DNC Convention Takes Religion Back For America

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Photo: ABC NEWS-7/28/16-Coverage of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Via Flickr. CC2.0 license. Cropped.

Much-watched and well-produced as it was, the DNC Convention held few big surprises. We all knew the #BernieOrBust diehards would attempt to stir revolution among the delegates no matter how much they were scolded and cajoled by converts to the #ImWithHer fold like Sarah Silverman and Bernie Sanders himself.

We knew that the dystopian vision of America spewed by Republican candidate Donald J. Trump would come under robust attack in speech after speech. Maybe we didn't quite know how soaring the oratory of Michelle Obama or her husband would be -- arguably two of the finest political speeches in recent American history. Maybe we didn't fully anticipate the malarkey-free fondness #UncleJoe Biden stirs or the moving repudiation of Trumpian nationalistic hatemongering by Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. But we pretty much had the through-line of the convention down well before it began: America is already great; having a woman president really is a significant historical accomplishment; Hillary Clinton the exceptionally qualified, experienced, visionary leader America needs; Donald Trump is so very not.

What few Convention-watchers could have anticipated, however, is that the Dems would so boldly take American religion back -- specifically progressive Christianity.

Yes, the selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton's running mate was a powerful acknowledgment of the significance of the Catholic vote. Indeed, I suggested that Kaine's Jesuit background allows him to reach beyond one religious group to speak to the values of the religiously unaffiliated as well.

Yet the DNC convention did much more than communicate to Catholics, religious progressives, and moderates that the Party is open and affirming to those whose political participation is inspired by religious sensibilities as well as to those who are not. More than this, the Democrats offered a full-throated embrace of religion grounded in love of others, care for the poor, justice for those on the margins of society, and compassion for America's global neighbors.

This expression of religion was at forefront of American politics during the Progressive Movement at the turn of the 19th century. The Social Gospel was articulated by Walter Rauschenbusch in his 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. It was supported by politicians such as William Jennings Bryan and social welfare advocates like Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Catholic Worker movement leaders such as Dorothy Day and Fr. John Ryan likewise drew on progressive values rooted in the Christian gospels that promoted solidarity with the poor and marginalized over an American individualism that was often reinforced by theologies of a "personal relationship with Jesus."

Progressive religious activism was muted by 1950s post-war Communist anxieties and the relocation of many white churches to rapidly developing suburbs. It briefly reemerged during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged white Christians to take up the cause.

But progressive Christianity and religion in general was largely screamed into silence by the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s.

Indeed, sociologist of religion Mark Chavez argued that it was the stridency of fundamentalist, Evangelical involvement in American politics that produced the well-documented "rise of the Nones" and the associated belief by many of the religiously unaffiliated and affiliated alike that religion has no place in politics.

The Democrats reclaimed the progressive American religious tradition this week, beginning, as Jay Barth notes on RNS, with the repeated theme of "love". This was highlighted in the location for the convention itself in Philadelphia -- the "City of Brotherly Love" -- and through regular outbursts of "Love Trumps Hate!" chants, as well as broader expressions of love of country, love of neighbors, and love of others in the world. Monday night's performance of "What the World Needs Now Is Love" by more than 40 Broadway stars after a speech by Christine Leinonen, whose son was killed in the Orlando massacre, set a religious tone for the convention that would grow more explicit through the week.

Speeches by Mothers of the Movement, a group of women whose children were killed by police, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, survivors of the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, and Lenny Kravitz's rousing performance of "Let Love Rule" made clear that the Dems were no longer ceding high-spirited religiosity to the other side.

Tim Kaine's speech, which included his by now pro forma shout-out to his Jesuit formation as the religious basis of a politics of diversity and inclusion, announced that the Democratic Party was making progressive religion the moral center of its vision of American greatness. Kaine's more explicit religious language was forcefully amplified on the final night of the convention by the Rev. William Barber, leader of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays Movement, which draws religious groups to the state legislature each week to protest racial and economic inequality, gun violence, voting rights restrictions, and what they see as other affronts to justice for all the beloved people of God.

Stirring the crowd -- and surely piquing the ire of Evangelicals -- by insisting, "Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew," Barber demanded that Democrats restore the heart of American democracy. Insisting, "We are being called, like our mothers and fathers, to be the moral defibrillators of our time," Barber brought the prophetic vision of progressive Christianity into the political foreground.

All this religious talk flies in the face of an apparently growing trend even among more religious Americans to avoid religious conversation with all but the closest of religious confidants.

Still, even less rousing religious speechifying served notice that the Democratic party is done with muting religion, afraid for too long that the "Christianity" many see as having been coopted by conservative Evangelicals would turn off liberal Christians, those in non-Christian traditions, and the growing ranks of the unaffiliated. Chelsea Clinton's memory of "Sundays spent together at church and the local library" with her mother modestly marked a religiosity devoid of the anti-intellectualism that has so characterized the Religious Right and turned off secular voters.

By no means least, Hillary Clinton's specific reference to "our Methodist faith," with an adaptation of John Wesley's adage to "Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can," shined a bright light on mainline, progressive Christianity that has cowered in the religious shadows for more than a generation.

This is precisely the national -- indeed, global -- platform for which many progressive Christians have, well, prayed for decades, hoping for a voice in the fundamentalist landscape that would allow them to more fully and openly integrate their faith with social and political action. At the same time, the progressive Christian embrace of biblical notions of equality, diversity, and inclusion encoded in creation itself opens much space for respectful -- loving, even -- inter-religious engagement, even with those with no religion at all. Throughout the convention, the DNC took back American religion as a loving force for good rather than as a stern, judgmental enforcer of rules. Whatever the outcome of the election, this bold embrace of thinking, activist faith is an important turning point in American religion.