Christianists On The Left?

After attending the massive Moral Mondays protest in Raleigh this weekend, Dahlia Lithwick considers the role of the faithful in the liberal coalition:

Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. …

As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decades long political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.

The question begging here is about that “we”. And it’s not as simple as Dahlia would have it. As Christians, it seems to me, our faith may inform our politics, but not dictate its contents or permit us to use theological claims in civil debate. So, for example, there is no disputing Jesus’ teachings about the poor. But Jesus had no teachings about government‘s relationship to the poor, no collective admonitions for a better polity. On the countless occasions he was asked about such issues, he was remarkably consistent: do not confuse Caesar with your own soul.

Now Catholic social teaching may look at a society and see grotesque inequalities and injustices, but it does not have a pre-made, uniform prescription for them.

What the Church can and must do is draw our attention to, say, soaring inequality or long-term unemployment or resilient poverty and challenge us to see if these evils can be prevented or ameliorated. What it should not do, it seems to me, is grant any political movement – let alone a political party – to represent in policy or political terms what our actual response should be. For that we need civil debate over political and policy ends – and Christians may well take different prudential positions in that debate and draw different conclusions.

It seems to me you can resist the politicization of religion by the right without committing the same category error on the left. In fact, it seems to me vital for the restoration of a living Christianity that it not be drawn into these political struggles. But if you do want to conflate Christianity with leftist politics, as Rod Dreher notes, you may come to regret it:

OK, fine. I don’t have a problem with using that kind of rhetoric in principle. But if you’re going to go that route, you lose your right to complain about religion interfering in politics.

No more griping about how conservative Christians are trying to impose their morality on the rest of us. That’s exactly what the progressive religious leaders in North Carolina are trying to do. And more power to them, sort of. I mean, I don’t know much about what’s going on in NC, and chances are I oppose most of what the Moral Mondays coalition is after. But I think they are doing the right thing in bringing their religious convictions to the public square to influence the political debate.

But let the Left be on notice: if you endorse this kind of thing, don’t ever open your mouth to complain about conservatives doing it. You can’t complain about the Religious Right bringing their faith to the public square when you don’t like their politics, and praise the Religious Left for doing the same thing when it suits your goals.