By Pete Munsey.
To most people nowadays, the idea of a presidential candidate espousing somewhat nominal religious views is just part of the set design, in the same way one meets retired farmers at a coffee shop in Ames, Iowa, on a July morning, at 8.34 am (precisely). But in 1976, it was all new.
Jimmy Carter was contesting for the Democratic nomination and helped introduce into the American political lexicon the following: Born Again, Evangelical, “lust in my heart”. This was not Kennedy trying to reassure most of America that he wasn’t taking orders from the Vatican. This was someone passionately assuring us he was taking orders from his God. He won the nomination and went on to win the presidency with the support of an overwhelming number of white and black evangelicals. Newsweek that proclaimed it “The Year of the Evangelical.”
Fast forward thirty years. Eight out of ten self proclaimed Born Again voters stood with Donald Trump, a man who claimed he never has had to ask forgiveness from God for anything. Catholics voted for the thrice married non churchgoer by a margin of 23 percent. Franklin Graham, the famous preacher’s son, acknowledged Trump wasn’t perfect “but neither am I, and he is defending the faith…”
What happened? That is the stuff of dozens of think pieces over the last few years. And there are many reasons why. But here we are looking forward, trying to see if faith (and its close cousin in the secular word, ethics) fits with a progressive worldview. Many Baltimore area progressives think it does, and exercise both their faith and their worldview seamlessly. A look at American history, even before the first avowedly religious president in 1976, shows the force of religion in the civil rights and anti war movements. These were women and men of faith with progressive worldviews.
Recently, Pete Buttigieg, who is running for the Democratic nomination, has brought to light the connection between a progressive worldview and religious faith, through explaining on the campaign trail how the two are intrinsically linked for him, and defending his faith from attacks from the right. He has extolled progressives to “not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”
He showed an example of this in the second night of the first round of presidential debates, chastising the ruling party for hypocrisy. “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that…God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
So what can be done? How do progressives take back the mantle? How do non believers acknowledge and embrace the positive role of faith in social change? Those Baltimoreans I mentioned earlier might have some answers.
JT Dean, who lives in Baltimore County, has been involved in liberal and progressive causes and groups and has spent his career with non profits in part because of his religious upbringing. Although an agnostic, he says he still believes in many of the themes of his childhood Christianity, ‘like love, kindness, respect, equality, service and a belief that difficult situations can be overcome.” He thinks progressives should not shy away from expressing their religious beliefs. “While I am a proponent of the strict separation of church and state, its okay to recognize that religion plays an incredible role in society…the modern progressive movement uses their faith to fight for voters protection, LGBTQ rights, environmental protections, workers rights, ending gun violence, women’s rights, civil rights and welcoming immigrants. The modern conservative movement can’t say that.”
Kyle Britt, who lived in Harford County until recently, and has also been involved in progressive causes, is a practicing Christian and “feels guided by faith everyday. I am a Christian and when I look at Jesus, I see a teacher intimately concerned with justice, with care for those who need it, and with compassion for the broken.” He grew up in a conservative, Republican household with parents who donated their time to community service, but had his beliefs tested when his brother came out as gay in 2008. “(This) allowed me to desconstruct the faith of my childhood and reconstruct it anew with fresh eyes. I looked at the Bible and found justice where I had been taught judgement, compassion where I had been taught conversion, and inclusion where I had been taught exclusion.” How can progressives combat the perception that belief and faith is a Republican domain? “Our best chance to speak to the progressive value of faith is not to play their game, but to continue to loudly demonstrate that the faith of Mike Pence is not the faith of Paul, or Luke, or John.”
Ken Kovacs, the pastor at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, recognizes the importance of separation of church and state, and yet, recognizes that the idea of public service is perhaps the greatest calling to mankind. And therefore, it is important for all believers to hold their leaders to a standard imbued with their idea of justice and love. And, as he wrote recently in his blog post, “…Christians, of all people, should be among the best advocates for the common good, we should be known for fighting for the freedom and rights of all God’s children, on the side of the weak and the outcast and the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the broken, the wounded. Because God has made space for us, we should be free to make space for the other, to be advocate for the other, whoever the other happens to be-including the person of no faith or a different faith altogether, whether or not you agree with their politics or morality or choices.”
Kovacs continued in this vein, at a later date, when discussing faith with me.
“Many conservative/evangelical Republicans assume that they’re the only ones who take the Bible seriously, they (falsely) assume they’re the only ones who are Bible believing. This simply isn’t true. It’s a false narrative and it needs to be dismantled. How? Progressives have to stop being afraid of citing Scripture…..to allow the rich, radical, prophetic, justice speaking voice of the Bible (both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament) to come through loud and clear”.
“In the interviews I’ve heard with Pete Buttigieg,” Kovacs continued, “I’ve been very impressed with the way he freely cites Scripture- not as a “proof text” to make him sound “religious”. Instead, he demonstrates how his life and his political views are informed and shaped by his engagement with Scripture. “
Whereas Kovacs’ faith has been an enduring facet of his life from childhood, Joan Garrity’s experience in faith runs the gamut, from a secular Jewish upbringing through study of Buddhist philosophy, and finally, a home in the Unitarian Universalist Church. The Baltimore County resident embraces the Unitarian’s emphasis on common good and open minded acceptance of all religious faiths, or none at all. But through her work with a group like OWEL (Older Women Embracing Life), which helps women living with HIV/AIDS, she’s seen the power of faith to do good and to make a difference in the quality of peoples’ lives.
On a personal note, the acknowledgement of what Joan Garrity discovered need not exclude non believers. It should only make those us on the left aware that faith unseen, in whatever religious garment it wears, is an important ally in a just society. I, like many of those quoted above, took a journey, from Catholicism to atheism to a ground somewhere in between. I see how we often roll our eyes at the professing of faith, how we equate faith with ignorance or naivete. We do ourselves a disservice. We do our cause a disservice.
Two thoughts should be in our minds at all times when it comes to this subject. One, it is indeed important to remember the words of one of our founders, the skeptic Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But secondly, it’s also important to realize how strong faith is for many on the left, and how this is an asset. We shouldn’t shy away from espousing our beliefs, as has been witnessed lately by Buttigieg, Cory Booker and others. We should tie our beliefs about what constitutes a country striving for its potential, with what our spiritual walk dictates. And we shouldn’t be shy in calling out the right when we think their words and deeds betray their faith. Religion, like love of country, does not belong to them.