Jesus Nation

Look beyond the televised debates to find the true religious left

| July 27, 2006

Television is a great forum to pit opposites against each other for a feisty debate. Still, when NYU journalism and religious studies professor Jeff Sharlet got a call from a news producer seeking recommendations for a talking head from the religious left, he demurred. Writing for High Plains Messenger (in a piece reposted on The Revealer), Sharlet argues that the mainstream media has it all wrong in thinking they can find a mirrored opposite of the powerful religious right. '[T]he religious left -- if there is one, or if there is to be one -- cannot be a person. It must be a story,' Sharlet writes. 'That's what movements are made of, a fact forgotten by the would-be spokesmen of the religious left as well as the media that strokes them.'

The differences between the two groups are more substantial than opposing stances on hot-button political issues. To illustrate the point, Sharlet reaches back to the religious left's doctrinally conservative roots. Take the 19th century's 'then-radical notion that you could provoke the presence of the Holy Ghost by organizing religious revivals rather than waiting around for them.' This revival movement insisted on organizing people and breaking down barriers to participation, creating ripple effects seen in abolition and the Civil War. These revivals also laid out two cornerstones of the religious left movement -- organizing and empowering.

Today, those concepts aren't reaching a broad audience. Part of that has to do with the mainstream media's portrayal of liberals as bleeding-heart helpers of those in need -- a misguided notion given that conservatives outpace liberals in how much of their incomes they give to churches and charities. The error doesn't just perpetuate a faulty stereotype. It also obfuscates the potential power of the religious left: the ability to foster solidarity through empowerment and organizing rather than charity. As Sharlet writes, 'Solidarity doesn't mean asking for help from the powers that be, it means organizing to become a new kind of power.' -- Rachel Anderson

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