Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Books: "American Prophets" Looks At The Religious Left
American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country
By Jack Jenkins
HarperOne; hardcover, $27.99; available today, Tuesday, April 21
Jack Jenkins a national reporter for Religion News Service and a former Senior Religion Reporter for ThinkProgress, is one of the most respected religion reporters in the country. In his new book, American Prophets, he shares a paradigm-shifting discussion of how the Religious Left is actually the moral compass that has long steered America's political debates, including in this era.
Since the ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 1970s, common wisdom holds that it is a coalition of fundamentalist powerbrokers who are the "major majority" that sets the standard for conservative Christian values and working to preserve the status quo.
Jenkins contends that there is also a vibrant, long-standing moral force from the left side of the political aisle. This amorphous group of interfaith activists goes by many names and takes many forms, and this coalition has operated since America's founding.
The Religious Left has prayed, protested, and marched for common goals that have moved society forward. Throughout our history, it has embodied and championed the progressive values at the heart of American democracy, including abolition, labor reform, civil rights, and environmental preservation.
Drawing on his years of reporting, Jenkins examines the re-emergence of progressive faith-based activism, detailing its origins and contrasting its goals with those of the Religious Right. Today's rapidly interfaith coalition, consisting of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faiths; has become a force within the larger "resistance" movement.
Jenkins profiles Washington political insiders, including former White House staffers and faith outreach directors for the campaigns of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. He also looks at the new generation of progressive faith leaders, including Rev. William Barber II, leader of North Carolina's Moral Mondays and co-chair of the nationwide Poor People's campaign; Rev. Tracy Blackmon, a pastor near Ferguson, Missouri, who works to lift up black liberation efforts across the country; Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice lobby and the "Nuns on the Bus" tour organizer; Bishop Gene Raymond, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop; and Native American "water protectors" who demonstrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock.
In a section titled "The Search For God Inside The Beltway," Jenkins writes: "John Podesta may be able to laugh about it now, but back in 2003 he was, well, pretty mad.
In his defense, there were a lot of things for liberals to be mad about in 2003. George W. Bush was president, thanks to an election so tight and contentious it required the Supreme Court to step in and spare the country the horrors of a Florida recount. His administration thrust the United States into a wildly unpopular war in Iraq that March - despite waves of protests at home and abroad - only to have Bush declare 'Mission Accomplished' (spoiler alert: it wasn't) from the deck of an aircraft carrier little more than a month later. Unemployment hit 6.4 percent that June, and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter released a new book that sold half a million copies in three weeks.
Much of that probably ate at Podesta, a bespectacled, smoky-voiced veteran of Bill Clinton's administration, who would go on to serve in Barack Obama's White House and chair Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for president. But he was particularly peeved about something else: he believed Republicans had co-opted the perception of religion in the public sphere to the point where, as he put it, 'to be religious was to be conservative.'
The raw electoral power of conservative God talk was obvious during Bush's reelection bid. As the Democratic primary season progressed, it became increasingly clear that the incumbent Texas Republican, a United Methodist often described as a born-again Christian, would be pitted against Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who, despite being a Catholic Democrat and war veteran, somehow managed to come across to voters as an elitist WASP and whose Boston archbishop threatened to deny him communion because of his support for abortion. Kerry's campaign would mostly avoid discussing faith (more on that later), but Bush's potential road to victory was paved with the ecstatic prayers of what were often described as 'values voters' - primarily Conservative Christians who opposed abortion and same-sex marriage and who typically cast their ballots for Republicans.
Podesta kept this God differential in mind when, in October 2003, he used his hard-earned prominence among Washington liberals to found the Center for American Progress (CAP), a massive, sweeping policy think tank geared toward counterbalancing such DC-area conservative intellectual havens as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Initially bankrolled by prominent donors that included George Soros, CAP and its sister organization - the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF), which could legally flex more explicit political muscles - would exert broad influence over liberal politics for years to come.
CAP would also play a role in the realm of faith. Podesta has long insisted that his interest in the subject was first and foremost personal: a liberal Catholic, he spoke regularly in the mid-2000s of how religion informed his politics, once declaring that his faith was 'really what makes me a progressive.' He found a kindred spirit in Melody Barnes, a former aide and chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whom Podesta brought on board to help build out CAP's influence. The two collaborated on making faith a key part - albeit often unsung - of CAP's work, and in June 2004, they convened a gathering of four hundred clergy, advocates, and scholars for a faith and policy conference. Attendees included prominent faith voices that ranged from stalwart religious progressives such as Rev. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, to more issue-specific leaders such as Sister Carol Keehan.
'There was a need to organize a different group of voices from across faith traditions,' Podesta said. 'We got them all together and that gave rise to a bunch of work that went on through the course of the summer."
Part of that work included drafting a report on the future of the progressive faith movement, penned by a group known as Red Publica. The organization was relatively obscure in Washington circles, but Podesta had connected with some of the group's young founders at the CAP faith conference: Ricken Patel, Tom Pravda, and Tom Perriello, a Catholic who would later be elected to Congress, serve in the State Department, and run CAPAF. Res Publica described itself as 'a group of young public sector professionals dedicated to promoting good governance, virtuous civic cultures, and deliberative public discourse globally,' and its now-defunct website boasted that the organization was working with CAP in 2004 to 'catalyz[e] a resurgence of the progressive religious community.' To that end, Res Publica claimed that faith leaders asked its team to prepare a report after seeing 'a resurgence of the spirit of a progressive and prophetic faith movement.'
'There was a strong sense that the policies of greed, othering, and militarism demanded a moral response beyong partisanship, that it was a moment to breathe fresh life into that prophetic coalition,' Perriello told me in 2019."