According to a Pew Forum study, 70 percent of Americans still identify as Christian. And, when you think of the politics of Christianity, you would pretty much be forgiven if you lumped all Christians into the bucket marked "Conservative." However, that would discount a small-ish group of Christians that can be called The Christian Left or Progressive Christians. The basic idea behind the Christian Left is that they feel called upon to behave as closely to the way that Jesus behaved as possible, following his first commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." Yep. That's pretty much it for their dogma.
I am not a religious scholar. Or even particularly religious. Or a scholar. My concept of God could most accurately be depicted as wishing we all thought of God like we do our dogs: No one cares what our dog's name is. They acknowledge it is a perfectly good dog, even if we call it Lydia. We think dogs are full of unconditional love for everyone. Should we happen to have a dog that is temperamental around others, we try to control it so no one gets hurt. But while I am not currently considering changing my "God doesn't have one, correct name and first, do no harm" religious belief system, I am intrigued by the Christian Left. I have friends and family that are devoted to their Christian faith and they are kind people who genuinely care -- they have people in their lives who are gay; they honestly try to help the disadvantaged. And I'm curious if the Christian Left might have some appeal for them.
According to the website "The Christian Left," the movement believes that everyone is on a personal journey and because everyone's history is different, everyone's path to Jesus is also different. The Christian Left are concerned with help and justice for the poor and those have slipped through the cracks because Jesus helped the poor and those without a voice. They don't tolerate bigotry because Jesus was inclusive in his love for all people -- even those that the leaders of his time found scary, unappealing or perverted. Quoting from The Christian Left website:
"They [The Christian Left] tend to focus on behaviors that Jesus focused on while he was here in body -- things like hypocrisy, organized oppression, exorbitant greed, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, selfishness, abuse of power, violence, etc."
This approach seems like a pretty sound belief system, based on The Golden Rule, and not too threatening, right? So why is there not more buzz around the Christian Left?
First off, much like a "yield" sign vs. a "stop" sign, the Christian Left is more of a suggestion than an organized movement with a firm dogma. There are a few distinct religious denominations like the United Church of Christ and the Liberal Catholic Church that would fall into the Christian Left category, and there are also segments of both the Roman Catholic Church and some protestant denominations including Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopalian that also would qualify. But unlike the Christian Right, the Christian Left is not politicized and they don't generally go door to door or rent time on cable TV to find followers. So, to completely butcher the Beastie Boys, they don't "Fight for their right to [be a] party."
Additionally, organized fear sells. It is much easier to motivate a person to action if they are afraid of someone or something.
According to an article in Politico Magazine by Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer, a conservative political activist named Paul Weyrich invented the concept of the Christian Right in 1969. He envisioned creating a politically powerful religious bloc to reshape the face of American politics, but he needed to engage the evangelical leadership under a common rallying cry. After trying several messages over the course of several years including pornography, prayer in schools and the Equal Rights Amendment, the one that finally resonated for Evangelical Leaders was actually a Federal mandate to desegregate private, Christian schools in order to retain government funding. However, according to Ballmer:
"[The evangelical leaders] were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge."
So, fully five years after the Roe vs Wade decision in 1973, the nascent Christian Right, which had previously considered anti-abortion issues to be only interesting to Catholics, adopted anti-abortion as a rallying cry and started to win congressional seats. They key take-away here is that in order to motivate a diverse group of people into action, you need to have something for them to rally around that they hate or fear. By doing this, the Christian Right was able to coalesce into a very impressive political movement that has, indeed, changed the face of American politics.
Conversely, the Christian Left lacks a unified political voice and advocates the "What Would Jesus Do?" message of tolerance, which, evidently, doesn't get you into congress.
Today, I see some hope for the Christian Left -- maybe it will even become an interesting movement that people have actually heard of! There is wide-spread interest in Pope Francis, even among non-Catholics and non-Christians, as he speaks to his Jesuit principals of serving the poor and the marginalized. In addition, the Millennials - the next generation of Americans - is largely politically independent. According to a survey by PRRI, 48 percent of Millennials identify as independent, compared to 33 percent who identify as Democrat and 23 percent who identify as Republican. This suggests that the next generation may be less interested in the political maneuvering from both parties that blights every issue in our nation, and more interested in finding non-polarized options. That could lead to fewer political rewards for any extreme doctrine that advocates only one correct way of behaving. It may even allow a swing to a place where our parties could work together for the common good, regardless of any one person's personal belief on anything. In that scenario, I could see the Christian Left brand of Christianity becoming a true option for the 70 percent of our nation that identifies as Christian.