Monday, November 5, 2007

Can One Be A Religious Leftist?

I have struggled with this question over time because generally I do not think it is likely one could be a progressive and religious person, particularly within the Christian religion. This is not because I believe Christianity lacks progressive elements. It has some. The history of social movements in the US is a history of progressive Christianity. The anti-slavery movement was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening. The women’s rights movement was also a progressive Christian movement in the US, for the most part (including the temperance movement, which many 19th century feminists supported). Most recently, of course, was the civil rights movement, sprouting from the oppressive conditions of African Americans, as well as the creative energy of African American churches.

So, why is it, then, that Christianity has become the domain of a group of people who seem to have more in common with de Torquemada than Sojourner Truth or Martin Luther King, Jr.? This is a good question, but it cannot be doubted that religious institutions in the West and the East are with few exceptions politically and ideologically more orthodox. There are probably many reasons for this, but amongst those are that these religions have existed for centuries, much older the most of the countries whose populations ascribe to them, and they demand rules, rituals, and observance to a degree that is intolerable to modern sensibilities. More importantly, the kinds of rules, be it women’s rights (which all the three Abrahamic religions have problems with), the rights of the individual and living in a democracy (which no ancient religion ever advanced or supported), and even cultural issues like homosexuality or even slavery (to this day in certain parts of northern Africa) remain completely antithetical to the society free peoples reside in now.

In addition, progressive movements have changed. In the 19th and into the 20th century, the vast majority of people in the US went to church (well over 90% at least twice a month). Today, it is less than half that proportion, and organized religion has competition from secular ideologies (nationalism, socialism, liberalism, even nihilism), which in conjunction with diversionary technological innovations, has had the effect of undermining the orthodoxy of faith. Back in the days of John Brown, everyone, progressive and those who were not, read and followed and believed in the Bible. Brown even invoked its imagery to justify his violent actions to end slavery. There was no debating the scientific inaccuracies of The Creation, the misogynistic language of the Old Testament, or how openly and liberally one should interpret Scripture to allow for abortion and gay marriage.

Thus, the biggest limitation of liberal Christianity is that it is operating in a different template, a society that has moved from being more religiously orthodox and observant (that you could make progressive appeals to based on Biblical traditions) to one where the divide between Left and Right is determined primarily on whether or not you think some carpenter that lived at home with his mother for too long was a Republican, which is simultaneously competing in a world filled with Facebook, MySpace, internet porn, and other pop culture recreations. You could have been a religious progressive before the rise of feminism and gay liberation movements, advocate the women’s vote, civil rights, liberties (at least until Margaret Sanger and NOW came along), and the right of workers to organize, and your theological legitimacy would have remained intact. If, however, you operate in a society like ours today, one in which women’s and gay rights are at the forefront of social debates, including the right of women to terminate pregnancies and gays to be treated like equal citizens, progressive run up against a wall, the Bible.

Regardless of how one interprets it, the Scripture is very clear where women stand in society.

"And a man will choose...any wickedness, but the wickedness of a woman...Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" Ecclesiasticus, 25:18, 19 & 33 (NIV)

"And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her." Ecclesiastes 7:26 (NIV)

“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16 (NIV)

There is not one passage in the Bible, which I have ever read, that declares women and men equals.

Likewise, if you honestly believe the Scripture is the word of God, it is difficult to rationalize gay rights and Biblical sentiments like this:

“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”
Leviticus 18:22 (NIV)

“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 20:13 (NIV)

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” Romans 1: 26-27 (NIV)

“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 (NIV)

How can a liberal Christian get around these texts? Before the last 30-40 years, they did not. Not one progressive Christian I have ever read advocated gay marriage before the 1960s, or for that matter abortion. Yes, even Martin Luther King, Jr. was an opponent of abortion. Those were the progressives. Furthermore, even if a liberal Christian can claim that the Bible reflected the society people lived in back then, and that we have changed now, they are still stuck with the proposition that their book of ideological choice is at best outdated and wrong, and probably not amenable to the society we live in today.

From this, we should not be surprised that the Religious Right has cornered the politicized faith market in our society. Indeed, I would be surprised if they did not.

Nevertheless, it does not get around the problem of religion in a country where 96% of the population professes a belief, even if nominally, in a god, over 80% associate with the Christian religion in some way, and where intolerant attitudes toward non-believers is rampant (with a majority of voters claiming that they would not vote for someone who refused to profess some religious belief).

It is not a battle I prefer to fight, as I do not pretend to want to ideologically compete with those who are certain they will be raptured at any moment, but there are some who are trying. The most recent online incarnation is CrossLeft, a progressive Christian group, which is trying to challenge the Religious Right’s supremacy of the religion. I do not want to discourage such folk of their chances, but if push came to shove I would certainly prefer these people over Jerry Falwell or Jimmy Swaggart.


Charlotte said...

Check out our trailer on Gay Marriage. Produced to educate & defuse the controversy it has a way of opening closed minds & creates an interesting spin on the situation:

Sarah said...

You are assuming that progressive Christians believe in the Bible as literal truth. It is true that there are many problematic passages in the Bible. As a progressive Christian (and mind you, I don't speak for them all), I regard the Bible as a book that was written by people who were inspired by their faith in God at a particular time in history. What they wrote was appropriate for their socio-historical context, and many of those things are not appropriate for the world today. What I don't appreciate about Bible literalists is that pick and choose the passages that make (in their estimation) certain human activities sinful. Homosexuality is a sin, according to laws in Leviticus, but so is planting a field with two kinds of seeds, wearing a garment that is woven with two kinds of material, trimming ones beard, and tattooing. Lots of Christians do all of these things, and one of these biblical laws are appropriate for today's society.

It took me years to finally get to the point where I could call myself a Christian again. However, I do not believe that Jesus is my lord and savior. I believe Jesus is a movement founder and a spiritual leader who recognized that God exists within everyone and that it is up to each of us to build a peaceful, loving, and just society. We are not supposed to passively wait for God to bring peace with justice. That's our job.

Over the centuries, the Christian movement has been perverted. There is so much good in the religious tradition, I just realized that I didn't have to throw Baby Jesus out with the bathwater. Progressive Christians are finally taking back their tradition from the fundamentalists who have hijacked it.

Sarah said...

Oops...I meant to say "none of these biblical laws are appropriate", not "one of these laws."

TA said...

Sarah, I agree that the scriptures are representations of the context of their times. However, if one is not to believe in what the texts state, or even in the divinity of Christ, then what makes you a Christian? I ask this purely as an open question, as it interests me in how one could be a Christian and progressive in contemporary times. I had a similar fallout with the church of my birth, but I simply could not countenance the concept of calling myself a Christian anymore. Is this a matter of agreeing with the basic message of Christ, or is it based on some kind of faith?