The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country
- ISBN: 9780062935991
- Published By: HarperOne
- Published: April 2021
If it was once possible to argue that scholars and journalists paid too much attention to politically conservative American Christians at the expense of their liberal and leftwing counterparts, the argument no longer holds as much water. Over the last decade, an explosion of new work has expanded our understanding of the influence of American religion on the trajectory of (center-) left politics. These works have recovered the place of religious people, institutions, and symbols in many of the protest movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, from civil rights to environmental justice to queer liberation.
And yet it remains the case that every few years, almost like a ritual, a debate will arise in the media over whether there is a discernible “Religious Left” in the United States. Jack Jenkins’s American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country may at last put the debate to rest. This richly reported and moving account makes clear not only that the Religious Left is a powerful force in American politics today, but that religious activism may very well be one of the central pillars of the contemporary Democratic Party and progressive movement.
Over twelve chapters, Jenkins delves into some of the most notable instances of Religious Left mobilization over the last two decades. These include the Catholic-led fight for the Affordable Care Act, the recent revitalization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, the New Sanctuary Movement in churches and synagogues, and indigenous activism around land rights and environmental protection in Hawai’i and North Dakota. Of particular interest to Jenkins are the individuals and organizations leading these struggles. Some, like the Rev. William J. Barber II, are already well known in wider progressive circles. Others, though, remain relatively obscure except among Religious Left insiders. Jenkins’s detailed and sympathetic portraits of these leaders help to illuminate the diversity of identities, strategies, and tactics that encompass the progressive religious ecosystem.
Jenkins is a religion journalist and the stories he tells are largely based in his own reporting. But he is also clearly a skilled historian. Each chapter moves seamlessly among several different historical moments and actors. In this way, Jenkins shows how the Religious Left—often seen as disparate and inchoate in comparison to the Christian Right—is in fact deeply networked and rooted in a long historical tradition of faith-based social justice work. He is also attentive to the role liberal and liberationist theologies have played in sustaining religious engagement in progressive politics, thereby correcting a tendency in writing on the Religious Left to focus too much on the second word in the name and not enough on the first.
One of the most engrossing chapters concerns the focus on promoting interfaith relations within the Religious Left. The rise in Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant hate crimes in recent years has sparked a flurry of grassroots activity to build relationships and solidarity across lines of religious difference. For example, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities in Silver Spring, Maryland, joined together in 2017 to stand against a series of acts of vandalism and bomb threats targeting houses of worship. This, in turn, led to new and sustained efforts by these communities to foster interreligious dialogue. But, as Jenkins shows, the Religious Left has also spurred interfaith cooperation at the grass-tops level through initiatives like the Senor Fellows program at Auburn Seminary in New York City. Started in 2015, the program has created intentional space for conversation among many of the biggest names in left religious activism, including Barber, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the Jewish justice organization T’ruah, and the Muslim activist Linda Sarsour. Jenkins deftly weaves together these stories of interfaith work from below and from above to give a sense of the many scales on which the Religious Left operates.
While Jenkins’s book is laudable in the breadth of its coverage, there are several areas in which the story of the Religious Left remains underdeveloped. One, which the author acknowledges early on, is his imperfect effort to overcome the “Christian-centric” view of the Religious Left popular in the media and in scholarship. Jenkins does spotlight several important non-Christian religious activists in the chapter on interfaith cooperation and elsewhere. But the Religious Left of American Prophets remains a movement largely defined by Christians and Christianity. More still needs to be done to bring the lives and experiences of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others fully into the history of American religious activism.
Another limitation lies in Jenkins’s decision to attend primarily to domestic politics, with little discussion of foreign policy or global affairs. Even the chapter on immigration activism and the New Sanctuary Movement is mainly an inside-the-US story about religious activists organizing against deportation and border enforcement policies. As the historian David Hollinger and others have argued, however, the development of the Religious Left in the 20th century was closely tied to the experiences of American religious activists looking, traveling, and working beyond US borders. One could point to the opposition to the Iraq War or support for expanding the refugee resettlement program during the war in Syria for evidence of the continuing relevance of an international perspective in the 21st century. Jenkins’ history would benefit from deeper engagement with this aspect of the Religious Left.
With American Prophets, Jenkins has produced an eminently readable account of religious activism that is simultaneously impressive in its scope and insightful in its analysis. Future research will undoubtedly refine interpretations of this activism. But as Jenkins’s book demonstrates, there can be no denying the Religious Left’s existence or its deep and lasting influence on American progressivism.
Adam Waters is a PhD candidate in American history at Yale University.Adam WatersDate Of Review:February 28, 2023