Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
The evidence is indisputable: Religiosity is declining in a major way; spirituality is not. Religious affiliations and church attendance is waning; society’s belief in God or a higher power is as strong as ever.
What, then, accounts for the considerable disparity between religiosity and spirituality?
Well, for one thing, the number of irreligious individuals has exploded in the past two decades and, not surprisingly, the vast majority of the irreligious are political moderates or liberals who see organized religious as a largely Republican institution. The media and religious extremists have left us considering only two options available: the Religious Right or the Irreligious Left.
We are resigned to believing that there are few options for religious liberals. You are either with us or against us is the message hurled by religious zealots and secularists alike, and this hard-line attitude has caused many to declare that “if this is religion, it’s not for me.”
In turn, this line-in-the-sand mentality, has created societal complacency with respect to religion. Many churchgoers are going through the motions, giving little thought to what their faith means to them and the larger world. Countless others are writing off organized religion as an unnecessary, and oftentimes dangerous, institution that divides rather than unites. Others still have fallen out of religion, gradually, due to lifestyle challenges and a lack of motivation.
How does this current shift in American religiosity affect society as a whole, particularly with respect to politics, social justice, and environmental preservation?
Well, the decline in religiosity and the nature of the decline – particularly in the decline among would-be religious liberals – has had, and will continue to have, profound effects on our society. The voices of the Religious Right and traditional religion are getting stronger, with the voices of the would-be religious liberals dissipating. To some extent,the Religious Left has been muted.
Given that research indicates that churchgoing Americans are more engaged members of their community, combined with the fact that a large number of liberal Americans are leaving organized religion as a result of their aversion to conservative religious options, the Left’s social and religious beliefs are inadequately represented within American society.
The polarizing messages of a Religious Right versus the Irreligious Left are not only damaging to the advancement of political and social change, but they are ignorantly narrow-minded. These messages fail to take into account the number of outspoken religious liberals who are committed to the advancement of an open-minded and respectful faith – individuals like Alise Wright and Justin Lee, who write extensively about reconciling their devout faith with their socially liberal views. On a larger scale, the polarizing messages fail to take into account the various progressive and liberal religious options available to individuals who seek to practice an authentic faith without the archaic dogma of traditional religion – churches like Urban Village Church, a Methodist emerging congregation in Chicago, and liberal religions like Unitarian Universalism, a non-Christian liberal denomination that promotes diversity and acceptance.
The inherent connection between religion and radical social justice initiatives bolsters the potential influence of religious liberals on social justice. As Dan McKanan points out in his book Prophetic Encounters, throughout American history, radicalism and social activism has long been closely tied with the Religious Left. He states:
“…leftist activism is almost a form of religion. It occupies much of the same psychological and sociological space. People are drawn to religious communities and radical organizations in order to connect their daily routines to a more transcendent vision of heaven, salvation or a new society. Both religion and radicalism offer individuals powerful new identities – as “children of God” or “class-conscious workers” or “New Negros.’ In order to extend this power, radicals build organizations – social reform societies, utopian communities, third parties – that have many churchlike qualities.”
Unfortunately, the disengagement of the would-be Religious Left and the submission of religious liberals to a traditional (often conservative) religion has exacerbated the silence of religious liberalism from American politics and tampered with its ability to facilitate liberal social change.
Would-be religious liberals, religious seekers, and reluctant churchgoers can no longer afford to quietly acquiesce to a traditional religion or withdraw from religion. Doing so only intensifies religious polarization and stereotypes of a Secular Left and a Religious Right.
If only a small number of religious liberals were to become engaged in a progressive religious community that merged their spirituality and faith with their social and political values, our nation could experience profoundly beneficial grace and social change. Polarization would be diminished; cooperation would be encouraged.
As Dan McKanan discusses in Prophetic Encounters, engaging the religious liberals is essential to promoting social, environmental and human justice. Without the engagement and participation of religious liberals, the voice of the Religious Right will continue to be amplified, with the voice of the would-be Religious Left muted.
Hope is not lost, however. By increasing awareness of the religious options available through progressive religion and liberal churches, the Religious Left may be reinvigorated and unsilenced.
Progressive religion holds a powerful role in American religious evolution. It has the potential to grab the hearts, minds, and voices of the silent Religious Left. It has the ability to create a renewed emphasis on the importance of religious community. It has the capacity to inspire community service. It has the power to redefine the way that we think about religion so that we can harness the positive impact of religion and dispel with harmful stereotypes and stigma of organized religion.
You see, religion, ultimately, boils down to community – not the frequency of church attendance or the specific rituals practiced. By refocusing religion on the communities that it creates, and not the rules and fears and judgments some religions impose, we can rid ourselves of the rigid characterizations that many of us have come to associate with religion and turn up the volume on the political and social capacity of the Religious Left.