Religion and Progressive Activism

New Stories About Faith and Politics

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Ruth Braunstein, Todd Nicholas Fuist, Rhys H. Williams
Religion and Social Transformation Series
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This commendable collection, centered on sociological analyses of left-liberal Christians, makes a timely intervention into debates about religion in the United States. Its strongest takeaway arguments are: (1) to remind anyone who may need reminding that left-of-center Christian activism has not lost its salience and potential, however much it is discounted by the media or scholarly fashions; (2) to critique culture war analyses in which religion is mainly on the right and progressives are mainly non-religious—and by extension to revise sociological frames that approach religious activism in ways that make more sense for the right than the left; and (3) to document activism, especially in the two forms most valorized here: Faith Based Community Organizations (FBCOs) in Saul Alinsky’s tradition, and work related to immigrant rights.

We can easily agree, as one chapter says, that “it is hard to argue that [a religious left has] been absent, given the presence of religious voices in favor of the successful immigration reform…in favor of peace and human rights…against apartheid in South Africa…in defense of social welfare… and in support of civil rights and against the American-led war in Iraq” (29-30). Nevertheless, there has been “reduced efficacy of religious voices…[who champion] politically liberal and progressive social policy” (30), so that these traditions remain underappreciated and underutilized.

We can also agree that finding a straightforward definition for “progressive religion” is a minefield—with alternatives like left, liberal, social-justice-oriented, liberationist, or prophetic offering no clear improvement. Some religious folks who arguably belong in an activist left do not consciously embrace either “progressive” politics or “liberal” theologies. They may consider themselves apolitical, theologically traditionalist, values-neutral, or conservative on selected issues (most often sexuality)—while “liberal” religious people may not be activists of any stripe. The editors sensibly propose (p. 9) a four-strand definition: “progressivism” in action (“toward greater economic, political, and/or social equality”); values (favoring “reform-oriented change and/or social justice”); identities (aligning with others “generally accepted to be progressive”); and/or theology (articulating “faith traditions toward the end of making them more inclusive or just”) (9). One need not claim all four to be part of a fluidly networked “progressive religious field of action” (12), as opposed to a more clearly bounded organization or movement.

Authors highlight activism for economic redistribution and/or empowerment and representation for poor people and new immigrants. Chapters frequently circle back to mainline Protestants—both standing alone and in concert with kindred Roman Catholics—and one chapter notes five traditions that variously inform actors: the Protestant Social Gospel, Catholic social teaching, African-African prophetic traditions, liberation theologies, and Niebuhrian realism. Anchoring the book’s center of gravity, several authors address FBCOs and/or organizing related to Latino/a immigrants. Chapters on the latter explore the movement’s politicized theologies and rituals, its institutional strategies, its “etiquette,” and a supposedly “values-neutral” educational initiative. One chapter on the former discusses how a FBCO adapts its approaches for an affluent suburb, and an especially rich chapter shows FBCOs thriving nationally, with an ambitious range of projects and a racial and economic diversity notably surpassing other parts of society. Mainline, Catholic, and black Christian congregations constitute the backbone of FBCOs—with low evangelical participation—but they also include community groups and a 10% slice of participation by Jews, Unitarians, and Muslims.

Stretching from this center, authors analyze rhetoric in the Nuns on the Bus campaign, an activist campus ministry with existentialist theologies that was a seedbed of the 1960s left, progressive religion in an electoral campaign, and modes of rhetoric and self-understanding in liberal congregations. Especially interesting is a comparative study of Plowshares organizing in the US and Sweden. One article defends civil religion (in the tradition of Robert Bellah)—“progressively” in that it champions civic language about an economic common good, but idiosyncratically for the volume as a whole in that it posits almost nothing besides “radical secularism” to the left of Bellah on the political spectrum.

Feminist and LGBTQ issues are lower priorities in this volume than they might be in kindred books, as are detailed studies of activism along racial lines (insofar as these are not captured by immigrant rights, black churches in FBCOs, or appeals to Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, or earlier scholarship on the civil rights movement). Still more off-center are initiatives related to ecology, agriculture, most labor issues, prison reform, Native Americans, and others that might appear on a comprehensive list. Of course the editors could not possibly have been comprehensive, and I assume they would welcome further examples of religious activism. Still it is interesting to ponder how easily (or not) alternative case studies might have been swapped for those actually on offer, as opposed to running with a de facto premise that these cases loosely mirror progressive priorities on the ground. However, measuring this would require an operational strategy to capture a full universe of progressive action, thus circling us back to the original definitional problem I probe.     

Whatever we make of this book’s center and peripheries, its authors consciously query how its ways of centering may become ambiguous or unhelpful in certain contexts, including a gray area between the mainline and the leftward parts of evangelicalism that I have elsewhere called “stealth liberal Protestantism”; forms of Catholicism and/or suburban liberal Protestantism that fit some parts of a progressive profile better than others; and slippage between the sociological habit of focusing on Christian congregations and an emergent moment when new immigrants and religious “nones” are increasingly important—as well as places where sociological paradigms forged in dialogue with the religious right should take greater account of more loosely-networked dimensions of progressive religion.

On balance the book constitutes a powerful argument for the cultural weight and theoretical salience of the networks it highlights, with a good balance of sociological analysis, qualitative description, and theoretical reflection. It deserves a wide and careful reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth Braunstein is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her research explores the ways in which citizens participate in public life, and the complex role of religion in this process. She is the author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide.

Todd Nicholas Fuist is assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. His research interests include religion, politics, identity, and sexuality, with a focus on how culture serves to motivate socio-moral action. His work has been published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of ReligionCritical Research on Religion, and Social Movement Studies

Rhys H. Williams is professor of sociology and director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago. His publications include Religion & Progressive Activism (New York University Press 2017; w/ T. N. Fuist and R. Braunstein), Cultural Wars in American Politics (Aldine 1997) and articles in the American Sociological Review, Social Problems, Sociological Theory, Theory & Society,and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  


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