Moment for Liberals: The left has a chance to supplant the Christian right as the new moral authority (US News & World Report, 2017)
* Democrats Have A Religion Problem (The Atlantic, 2016)
* Why Leftists And Liberals Need To Engage With Religion Instead Of Dismissing It (Huffington Post, 2017)
* Why Do So Many Liberals Despise Christianity? (The Week, 2014)
* The Complicated Solution To Democrats’ Religion Problem (ThinkProgress, 2017)

This is just a smattering of examples that I found in two minutes. All of them miss what LaCroix missed — that most liberals are already religious, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others — and that a vast majority of liberals (including me) really don’t care whether you are religious or not, and that we advocate for your right to believe and worship how you see fit. It is conservatives, and always will be conservatives, who try to limit religious expression to a single religion.

  1. Mammon says:

    I’ve seen a number of those kinds of articles over the past several years and I think your second point is one that’s overlooked way too often by the people advocating for greater religiosity among liberals. Secularism is the root of religious freedom in America, and I think the religious diversity among liberals illustrates it well.

  2. Dana says:

    Amen, brother. Preach on. ;-)

  3. I’m a little jealous I didn’t catch this article first. Good response, Wil.

  4. When it comes to religion, you can call me Dick.

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