Progressives sifting through the wreckage of the 2016 campaign would not find much to be cheerful about. Many on the left saw the Obama era as one defined by compromises, incrementalism and the politics of the possible, which reached its logical conclusion when the party nominated Hillary Clinton, a candidate whom many of them considered uninspiring. And the worst was yet to come: Democrats lost the presidency, were unable to wrest control of either chamber of Congress from the Republicans, and as a result may have ceded the Supreme Court for another generation.
Yet even in a deeply disappointing year, there were a few bright spots for progressives. One of the brightest was in North Carolina, where voters ousted conservative Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, even as they sided with President Trump over Clinton. More significant than the result itself were its roots in the state’s “Moral Mondays” movement, a coalition of left-leaning religious groups that organized large-scale demonstrations against a raft of conservative legislation. In the wake of McCrory’s loss and Trump’s win, left-leaning faith-based groups around the country have kicked off a spurt of activism around issues such as immigration and health care, which has led to suggestions that a progressive religious movement is emerging to counter the religious right. It’s doubtful, however, that a revitalized “religious left” will actually materialize.
The first and perhaps most significant reason for skepticism is that there are far fewer religious liberals today than there were a generation ago. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) liberals are religiously unaffiliated today, more than double the percentage of the 1990s, according to data from the General Social Survey. In part, the liberal mass migration away from religion was a reaction to the rise of the Christian right. Over the last couple decades, conservative Christians have effectively branded religious activism as primarily concerned with upholding a traditional vision of sexual morality and social norms. That conservative religious advocacy contributed to many liberals maintaining an abiding suspicion about the role that institutional religion plays in society and expressing considerable skepticism of organized religion generally. Only 30 percent of liberals report having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in organized religion. Half say that religion’s impact on society is more harmful than helpful.
Another challenge confronting the progressive religious movement is the yawning generational divide in religious identity. Young liberals today are simply not that religious. Nearly half (49 percent) of liberals under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to the General Social Survey, which is more than the number who belong to all Christian denominations combined. Only 22 percent of liberal seniors are unaffiliated, while the overwhelming majority identify as religious. Your average left-leaning Christian is pushing 50. Coaxing young progressives to join a movement that would require them to reset their approach to religion is no small undertaking.
The generation gap creates another problem for progressives hoping to change how they organize. In the past few years, progressive groups have come to rely on online organizing to build their movement. Left-leaning Facebook pages such as “Occupy Democrats” and “Stand Up America” are outperforming pages dedicated to major media outlets such as CNN and Fox News. The Women’s March on Washington started with a single Facebook post, and its success was due in no small part to engagement online — a University of Maryland study found that nearly 70 percent of the marchers cited Facebook as one of their sources of information about the march.
But even though the Moral Mondays movement got thousands of people to protest at the state capitol and is being replicated in other states, the effort is much less visible online, a problem plaguing the religious left more generally. Rev. William Barber, who helped lead the original Moral Mondays protests, has amassed a substantial following on Twitter but is far less active on the social network than some prominent conservative religious leaders such as Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Moral Mondays movement has only a smattering of independent pages, none of which have more than a few thousand followers. The Nuns on the Bus, another religious progressive campaign, demonstrates a similar indifference to online engagement.
The U.S.’s changing demographics also complicate efforts to form the religious left into a cohesive political movement. In the 1960s, religious progressives united to push for social and political change as liberal white Protestants and Jews joined black Protestants to become key players in the civil rights movement. But any attempt to build a similar coalition today would need to appeal to a broader range of religious groups, including non-Christian communities such as Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.
Adding to the challenge: The politics of religious groups don’t always align along a typical left-right spectrum. For example, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas, a survey of over 100,000 Americans, most Hispanic Catholics are supportive of same-sex marriage and other rights for gay and lesbian people, but are much more ambivalent about abortion; they also tend to express more traditional attitudes about gender roles. Muslims are more likely to hold socially conservative views on the issue of same-sex marriage. Black Protestants are generally supportive of making abortion accessible but are more reticent when it comes to pushing for LGBT equality. The politics of white mainline Protestants are even more diverse. Members of these denominations tend to be culturally liberal but tilt right economically and express more negative views of immigrants. A majority of them have also supported Republican candidates in each of the past four presidential elections. Negotiating these political and cultural differences would require a truly gifted shepherd.
Although it’s unlikely that a reinvigorated religious left will become a major player in American politics anytime soon, that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Advocacy based in religion offers a host of benefits to the wider progressive movement. First, religious movements often cross racial and ethnic boundaries, which some activists have argued is a key challenge in other sectors of progressive politics. Second, religious groups have built-in institutional advantages that make it much easier to build and sustain advocacy organizations. If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.
Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.