Buffy, David, and the Religious Left Email Print

There has been much discussion of late of the rise of a new religious left. While there are a lot of stirrings out there, I think that such claims are premature. While I look at this primarily from the standpoint of thinking about the various forces that might be cobbled together to better contend with the religious right, I want to offer a few thoughts about this going forward.

The idea that a religious left could provide a counterweight to the religious right seems to have several main components. One is the point that the Conventional Wisdom stresses; that the leaders of the religious right are not the sole voices of Christianity, let alone a Christian view of politics and public policy. True enough. (One wonders why it didn't occur to them sooner.) Another, is that there are great Jewish and Christian social justice traditions to draw upon -- that emphasize that Jesus and the Bible in general, had a great deal more to say about poverty than say, abortion or homosexuality. All true. But the main thing I have yet to hear any rumblings about is how all this connects to citizenship, ongoing active engagement in public life in general, and electoral politics in particular. Funny about that, since electoral politics has been the movement's main vehicle to power.

But generally, I think that anyone thinking about getting a religious left off the ground, and perhaps even engaging the religious right, has a lot to learn from young David of Bible fame, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of teen movie fame.

But first, let's consider Adele Stan writing about these things in The American Prospect, who ran into a bit of a firestorm.
It was a modest and, I thought, obvious proposal that I put forward two weeks ago on this page: That liberals give up the notion of creating a cohesive religious left movement that could act as an effective counterforce to the animus of the religious right. Instead, I argued, liberals would do well to claim our own moral agency by virtue of our own humanity and the essential values of liberalism, which encompass the most admirable tenets of the world's great religions.

My jumping-off point for this thesis was the latest strife in the Episcopal Church USA, which is riven with controversy over its 2003 installation of a gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and last month's election of Kathleen Jefferts Schori, a woman who supports the gay bishop, as the American church's chief prelate. With all of the mainline Protestant churches engaged in similar internal battles, I argued, it was counterproductive to expect the leadership of these grand old faiths to hold, for the rest of us, the line against the religious right.

I agree with Adele on this point. The mainline churches themselves are in no position to lead or become much of a religious left. I think this is so primarily for the same reasons that evangelical churches did not create the religious right. Institutions do not create activist movements. It was outside, independent organizations such as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition -- and many others -- that were primarily responsible for creating the religious right political movement. The institutional churches of conservative Christianity did not create the religious right political movement, although some of their leaders and members certainly did; and church buildings and other resources were often an important part of the supporting culture and infrastructure for the movement. of course, it was not all grassroots either. There were big financial contributors and many others involved to make it so successful so fast. But the same could be said of many religious based movements in American history. The distinguishing feature about the religious right in America is not that it is is defined primarily by a single issue such as opposition to war, or advocacy for equality for African Americans or indeed, abortion and homosexuality (important though these issues certainly are.) Rather it has risen to power based on increased engagement in electoral politics.

I think Pastordan gets at the roots of what could generate an authentic, nascent religious left in his running discussion of "prophetic" faith in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I do not believe that a religious left of any strength or integrity will be invented Inside the Beltway, or suddenly spring forth from major religious institutions. Rather, it will more likely emerge from a variety of indigenous and authentic forms of progressive religious activism; certainly, eventually in conversation with and perhaps even supported by major religious organizations and even some Beltway Insiders. But prophetic faith and activism is something that is likely to make established interests, well, uncomfortable. And that is as it should be.

Anyway, Adele Stan suggests that if a religious left is to emerge it will not be something massive or monolithic, rather, it will be based on "asymmetrical warfare." While some might object to the use of military concepts and language, there are certainly plenty of similar ideas of non-military varieties and applications.  

Simply put, it is the idea of playing very smart with the resources you have or can get -- especially if you are an underdog.  

This truth of life, politics, sports and more -- has been a theme of stories from the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, (smart use of a slingshot by David, having identified Goliath's point of vulnerability) to the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (in which the cheerleader Buffy, uses her "keen fashion sense" to defeat the big vampire). The latter is also an influential comedy and coming of age film. I think it is time for the religious left, or those who would comprise it, to come of age: which is to say, political maturity. And along the way, I think there is much for all of us to learn from David and Buffy.

Let us note for example, that one of the main "strategies" put forth from Inside the Beltway in response to the religious right over the past decade can be best described as school yard name calling. We hear this in action when people refer to the religious right and many individual members, as "religious political extremists." If David and Buffy had relied on name-calling for their epochal battles -- they would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, the shepherd boy and the cheerleader were wiser than many of those to whom we have looked for leadership in these matters. As Buffy might have said to those who think calling the religious right mean names is smart politics, "Well, forget you!" (Isn't it odd that the avatars of the conventional wisdom Inside the Beltway are now wondering how the party acquired a reputation for being anti religious? (Hello.)

Meanwhile, one tool that David and Buffy would appreciate is the rise of the progressive religious blogosphere. Progressive religious folks are increasingly applying the technology in ways appropriate to their interests and communities just as political activists of all stripes have done in recent years. A number of leading bloggers attended the gathering, which was held under the auspices of the new organization, Faith in Public Life.

Sometime ago I wrote, as part of a wider discussion about organizing in response to the religious right:

Can the progressive blogosphere live up to it's potential? And can it be effective in catalyzing, informing and enhancing the kind of social movements, and organizing strategies that Hardisty and Bhargava see as essential to counter the rise of the right?

I think so.

But it is uncharted territory.

Part of the good news for everyone is that an organized religious left of whatever sort, is likely to support the constitutional values of equality under the law --including religious equality; and the general idea of separation of church and state. Expressions of such things, differently framed as respect for diversity is fine as far as it goes; but absent a developed notion of citizenship, this means little. Respect for religious diversity means institutionalizing it in terms of legal and constitutional protections. It also means gaining and sustaining sufficient political clout ensure that the right to difference, is not eroded by a rising movement of religious supremacism that seeks special status under the law, and the diversion of public funds to underwrite its activities. The good news is that these legal and constitutional protections already exist. The bad news is that there is a well-organized movement seeking to undermine and overthrow these protections. (Hello.)

It remains disturbing to me that the mainline Protestant churches -- communions that have always been a political mix -- have been under sustained attack by the religious and political right for a generation with little to no acknowledgment from anyone in American public life -- including leading politicians who are members of the denominations under attack. (Let the record show for example, that Hillary Clinton, George Bush and Dick Cheney are all members of the United Methodist Church.) It is preposterous to think that the mainline churches can organize themselves to take on the religious right, when they cannot even acknowledge that they are and have been under concerted attack by the right from within and without. I hope that this changes. If it does, there is a chance they will survive this sophisticated, well-funded assault on the integrity of the historic churches of mainline protestantism without having been wedge-issued into so many schisms that they fade as a force in history.

Its not unlike when Buffy's friends are in total denial about the way that kids in school are turning up dead, and legions of vampires are snacking on their former classmates. Dance committee and cheerleading practice are their top priorities. And Buffy is ostracized for trying to explain to them what has happened to her, and what is going on around the school.

It also remains disturbing to me that although much has been made about the lessons that can be learned from the right, the lessons are often the wrong ones, and the right ones are ignored. Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bargava wrote last year, among other things:

Our current infatuation with the strategies and structures of the right has led some progressives to call for a more streamlined, hierarchical movement, but this is not how we've won in the past. Progressive movements have been successful when they have not had a top-down organizational structure. Also, this analysis fails to appreciate the comprehensiveness of the right's movement-building style. And it does not reflect progressive democratic principles....

Organizing has always had an uneasy place not only in the broader culture but also in progressive circles. It has frequently been sidelined by expert-driven advocacy or by charismatic figures who lead short-lived protest movements, and today it is at risk of being displaced by a focus on think tanks and communications strategies. Perhaps more alarming, however, is the relative decline of organizing as a strategy relative to mobilization. The work of many 527 organizations prominent in the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 (America Coming Together and the Media Fund, for example) seemed to be about parachuting into communities and soliciting votes, with little thought about what would be left behind.

While that is a conversation worth revisiting, in an essay awhile back, I also wrote about the way that the religious right exploits the religious left's commitment to pluralism.

This brings us to the worldview of pluralism in a constitutional democracy. Pluralism in our American context means religious equality, which is to say that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law, whether we are non-religious or religious, or a certain kind of religion. It is all irrelevant to our status as citizens. It is this premise that underlies a vast amount of law and public policy and stands in the way of the dominionist tendencies of much of the religious right.

The challenge for supporters of pluralism, whether they are mainline protestants deemed insufficiently orthodox, or public school curricula deemed insufficiently religious, is what Christian Reconstructionist author Gary North described as "the dilemma of democratic pluralism." (Which I discuss in Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy). North astutely observes the difficulty faced by those who embrace democratic pluralism: They are often confounded by their philosophical acceptance of those whose views oppose and activities undermine -- the very nature and system of pluralism itself.

Opponents of pluralism in the U.S. are becoming quite skilled at exploiting the "dilemma;" for example by mocking liberals for being "intolerant." We see this in operation when IRD operatives claim that conservatives are not tolerated in the mainline churches -- even as these same "conservatives" or "renewal" advocates, are actively subverting and seeking to divide the very denominations from which they demand tolerance. People on the receiving end of the charge often do not know what do say in response. Hence the "dilemma." Similarly, in the battle over teaching creationism or ID, we hear the charge that the schools are intolerant of the supposedly competing theory of intelligent design.

Of course, there is nothing intolerant about thwarting those who would undermine pluralism and equality for all. Rather, standing-up for religious pluralism and constitutional democracy; defeating efforts by "renewal" groups to create division and schism in the churches; and refusing to teach religious doctrine dressed-up as science -- means standing-up for one's values and the values of the religious, constitutional, and educational institutions we hold dear.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's mentor Merrick (played by Donald Sutherland), as he lays dying, tells Buffy "not to play our game." Indeed, playing the game the old way had led to the defeat of all of Buffy's predecessors at the hands of Lothos, the head vampire. But Buffy, like David, benefits from being vastly underestimated by the greater warrior, who is accustomed to winning and having opponents who always play a loser's game. These young heroes use the resources available to them cleverly (Buffy turns a can of hairspray into a flamethrower at a critical moment).

Those who want to engage the religious right need to be willing to entertain new ideas and not play the game we are counseled by those who have led us into historic political failures. This is true of all of us, whether we are part of a religious left, or not. We are all, regardless of our religious orientation, citizens who care about the future of constitutional democracy, and the religious freedom we gain through a culture and constitutional system based on religious equality.

Like it or not, the great institutions of politics and religion have yet to show they can lead a response to the religious right that can make a difference over time. We citizens are most likely going to have to do it for ourselves.


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But it is, I think, a compatible one.

by Frederick Clarkson on 07/27/2006 10:59:31 PM EST

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