Traci Blackmon organized ministers to pray outside police headquarters in Ferguson, Missouri, the day after a young black man named Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in 2014. When the clergy got to the police station, though, a protest was already happening.
Hundreds of young people had been there all night—the nascent Black Lives Matter movement—chanting, shouting, and opposing white supremacy with their physical presence. The protestors welcomed the clergy and their prayers, but then quickly lost patience. “That’s enough praying,” one activist shouted. “What are we going to do?”
Some of the ministers tried to tell the young people what to do, instructing them on the proper boundaries of protest and warning of the dangers of being too provocative. But the clergy were, as activist DeRay Mckesson told journalist Jack Jenkins, “roundly ignored.”
The scene from Ferguson undercuts the most significant claim of Jenkins’s new book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. As Jenkins writes in his introduction, not only is the Religious Left alive and well in contemporary America—it is the “beating heart of modern progressivism.” In the story he tells about Ferguson, though, and in many other stories from the book, religious activists aren’t central. They’re more like an awkward extra appendage to progressivism than its beating heart.
A Strong Corrective
Jenkins is an outstanding journalist. His coverage of politics for the Religion News Service is the gold standard among religion reporters. Those skills are evident in the 12 mostly disconnected stories he tells here about religious activists advocating for progressive causes, from Obamacare to the Green New Deal.
If the argument of the book is just that faith-based progressives exist, then Jenkins more than makes his case. He offers a strong corrective to anyone who thinks the American Left is uniformly atheist and militantly secular, or that when religion and politics mix in the US it always looks like Robert Jeffress and the First Baptist Church in Dallas making a hymn out of Donald Trump’s 2016 slogan, “Make America Great Again.” In the pages of American Prophets, we meet liberal and left-wing Christians, including black Protestants, white Protestants, and Catholics, as well as religious Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims, all motivated by their experiences of God to work for change on earth.
In fact, anyone paying close attention to the Left in recent history will notice the religious actors who don’t make it into Jenkins’s book. The Catholics who ritualistically desecrate nuclear submarines, the peace churches that help soldiers go AWOL, and the witches who hexed the president are not here. But their absence only strengthens the book’s argument that the Religious Left exists.
American Prophets promises something more, though. The subtitle, first of all, asserts a claim about progressivism’s “religious roots.” There’s certainly a case to be made that modern progressivism has a religious history, even if one only goes back to Jimmy Carter’s ideas about a spiritual crisis, Jesse Jackson’s belief in the power of a “rainbow coalition,” or Stacey Abrams’s childhood in one of the first Methodist churches to affirm LGBT people.
But Jenkins quickly tells the reader he is not interested in writing history. “My aim is to home in on the iterations that are having the greatest impacts on modern politics,” he writes, later adding, “this is a larger-than-average journalistic work.” Fair enough.
The other promise is harder to cast aside. The book seems to want to argue that religious actors are central to progressivism. As Jenkins puts it, the Religious Left is a “secret weapon,” hiding in plain sight, and “a core component of progressive social movements” that “exerts growing influence on modern Democratic politics.” Yet the stories Jenkins tells don’t quite show that.
In the opening chapter, for example, Jenkins reports on a Catholic woman who fought for Obamacare. Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughters of Charity nun, called members of Congress to urge them to support the Affordable Care Act on critical votes. Her organization, the Catholic Health Association, came out in support of the plan at a key moment, publicly making the case that Catholics could support Obamacare (even if the bishops did not). Keehan’s contributions were important, of course, but she doesn’t seem like the central player in the drama.
In another chapter, Jenkins reports on the Religious Left and the LGBT-rights movement. He focuses on the struggle for affirmation within religious traditions. He writes about Gene Robinson’s ordination as the first openly homosexual bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the many people who “helped carve out a theological space for people of faith to affirm LGBTQ relationships and identities in public,” including the Jesuit priest Jonathan Martin, the Presbyterian Matthew Vines, and the Seventh-day Adventist Eliel Cruz. Jenkins notes that 2020 Democratic Presidential primary candidate Pete Buttigieg was able to run as a deeply religious married gay man because of the successes of Martin, Vines, and others. Robinson tells Jenkins how impressed he is with the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and says, “I just donated the other day.”
But Buttigieg’s failed campaign doesn’t seem like the most significant event in the 20th-century struggle for LGBT rights. Jenkins would have had a stronger argument that religious activists were the “beating heart” of the movement if he had focused on why marriage was considered a higher priority than legal protections against employment discrimination.
When activists went door to door in Maine urging voters to support same-sex marriage, they were instructed to be open about their faith. Before they went out, the Christians working with Freedom to Marry got in a circle and practiced saying “Jesus,” “Jesus,” “Jesus.” Organizer Amy Mello insisted the activists not speak vaguely about being good to your neighbor but talk explicitly about their personal relationship to Jesus. “We can say this word,” she said, according to activist Marc Solomon’s account, Winning Marriage.
There’s an argument to be made that religious progressives were essential to the historic push for same-sex marriage. But it’s not made in American Prophets.
Jenkins comes the closest to defending his thesis when he writes about the Standing Rock protests. The Native Americans’ opposition to oil pipelines running through tribal land in North Dakota was shaped by indigenous faith commitments. Why people protested, what, and how, were all religious decisions. One of the young people who travelled to join the protest was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Catholic woman. For her, the experience was transformative—spiritually.
Ocasio-Cortez went on to run for Congress and become one of the architects of the Green New Deal. She has defended the program with Bible verses that speak about the goodness of God’s creation and the importance of caring for the land. Ocasio-Cortez has unbelievable political talent and is a rising star on the Left. If she plays a significant role in the future of American progressivism, that will be evidence that Jenkins is right about the heart thing.
There are, however, some big, outstanding questions about the Religious Left in America. What is its relationship to the growing segment of non-religious and anti-religious people on the left? What is the depth of its commitment to pluralism and religious liberty? Does the “prophetic” approach to politics leave room for doubt, discussion, and reasonable disagreement? And why, with the long history of progressive religious politics in this country, do so many people not even know that the Religious Left exists?
American Prophets doesn’t answer those questions. But it does capture a moment in religious activism and progressive politics. It tells the stories of diverse people motivated by their faith to pray with their feet and their hands and their bodies. It shows how and where these advocates of progressive politics are showing up, even if, like the ministers at the Black Lives Matter protest in Ferguson, they’re showing up to a movement that has begun without them.
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today.
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