This Is the Year Liberals Take Back Religion from Conservatives

Sure, the religious right is still teamed up with conservative politicians in their battle against gay marriage, abortion, and immigration reform -- but the days of Americans actually heeding what they say is over.
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Sure, the religious right is still teamed up with conservative politicians in their battle against gay marriage, abortion, and immigration reform, just as they've been since 1979 when Jerry Falwell birthed the Moral Majority.

But the days of Americans actually heeding what they say is over. And I'd wager this will be the year liberals -- not conservatives -- drive the religious conversation, in the U.S. and abroad.

Consider the February cover of Rolling Stone. There he is, Pope Francis, the cardinal from Argentina elected last spring. Since then, the pope has preached three main messages: care for the poor, humility, and inclusiveness. He has also begun overhauling the calcified and overly hierarchical Roman curia and appointed new cardinals from the developing (and underrepresented) world.

Those themes form the core of the religious left theology. But the momentum goes beyond Pope Francis and his now-famous "Who am I to judge?" comment about gay rights.


This month Beacon Press will publish a book called "Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy." The book, a 22-essay collection from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds that includes stories by and about straight, gay, single, married, and widowed men. The editors received more than 100 submissions over five months -- and in the process shattered the stereotype of Muslim men as conservative and sexist.

Last month, viewers watching the AFC championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots may have seen a Best Buy commercial showing a young salesman named Mustafa advising customers and relaxing at home watching movies and football. Mustafa is a nickname for Muhammad, the founder of Islam -- so it's a pretty safe bet Mustafa is a Muslim. Reaction to the ad? Overwhelmingly positive.

Just before Christmas, Gap created a poster of a turbaned and bearded man in Gap clothes with a woman hanging on his shoulder. The image was displayed on store windows and subway walls across the country as part of Gap's "Make Love" ad campaign. The model is a Sikh actor whose turban and beard are part of his faith. It was the first time a nationwide ad showed a turbaned Sikh as a typically American man. And when bigots defaced it, Gap made the ad its background image on Twitter and Facebook, bringing enthusiastic thank you's from around the Twittersphere.

These nods to inclusion and diversity, hallmarks of religious liberalism, aren't limited to pop culture.

Last summer Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- with the late Nelson Mandela an icon of the anti-apartheid movement -- said he would rather go to hell than a homophobic heaven. "I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this," he said. "I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level."

Meanwhile, Patriarch Bartholomew, the global head of the Orthodox church, is known as the Green Patriarch for his work promoting environmentalism.

What is going on? The answer lies in two huge trends.

First, the U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, as the 2012 Presidential election proved. Immigration from the developing world, especially Asia, has brought millions of people practicing faiths that once seemed exotic. But today, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others are mainstream in many places. That means acceptance has increased, especially among the young. It also means there are more young people in the U.S. because of immigration. And that means a growing focus on issues, such as environmentalism and gay rights, that concern the young.

According to a 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute, 23 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds are religious progressives, 17 percent are religious conservatives, and 22 percent are non-religious. By contrast, only 12 percent of 66- to 88-year-olds are religious progressives, while about half are religious conservatives.

Second, the conversation about income inequality in the U.S. and abroad -- the driving force behind the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement -- is gaining momentum. Taking up the cause of the poor is a central tenet of religious liberalism. Both Jews and Christians point to the Bible, including this verse from the Book of Psalms: "Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy."

President Obama talked about income inequality in his State of the Union address a couple weeks ago and will discuss the global wealth gap at a summit devoted to the issue in March when he visits the Vatican.

And that gets us back to the pope, who appeared on the world scene nearly a year ago. It was a very particular moment.

The world's richest and most powerful nation has become more ethnically diverse and therefore more religiously tolerant than ever before, driven by a young generation that is increasingly disinterested in conservative social views. And that trend coincides with a growing global focus on the wealth gap.

So: take a new world religious leader from a developing country, with strong views about inclusion, diversity, and poverty mitigation. Then stir in two major demographic and socioeconomic trends driven in part by the world's most powerful country.

Result: 2014, the Year of Religious Liberalism.

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