Four Warnings and a Fanfare: Thoughts on the Christian Left

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes at Salon on the beginnings of a resurgence for the Christian Left. She uses data from Pew’s typology survey, the somewhat idiosyncratic policy preferences of the millennial generation, and the powerful witness of Pope Francis on poverty and social justice to argue that a left-wing politics genuinely inspired by the Christian message may be having something of a moment.

I’m a big fan of Stoker Bruenig’s writing and an economic lefty to beat the band. The “Faith and Family Left” alignment identified by Pew is my natural political home, and I’d be delighted to see it gain more influence in US politics (and indeed Irish politics, but I’ve already reached my quota of impossible things to believe before breakfast). But there are some pretty substantial hurdles the Christian Left is going to have to jump if it’s to become a real movement and avoid making the same mistakes as its right-wing counterpart: so in a spirit of humility and reflection I’d like to build on Stoker Bruenig’s thoughts, sound a few notes of caution, and offer some suggestions.

1. Do not be suckered.

Stoker Bruenig thinks that the new Christian Left won’t be a movement joined at the hip to a political party. She hopes to see a re-invigoration of “some of the finest features of the Christian tradition”:

…to resist categorization, pull hard for the oppressed and downtrodden and insist upon hope while coping with the realities of power.

This is exactly the right approach to take, and to see why we only have to look at the Religious Right.

It’s pretty indisputable that the Republican Party at national and presidential level has often used the Christian Right as useful idiots – doing much more talking about social issues than effective policymaking on them, and when push came to shove making big business or national security conservatives its priority. (Mark Shea has done more than most to document this). It was understandable that “values voters” kept picking the Republicans as the least-worst option, but this basically gave the GOP carte blanche to take them for granted – and it duly did.

But here’s the thing: perhaps the current political polarisation will reduce in severity – let us hope and pray for it – but even assuming it does, the parties are always going to have substantial differences, and depending on the issue one or the other will often make for a better vehicle for a particular set of policies.

Implementing a Christian leftist economic agenda will, in practice, require cooperation with the Democratic party. But the Democrats are just as capable as the GOP of playing orthodox Christians for fools: and they have plenty of past form.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I was really, genuinely hopeful that a new kind of left-wing politics was about to emerge – less culture-war aggression, more comfort with faith in the public square. I hoped there would be greater willingness to acknowledge the good faith of social conservatives, and to work with them on the new liberalism’s real priorities – narrowing the gap between rich and poor, safeguarding the environment, and ensuring that nobody would starve or go broke just because they were sick. Unlike Stoker Bruenig, I didn’t do anything to aid this movement’s rise (in my defence, I was fourteen at the time), but I was certainly a true believer. I’d read Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics and saw echoes of it in Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. I thought the world was in for something very good.

As it turned out, what what the world was in for was corporatist economic policies coupled with take-no-prisoners social liberalism.

It’s been heartbreaking to watch pro-life Democrats betrayed and abandoned by the Obama administration and the party, and depressing to see Obama’s conciliatory 2008 rhetoric on social issues swapped for the “War on Women” in 2012. Even the modest progress made towards a more economically equal America (I’m inclined to think that Obamacare , while a mess, is an improvement on the status quo) has been inextricably bound up with attacks on religious freedom that often verge on the bizarre. When the government makes the Little Sisters of the Poor its enemies in the name of social liberalism, it’s hard to see the Faith and Family left aa anything more than window-dressing.

A resurgent Christian left will have to be as wise as serpents and awkward as all get-out in pursuit of its goals – or risk irrelevance.

2. Resist the temptations of tribalism

Humans are communitarian creatures. This is one of the basic ideas that underlies the outlook of the Faith and Family Left, but it’s also a danger for it.

Again, much as Stoker Bruenig and I might wish for a future in which “millennials just might (opt) out of the partisan approach to politics altogether”, barring some kind of political sea-change at least one of the two major parties will still need to be actively involved with actually passing legislation. I’ve spoken about the danger of being deliberately suckered by a party – but it’s just as possible to make a sucker of yourself.

The more you hang around with a particular group of people, the more you find yourself fighting with them against a common foe, the more inclined you are to see them as your allies, your comrades, and to start siding with them in areas that have nothing to do with your original alliance – areas, even, where you might once have strongly disagreed with them.

In the heyday of the Religious Right we had faith leaders acting as cheerleaders for hawkish foreign policy and free-market economics. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a good-faith Christian case for these positions – see Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel –  I’m just saying that the fact that so many “values voters” ended up adopting positions from the other legs of the GOP’s “three-legged stool” is more a matter of tribal coincidence than political complementarity. And when growing numbers of “pro-life” Christians became reliably pro-torture, it was clear that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. Much of the Christian Right had lost touch with the whole “Christian” thing.

Similarly, it will be essential for Christian leftists to avoid drifting into generic liberalism.

Having to ally with political parties needn’t be a bad thing. It’s perfectly possible, for example, to imagine a hypothetical Democratic party adopting many of the left-wing pro-life policies that Stoker Bruenig has sketched out – focusing on abortion reduction through poverty reduction, bringing in a child allowance, trying to ensure that abortion is a choice that as few women as possible ever feel they have to make.
But the gap between that hypothetical Democratic party and the one we have now is very large indeed.

This Democratic party is completely beholden to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, organisations that refuse ever to talk about reducing the number of abortions and are increasingly moving away even from “safe, legal and rare”, organisations that stridently oppose any new steps on the abolitionist path, and happily flout many of the pro-life laws that do exist. These organisations and the movement they represent are an important part of the Democratic Party’s base, and the party has shown absolutely no inclination to challenge them on any substantive issue. By definition, any pro-life platform that didn’t put Planned Parenthood’s nose out of joint would be worthless.

If it came to a vote, would “Faith and Family” Democrats cross the aisle to oppose these organisations? Or would they gradually bow, as so many pro-life Dems have, to political groupthink, becoing more like their allies until the distinctly Christian part of Christian leftism becomes an afterthought? What alternative structures will the Christian Left put in place to counterbalance the weight of the institutional and psychological pressure to conform?

They’ll need practical ways to put flesh on the brilliant words that Stoker Bruenig wrote in another article:

You have a political party offering you a reasonably sound position on sexual ethics and an unconscionable approach to poverty and the environment, and then you have one party offering you a reasonably sound position on poverty and the environment and an unconscionable approach to sexual ethics. But if you give up either half of the equation, you’ve lost something profound. Here is the secret: Christianity is radically countercultural and deeply politically inconvenient. It is no party’s friend because its kingdom is not of this earth. It can seek the good and accomplish good through the work of earthly institutions, but it is our job as Christians to hold the hard line and refuse to give up any portion of our ethics to make ourselves politically palatable.

Doing that in practice will be very difficult, and the sooner the Christian left acknowledge that, the better placed they’ll be to meet the challenge. They’ll have to work with parties, and they’ll have to be ready to turn right around and give ‘em hell.

Next time: two more warnings, and the fanfare…