Can the Religious Right be Left? Christian Political Organizing in the Age of President Trump
Donald Trump has officially been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. For many this is a victory of a forgotten people against an elitist establishment. For the majority of Americans, however, the election of President Trump represents something far different. While fractures along racial and denominational lines within the American church are not new, the 2016 election cycle, and disagreement on President Trump himself, have uncovered new fault lines among conservative Evangelicals.
Many, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., fully embraced the prospects of a Trump presidency, deeming him the only Christian choice. Others, such as Russell Moore, took a different approach—refusing to defend the character or campaign of President Trump— and many eventually found themselves in the crosshairs of President Trump’s Twitter account. In the past, these two groups typically organized under the banner of the “Religious Right.” As such, the group favored “conservative” policies while opposing those policies that were deemed “liberal.” However, these banners and battle lines no longer cover the broad range of Evangelicals or biblically minded Christians. Therefore, creating a demand for a new mode of Christians political organizing.
In the recent Erasmus Lecture, hosted by First Things, Dr. Moore articulated a sustainable vision for Evangelical political participation with several principles for organizing and speaking on issues of a generally political nature. Moore rightly posits a “theology first” perspective, in which Christians develop and begin with a more theologically robust understanding of the world. This means, in Moore’s words, that “we are Americans best when we are not Americans first.”
Russell Moore is a treasure. His leadership and moral courage during the 2016 election demonstrates, to those Christians involved in partisan politics, the necessity of speaking with prophetic conviction in the face of partisan pressure. Moore is at his best when speaking to the necessity of racial justice within the Evangelical tradition. To those who might trend towards the apolitical, Moore points out the echo of silence in the face of Jim Crow. Rather than rising above the issue, silence makes a resounding political statement that only avoids the hard work necessary for ethical Christian thought.
As an organizing strategy, Moore sees Evangelicals breaking from calls for ideological purity, opting for a piecemeal approach that works with different groups on different issues. Specifically, Moore points to Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Mormons as groups with whom he holds serious theological differences but can find ground for political cooperation on issues like abortion and religious liberty.
Within this strategy, certain leaders will need to speak out on uncomfortable issues that may seem more Democratic, such as immigration, while others will have to speak to uncomfortable issues that may seem more Republican, perhaps pro-life issues, in an effort to morally challenge congregations. This breaking of the status quo political spectrum is the right solution for crafting an effective Evangelical political self-understanding. However, this correct prescription is, at times, wrapped in language that only reinforces the very ideological binary which Christians ought to abandon.
While terms such as conservative/liberal or left/right can be helpful to conceptualize our zeitgeist, they offer little for imagining a different form of political engagement. The foundational question for Dr. Moore’s lecture, “Can the Religious Right be saved?” relies on a left right binary in which the group under discussion cannot, by definition, be left. Certainly, as Dr. Moore describes it, the Religious Right is a theologically conservative group, however this group’s historical association with far right politics necessarily blurs the lines between theological conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and political conservatism.
Moore is correct to identify among younger Evangelicals theologically conservative trends coupled with a wide range of political beliefs. This range of political views spans from strong support for traditional marriage and pro-life causes to more liberal seeming issues such as environmental protection and compassionate immigration policies. However, the language of a Religious Right or conservatism will prevent these younger Evangelicals from accomplishing the type of coalition building on issues like immigration that Moore prescribes.
Consider the nature of presidential primary debates: rather than a contest of ideas, these debates often devolve into contests of identifications. Republican primary candidates rarely debate the warrants of conservatism or the best vision for conservatism. Candidates—certainly in the 2016 cycle—tend opt for strategies that construct themselves as a true conservative while painting their opponents as something other than conservative. On the issue of immigration, candidates, such as Marco Rubio, who have in the past been willing at least hear arguments in favor of a path to citizenship were bullied into submission, not because such arguments are poor policy, but because such arguments are not considered conservative in the current political climate.
Debates for the Democratic Party’s nomination suffered from many of the same issues, though with a smaller field. In an exchange with Anderson Cooper of CNN at the first Democratic primary debate, Secretary Clinton declared herself to be “a progressive who likes to get things done.” Cooper’s question centered on charges of political expedience lobbed against Sec. Clinton, however Sec. Clinton’s response, as well as Cooper’s follow-up, appealed to a clarification of her progressive label rather than a thorough defense of how her positions changed over the years.
This is not to say that identifying markers serve no purpose. In fact, they can be quite useful for talking about political ideologies and organized groups. The trouble comes when the terms no longer describe political ideologies, but instead act as the standard for political ideology. Within this frame, politics becomes stale and new ideas are rarely considered privately and never discussed publicly.
If Christians are to take seriously Dr. Moore’s principles for issue-based political organizing, as I believe we should, then Christians’ political self-understanding will have to move beyond the binaries offered by left/right or conservative/progressive politics. This will require building bridges between groups who have not traditionally worked together on political causes. It is worth mentioning that the groups Dr. Moore mentions as theologically distinct yet viable political partners are all (generally) politically conservative groups. A truly effective organizing strategy will take to heart the principle that Christian political mobilization does not require theological unity and will reach beyond the groups that Dr. Moore mentions, building coalitions with secularists, mainline Protestants, and Muslims when the issue at hand allows for it. Adopting this more agile brand of political thinking will allow Christians to then work with a group on issue x while vehemently opposing the same group on issue y.
Excluding extraordinary circumstances, the makeup of our executive branch of government will not change for four years. Christians must now move beyond the culture wars and seek effective change and the maintenance of our essential social institutions. A new vision for political organizing will prove essential. This must begin by bolstering a theological and moral vision for our communities and seeking the ways in which our love of God and our neighbors must manifest within our current context.