Their role in fighting the passage of President Barack Obama’s signature policy, and then trying to blunt its inclusion of reproductive rights as an essential component of a national health care plan, is widely known.
Yet how many people are aware that among Obama’s staunchest allies in lobbying to pass the ACA were two Catholic nuns, one of whom headed the national organization for Catholic hospitals and nursing homes? How many know that even as an evangelical Christian movement helped whip up opposition to universal health care as an attack on religious freedom, other faith-based organizations helped drag Obamacare across the finish line, albeit without a single Republican vote in Congress?
“For modern religious progressives,” Jenkins writes, “there is little, if any, distinction between the spiritual and the political, and activism is often seen as a religious edict.”
This less sung, if not unsung, story of the role of faith-based activism on behalf of the first successful attempt to provide something close to universal health care in the United States is among those that Jack Jenkins tells in his new book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. As Jenkins declares in the book’s opening pages, “if it weren’t for the Religious Left, the ACA probably wouldn’t exist.”
It is an astonishing claim, but one that Jenkins convincingly defends. And, in the rest of the book, he demonstrates with equal conviction that faith groups have played an important role in some of the most important social movements of our era. It spans as widely as the Occupy Wall Street movement to Black Lives Matter to the struggle to protect Native American lands at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota. Even the conservative Christian war on LGBTQ rights and marriage equality in the name of “religious liberty” has been met with a multi-faith progressive response.
Yet, as with the story of the ACA, the role of faith groups in progressive movements has frequently been all but invisible in public consciousness.
We’re all well aware that white evangelical Christians, more than 80 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump in 2016, were key to his victory, and have since been rewarded with rightwing judicial appointments and attempts to roll back policies that protect the rights of LGBTQ people.
Evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., have embraced Trump with an enthusiasm not seen since Falwell’s father helped mobilize what was then a new “Christian Right” voting bloc to elect Ronald Reagan.
These undeniable political facts have fueled an oversimplified and monolithic assumption about the influence of religion in contemporary politics: that it has operated on only one side of the argument, on behalf of wealth and power. American Prophets is a necessary and highly readable corrective to that assumption.
In the 400 years since white colonists arrived on the shores of what is now North America, religion has been intertwined with some of the most important and wrenching battles for justice.
It has, undeniably, often taken the side of power—or, in the case of theocratic early New England, held the seat of power, using it oppressively to uphold privilege. Religious leaders have extolled the rights of slaveholders, condemned organized labor, declared segregation to be God’s will.
Yet religion has also animated many of the movements that struggled for a more just society. The same Bible which the slaveholders’ preachers used to justify human bondage inspired abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. As workers organized and formed unions in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they gave rise to pro-worker movements among Jews, Catholics, and Protestant Christians.
The modern civil rights movement began in the black church, and both the antiwar movement of the 1960s and the nuclear freeze campaign, two decades later, had strong participation from people of religious faith.
It’s a dichotomy that, as Jenkins himself wrote recently, persists into this time of COVID-19, when some evangelical pastors—there are notable exceptions—seem more inclined to express support for Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
American Prophets addresses those earlier historical points in passing (it went to press before the novel coronavirus was even in the headlines), but it is primarily a history of the past two decades of progressive, faith-based activism.
“It may not have the same laser-focused legislative agenda as the Religious Right’s inside-the-Beltway power brokers,” Jenkins writes, “but the Religious Left’s passion—combined an admittedly ephemeral and sometimes heavily Catholic religion-and-politics apparatus that helps grassroots activists influence the influential—has proven strong enough to force laws through Congress, stoke the ire of the Vatican, and stare down Donald Trump.”
After a brief introduction describing a prayer service at an Occupy gathering in lower Manhattan in 2011, Jenkins takes us back to the campaign to pass the ACA. He maps out how the Democratic Party’s half-hearted outreach to left-leaning faith groups in the 2004 election grew into a sophisticated organizing project that four years later elected Obama, whose fluency in appealing to his own Christian faith made false claims of his secretly being a Muslim all the more obnoxious.
Next, Jenkins examines how Trump and the evangelical right courted each other in the 2016 election, fusing two long-oppositional wings of conservative Christianity: traditional evangelicalism and the prosperity gospel. Jenkins also throws a spotlight on the faith leaders and groups that have emerged to resist Trump and the white nationalism he’s unleashed.
The chapters that follow take us to the Reverend William J. Barber II’s “Moral Mondays” campaign in North Carolina; to Ferguson, Missouri, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer; to Arizona, a site of the new sanctuary movement to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation; and to the role of Native American spirituality in animating the protests against oil pipelines along with the larger, faith-based component of the fight against climate change.
Jenkins then returns to the 2011 Occupy movement and the subsequent revival in 2018 of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign by Barber and the Reverend Liz Theoharis. He chronicles the story, at once painful and uplifting, of mainline Christianity—especially as it stumbles toward acceptance of LGBTQ equality, a journey by no means finished.
Probably no one is more qualified than Jenkins to write this book. A divinity school graduate as well as a veteran journalist, he’s been reporting on the subject of faith and politics for nearly two decades. Formerly writing about religion at the website Think Progress, Jenkins now covers religion and politics for the Religion News Service, where he has paid close attention to the varieties of religious exposition on the campaign trail.
Perhaps his most important contribution will be to inform secularly oriented, atheist, and agnostic progressives of the huge role that faith communities have played, especially in the social justice struggles of the past two decades. “For modern religious progressives,” Jenkins writes, “there is little, if any, distinction between the spiritual and the political, and activism is often seen as a religious edict.”
Jenkins also recognizes the work being done to construct a multi-religious movement that Barber has called a “fusion coalition.”
Of course, there is a significant difference between the “Religious Left”—a term Jenkins uses throughout, even as he acknowledges early on that it is simplistic and would likely be rejected by some of those included under that umbrella—and the Religious Right.
The latter has shown a ready willingness to yoke political and theological loyalty, with a theology centered on what the late progressive Christian writer Marcus Borg has called “rules and requirements” for avoiding an afterlife of everlasting torment. Meanwhile, as Elizabeth Bruenig wrote last year in The Washington Post, “religion simply isn’t the mass mobilizing force on the left that it has been on the right.”
It is true that younger generations of voters are increasingly secular. But it would be wrong to write off those generations as uniformly secular, considering the cadre of millennial religious writers and activists who have emerged in the last decade.
Paraphrasing Diana Butler Bass, the Episcopalian writer and historian on contemporary religion, Jenkins writes that “the prominent role of women in the Religious Left helped the movement transcend the patriarchal constraints of individual denominations.” He continues: “As an even more diverse band of faith leaders occupy positions of prominence—be they LGBTQ, immigrants, or non-Christians—so too will the religious institutions they need reflect a broader more progressive corpus of political concerns.”
The presidential campaign now underway seems likely to offer a defining test of that assertion. There’s every sign that, once again, white evangelicals will vote to reelect Trump in overwhelming numbers.
Jenkins helps us see the other part of that story: the faith-driven struggle by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Earth-centered religionists, and “nones” as well, to write a new and more hopeful chapter in our communal life.