The rise of the Religious Left in America

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

“Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor,
the broken, the bruised, and all those who are made to feel unaccepted.”
Rev. William Barber, Founder, The Moral Monday

In October of 1983, I was up close and personal with the Religious Right, and it turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. Cheeky as always, I had written to the offices of the Moral Majority, and I had challenged any of their spokesmen (they had no women) to a debate on humanism. My goal was to debunk their conspiracy theory about humanism, which, I would argue, was no threat to American culture.

Our Christian Humanist Founders

The previous year I had published an article “Humanism as an American Heritage,” and I showed that our founders were profoundly influenced by European philosophers, who believed in human autonomy, religious freedom, and a republican form of government.

Our Christian humanist founders were committed to protecting, not under undermining, religious belief. The best way to do that was to establish a secular government based on the separation of church and state. Our nation has survived for 242 years primarily because of this wise decision.

I had a vain hope that Jerry Falwell, the President of the Moral Majority, would answer the call, but Vice President Cal Thomas (now a syndicated columnist) accepted my invitation instead. We had a congenial exchange of views, and in lieu of a concession, Thomas came over to me, put his arm around me, and said “I would like to take a course from you someday.”

A Short History of the Religious Left

The Religious Right has had a profound influence on American culture and their followers have been crucial to Republican electoral victories. Over the centuries there have always been religious liberals, but they have always been in the background preaching what I believe is the correct view of Jesus’ teachings.

During the First Century there were four different forms of Judaism: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, who were committed to the overthrow of Roman authority. Jesus was definitely not an Essene, and he was in constant conflict with the conservative Sadducees and Pharisees. Some scholars have argued that Jesus, because of his rejection of Jewish and Roman authority, was most like the Zealots.

The Religious Left in America started with Christian Unitarians and their focus was on women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. With regard to the latter, the Quakers led the way and Unitarians and some evangelical Christians soon joined the effort. Today the Friends Service Committee continues the Quaker insistence on peace and social justice.

The Social Gospel was strong in the first decades of the 20thCentury, and Martin Luther King, Jr. continued this tradition with the Black Social Gospel. King once declared that American “capitalism was built on the exploitation of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor.”

The New Group “Faith in Public Life”

Coming out of the shadow of the Religious Right, the group Faith in Public Life is now making itself heard, especially after the election of Donald Trump. Founded in 2005 and grown to 50,000 members, it draws on the 19thCentury abolitionists and the late 20thCentury civil rights leaders. Its current focus is immigrant rights, and the group has led a number of protests at the border.

As Faith in Public Life’s founder Presbyterian minister Jennifer Butler points out: “There are over a hundred verses of Scripture that say we are to welcome immigrants.” Here is just one of them: “When a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The Rev. William Barber, another leader on the Religious Left, once declared that “Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken, the bruised, and all those who are made to feel unaccepted!” Barber calls himself an “evangelical Biblicist,” and says that “the nation is need of ‘moral defibrillators’ to work on its weak heart.”

Jim Wallis and the Journal Sojourners

Jim Wallis, long-time leader of the Religious Left, has impeccable evangelical credentials. As a student at conservative Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he and some friends founded the journal Sojourners, which has become the principal voice of the Religious Left.

Insisting that the Bible is “neither conservative nor liberal,” Wallis believes that it is “conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice.”

Wallis has been arrested 22 times for acts of civil disobedience, and on December 15 of last year he joined a group of protesters at the Tijuana border crossing. He said: “I will be accompanied by a Sojourners team that will document the events and speak to families directly affected by the United States’ cruel immigration policies.”

I wish these brave Christians well as they spread the true meaning of the Gospel of Jesus.

Nick Gier of Moscow is a proud Unitarian and he taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his article on the founding thinkers at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/foundfathers.htm. Email him at [email protected]

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.