I’ve long been fascinated by the religious right. When I was a kid I had a Sunday morning paper route, and one of my favorite rituals after getting off work was watching televangelist Jimmy Swaggart sweat out the sin. It was mesmerizing theater. In college I used to seek out roving revivals, just to get a whiff of the snake oil. A few years ago, while I was working at an alternative newspaper, one editor jokingly referred to me as his “faith and values guy,” because of my fascination for all things fundamentalist.
If Bible-banging conservatives were involved, I was there with a notebook: in part because, as a liberal journalist, I was interested in exposing the political machinations of the movement’s cynical leadership; in part because I could get parishioners to say more than they should have. I knew how to fit in. I knew what they wanted to hear.
When I would introduce myself to potential sources, for instance, they’d typically ask whether or not I was a Christian. “I’m still sorting out the whole religion thing,” I’d say sheepishly. They liked that. It put me in the category of savable.
After working on a story about a 4,000-seat conservative “megachurch” in the Minneapolis suburbs, though, something turned in me—call it a moment of clarity. The church I wrote about was, as I expected, self-consciously slick, overly simplistic, and fueled by fear. My conclusions published, the hate mail poured in.
“Obviously, you are not a Christian,” one reader concluded. A number of missives expressed similar sentiments. If only I were not so lost, so arrogant, so blind. If only I believed.
The thing is, I do believe. I spent my childhood running through the halls of my family’s big old church. Mom taught Bible school, Dad directed the choir, and the minister who confirmed me remains a philosophical and spiritual counselor. They made me the bleeding heart I am.
The Jesus they taught me about lived and died in the name of justice, in the spirit of peace. He was an anti-establishment activist who begot peacemakers from Gandhi to Chavez, King to Mandela. And I had forsaken him: in social circles, because my progressive friends equated Western religion with naïveté; professionally, because I wanted to get the story. And while, on some level, I will always be sorting out the whole religion thing, I’m no longer reticent to say that I believe Jesus walked the earth. That I believe he provoked the powerful, considered economic injustice a sin, and welcomed all people—no matter what their race, religion, sex, or sexual preference—without judgment or expectation.
In short, I believe Jesus was a radical, and the time has come to start saying so.
After the 2004 election, pollsters asked voters in the Bush-friendly “red states” what most influenced their decision to re-elect the incumbent. A slim majority said that their candidate’s “moral values” were a deciding factor. Liberal pundits professed shock and immediately started speaking out on the need to put faith back in progressive politics.
A number of religious scholars and political strategists, from Rabbi Michael Lerner to former president Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, have long been imploring the American left to re-engage with organized religion. Three months before the election, Bill Moyers wrote in Tikkun magazine that “our times cry for a new politics of justice” and that to truly challenge this country’s complacency, believers in the American experiment must “get Jesus back.”
On the front lines, Democratic politicians and their handlers are misinterpreting the need for soul searching as a tactical matter. Instead of engaging in a thoughtful discourse about ways to empower environmentally conscious, peace-loving people of all faiths, strategists are scheming to sound less secular, appear more moral. In other words, they’re working on ways to spin millions of conservative Christians into believing that, deep down, their candidates are really just regular, God-fearing folk.
Besides being dishonest, this is a tactical mistake on a par with the party’s insistence on nominating uninspiring moderates to out-Republican the Republicans on wedge issues. It also betrays a basic misunderstanding of the fault lines that define this country’s religious landscape.
In the main (and here I confess to a gross generalization), Americans who consider themselves Christian tend to think about the New Testament’s central character in one of two distinct ways. For many, what matters most is that Jesus was a divine spirit who died for their sins. To accept him as your savior is to be saved, and the pursuit of that salvation is paramount. For a smaller percentage of believers, Jesus is a peasant revolutionary who lived by example and died for it. To model your behavior after his is to bring earth closer to heaven.
You can find a contemporary example of the juxtaposition at the local video store. In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, released in 1988 and based on a novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus is imperfect, routinely tempted by sin and crippled by bouts of indecision. The point was not for viewers to leave the film revering the protagonist but rather empathizing with his titanic, timeless struggle. After the film was released, conservative evangelicals lined up outside theaters to protest. It bombed at the box office.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, released in early 2004, focuses almost exclusively on an infallible Christ’s pain and suffering before and during his crucifixion. Many critics railed against the film, arguing that it was nothing more than an anti-Semitic advertisement for redemptive violence. After it was released, though, conservative evangelicals lined up outside theaters to buy tickets. It was the number one film in America for weeks and, in retrospect, presaged President Bush’s electoral victory.
A few weeks after my megachurch story hit the street, a talk show host at a local Christian radio station invited me onto his show. Knowing his reputation as an attack dog, I decided it would be a good place to test my newfound faith. The interview began just as I’d hoped.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
Before he could recover, I went on to explain that while I appreciated his preoccupation with salvation, my main concern was good works. That the Jesus I met in the Bible would be more concerned about curing AIDs than outlawing homosexual marriage, more troubled by world hunger and violence than an erosion of “family values.”
His tenor changed, the studio phone line lit up, and we actually had a conversation. Instead of being on the show for 15 minutes, I stayed on for an hour. In the end, we agreed to disagree. He listened to what I had to say, though. So did his audience.
If progressives want to reclaim the moral high ground, it will require a series of similar risks, rhetorical and substantive. First, and this is particularly true of the Democratic Party, there must be an unwavering commitment to a set of values. If civil rights, civil liberties, and nonviolence are ideals that can’t be compromised, then that’s that. On the core issues that once defined the liberal tradition—such as charity and justice—there must be resolve, expressed in a language of right and wrong.
The next step is to invite people of all faiths to join the cause. No matter what their religious backgrounds, if people share like convictions, that’s what matters. There are liberal evangelicals, progressives who have been born again, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Pagans who use their faith to define and fortify themselves. They should be welcome to express their values in their own language and on their own terms. In fact, they should be encouraged to speak about sin or redemption or prayer, to use words like God and forgiveness, if only because it will perk up the ears of those who might not otherwise listen.
To become more tolerant of and fluent in a multifaceted language of faith does not mean that the left needs to concede the right its wish to further erode the separation of church and state. Quite the opposite. By encouraging all people to express political ideals in spiritual terms, progressives would facilitate a rhetorical terrain to which no one person, party, or religious group can lay claim. In short, conservative bullies who have become comfortable claiming to speak for God on issues from abortion to military aid will no longer have dominion over the pulpit.
Of course, that means citizens and politicians who are serious about taking back religious terrain need to prepare themselves for a long, heated battle. There are people who identify with the religious right who will never share the same “values” (no matter how smart the spin), and they will continue to organize and demonize anyone who dares to disagree. The moralizing politicos who currently enjoy a monopoly on Christianity, especially those celebrated in the mass media, will be particularly irritated. In truth, asserting a liberal faith will require risking political capital and even losing some votes, especially in the short term.
Sometimes, though, you can’t claim victory unless you know what it means to be beaten. Sometimes you have to bleed a little before the healing can begin. Sometimes that’s the point. Just ask Jesus.