Politics & Policy

Sanders, Ossoff, and the Hopeless Dream of a Religious Left

Reverend William J. Barber speaks at an Obamacare rally on Capitol Hill in March. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
The Democratic party remains hostile to left-leaning religious voters.

The religious Left is tired of being marginalized. In recent months, several faith leaders have redoubled their efforts to create a meaningful movement that can undermine the religious Right and oppose President Trump’s agenda.

Reverend William J. Barber II is at the forefront of these efforts. The Evangelical pastor holds liberal views on gay and transgender rights, and denounces what he calls a “spirit of Caesar” in American society. Sentiments like this reflect the religious Left’s view that America increasingly mirrors ancient Rome, with the implication being that just as Christ rejected Roman society, he would also reject America’s character today. Barber has led countless marches and protests, especially in his home state of North Carolina, some of which have resulted in his arrest. His energetic devotion to this religiously grounded, liberal movement has even resulted in comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Barber and the slowly emerging religious Left have received a boost from Trump, whose refugee policy, in particular, elicited a strongly critical reaction from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. In addition, ministers such as Reverend Jennifer Butler of the Presbyterian Church have been using their influence to oppose the repeal of Obamacare and support socially liberal causes. In addition to encouraging activism, some leaders of the religious Left are seeking young leaders whom they can groom for public office.

A hallmark of this movement is its aversion to making abortion and marriage central components of the fight for social justice; and rather than supporting a right to life or traditional marriage, its leaders tend to take decidedly liberal stances on these issues. At first glance, it would seem this socially liberal vision might be appealing to many Americans of a more left-leaning persuasion.

But will their efforts be fruitful? Probably not.

Modern liberalism draws much of its strength from younger Americans — Millennials who are more irreligious than their forebears. Millennials might appreciate a sustained and systematic change in tone from church leaders — after all, it is quite welcome when moral imperatives suddenly shift to satisfy one’s tastes — but that is a different thing from those same people finding God. Which is to say that leaders of the religious Left might find that secular Millennials express superficial agreement with their platform, but not that they become religious themselves. Barber, Butler, and their companions thus face a generational conundrum that will likely prevent the religious Left from becoming deeply rooted in American society.

Besides, there is not an obvious political vehicle through which a religious Left could express itself. Clearly, the Democratic party is not a useful home for religious Americans who are loath to align themselves with the GOP. Daniel K. Williams, writing recently in the New York Times, pointed to the Democrats’ loss in the Georgia special election as evidence of the Left’s religion problem:

Mr. Ossoff, 30, represented this new wing of the party. He said almost nothing about his religious beliefs or the way in which his Jewish upbringing affected his political views — probably because, like many white, college-educated Democratic activists of his generation, religion didn’t shape his political beliefs.

Indeed, a large number of young, activist liberals seem increasingly unable to comprehend the mindset of religious Americans. As Williams notes, they are wresting the party away from its more religion-friendly past:

Now younger, secular Democrats are attempting to separate their party’s progressive values from those religious traditions. Some may belong to a religious tradition or consider themselves to be spiritual people, but they are not able to speak the language of a communally based faith because it does not inform or shape their political views.

Furthermore, prominent Democrats are increasingly comfortable demonstrating their lack of religious understanding — and tolerance. Senator Bernie Sanders exhibited this rather crudely when he questioned Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, who is a devout Christian. Vought had written an article in which he said that faith in Christ as the Son of God is the exclusive means of salvation, an uncontroversial theological claim within many denominations of Christianity. His article came in response to a controversy over comments by a professor at Wheaton College, who had implied Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought referred to Muslim theology as more than “deficient” because it rejects Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Sanders jumped on this point, castigating Vought for supposed Islamophobia, suggesting he was a bigot and unfit for public office.

Not only did Senator Sanders betray a misunderstanding of traditional Christian teaching, he implied that Vought’s Christian beliefs made him unsuitable for his a role in government — a violation of Article Six of the Constitution. It is beside the point whether one agrees with Vought that Christ is the sole way to salvation; he has every right to believe it, and Sanders’s militant secularism ought to disturb members of the religious Left who are in need of a political party.

Almost two months after the 2016 election, Michael Wear, a former staffer in the Obama White House and a committed Evangelical, spoke rather bluntly about the religion problem in the Democratic party. Ossoff and Sanders prove Wear’s most salient point about left-leaning religious voters: The Democrats, he said, are “not even pretending to give these voters a reason to vote for them.”


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Jeff CimminoJeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review. He is a junior pursuing a B.A. in history and a minor in government at Georgetown University. Cimmino was the founding ...


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