On most Mondays this summer, protesters have been congregating in North Carolina to raise a moral voice against the actions of elected officials in the Tar Heel state. Beginning at the Capitol last spring, and spreading to other North Carolina cities with the legislative session finished for the year, the protests have attracted gatherings as big as 10,000 and captured the nation’s attention.
Led by a minister and operating under the catchy moniker “Moral Mondays,” the protests call to mind Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority from days gone by. But apart from rhetoric that appeals to Scripture and morality, Moral Mondays bear little in common with the Christian right, a movement of evangelical conservatives who used to enjoy a monopoly on politics of this sort. Concerned with legislation falling hardest on the poor, minorities and women, the Moral Mondays forces appear as solidly liberal as the Christian right is conservative.
If the drama in North Carolina represents the rise of a Christian left in this country — and recent polling data indicates it might — many liberal hearts like mine will gladden. Yet whatever better angels I have in my nature are counseling caution.
If the Christian left becomes a real force, please may it keep its eye on a prize higher than winning at politics. And please may it remember that it’s not just what you pursue in politics, but how you pursue it.
Religious gap closing
A study released this summer by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that a larger percentage of Americans than previously believed fit the category of “religious progressive.” And the gap between them and religious conservatives is smaller than most observers would have guessed: Religious progressives add up to 19% of the population compared with the 28% figure for religious conservatives.
Break it down by age, and you see that the gap will grow even smaller and, possibly, reverse as the demographic trend lines run their course. Those ages 18-33 are twice as likely as those older than 66 to identify as religious progressives. Among Millennials, unlike older generations, religious progressives outnumber religious conservatives 23% to 17%.
The Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays, declares, “This is no momentary hyperventilation. … This is a movement.”
Take cautious steps
All the more reason to heed the lessons learned from the Christian right, which in addition to gaining visibility and political influence turned off innumerable Americans (especially younger people, believers and non-believers alike) with its frequently shrill tone and condemnatory treatment of its rivals.
My suggestions to the rising movement of religious liberals:
- Don’t play the “God card” too fast and loose.
- Don’t give blind allegiance to one political party or ideology; be willing to give credit and criticism, when they’re due, to people and ideas on any side of a debate.
- Don’t use language and tactics that dehumanize political opponents and turn them into enemies.
- Don’t reflexively assign malign intentions to everything the other side is trying to do.
- Don’t act as though only you have values and standards.
- Don’t fixate so heavily on political battle that you forget that sustained social change comes through movements, not legislative and ballot box victories alone.
- Don’t forget that in a religiously diverse country that includes non-religious people, more than scriptural references are needed to mount a convincing political argument.
The list is far from exhaustive. Undue certainty about what God wants, use of partisan prayers that turn public events into bash-the-opponent sessions, distortion of truth for political gain — these misdeeds and more bring discredit to religiously motivated politicians and activists, not to mention their religion. Faith-fueled liberals should treat these like the Kryptonite they are.
Three cheers for the Christian left. One, for keeping the poor and vulnerable at the center of their prayers and politics. Two, for refusing to cede the language of morality to religious conservatives. And three — this one comes on spec — for remembering that when it comes to creating positive change through politics and giving a good account of their faith in the process, activists must make sure their tone and tactics are as “Christian” as the content of their message and policy prescriptions.
Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.