The Problems with Saying “the Christian Left”

Christian progressives should resist the moniker “the Christian Left.” Given the powerful bond to right-left labeling in the culture, the phrase “Christian Left” might be inevitable. But the label is highly problematic.

There are two fundamental problems. The first is because the label begs comparison, if not false equivalency, to the Christian Right. The second is because it accepts a political designation that will blinder the “Christian” part of the phrase.

Comparison to the Christian Right. The Christian Right is a movement and set of institutions that have merged a patriarchal, retributive justice, bare-knuckled, exclusive, predominantly white expression of Christianity with an America-first jingoistic nationalism into which President Trump’s Republican Party has morphed itself. The Christian Right was born from the seeds of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. It grew in opposition to the New Deal in the 1940s and 50s, to Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and Bible reading in the 1960s, to the perceived overreach of the federal government in school desegregation and civil rights (especially after 1964/65), and then to counter-cultural protestors, liberation movements, and legalized abortion (the 1970s). It is comprised of numerous churches, colleges, graduate schools, think tanks, advocacy groups, and training programs for everything from grassroots organizing to home schooling to grooming persons aligned with the Federalist Society for federal judgeships. The Christian Right has embraced every Republican president since Ronald Reagan and been embraced by those presidents in return—none more so than President Trump. From a critical point of view, articulated by some evangelical Christian leaders along with most progressive Christians, the Christian Right has so merged God with America that it either verges on or is guilty of outright idolatry.

Labeling progressives as the Christian Left is a reaction to the Christian Right and in tune with political labeling of “right” and “left.” Why would progressive Christians want to be defined in comparison to the Christian Right? Why be compared to a heresy, on the one hand, and to the worst political polarization in the nation since the Civil War, on the other hand? The Christian Right represents a dangerous failure of American Christianity: jingoistic narrative, poor binder for neighboring each other, and morally punishing. The Christian Right demonizes opponents as enemies who need to be converted, exiled, or eliminated. The Christian Right is no friend of a multicultural republic fueled by robust democratic practices of conversation, argument, and compromise.

In short, the Christian Right spent decades building institutional bases, donors, networks, training programs, advocacy centers, and aligning itself with one political party. The so-called Christian Left is a light-year away from being as well organized or populated. It is different order of nature from the Christian Right.

My second objection to accepting the Christian Left label is because I fear that the “Christian” part of the phrase will be overshadowing by power of the political Left. Some commentators are calling politics America’s new religion: full of passion, don’t want your kids to marry someone of the other party, deeply polarized into incommensurate moral universes. America’s religion of politics is Manichean, dominated by the winner-take-all and consequentialist strategy and tactics articulated in the 1980s by Newt Gingrich and perfected by Donald Trump. President Trump and his elected allies have broken the rules of engagement to the extent that the political left is leaving behind, as naïve, Michelle Obama’s line (“When they go low, we go high”) in favor of Eric Holder’s volley (“When they go low, we go lower”). When Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said in the Democratic debate that love will defeat fear and Donald Trump, common reactions ranged from raised eyebrows to scoffing laughter.

But do Christians not preach and teach that love is the most powerful force in the universe because God is love? I wonder if congregants silently scoff when they hear this message in church.

When I think of what progressive Christianity should have to contribute to public life in the U.S., I imagine increased capacities for practicing conversation, argument, negotiation, toleration, acceptance of differences, kindness, restorative justice, reckoning, penance, generosity, forgiveness, love, and forbearance. As the political Left is being pilloried repeatedly by the President and his allies and the Left is fighting back, I don’t see these core Christian values on the agenda or in the strategies of tactics of the political Left.

Without such values and practices on display in public, the so-called Christian Left will be swept up and blended into the current of the political Left, to the further detriment of a Christian witness. It will take a great deal of creative, imaginative thinking and prayerful attention for progressive Christians to be publicly engaged as Christians, making allies and being allies, and not find themselves trapped in a fragile political bubble on the political battlefield.