My Plea to the “Secular Left”—from a Christian.

Via Scott Robinson
on Mar 2, 2011
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What with all the turmoil around the plutocracy declaring all-out war on the middle class, I have been spending even more time than usual in the liberal blogosphere.

And for a Christian, it is a depressing place. Despite being one of a great many Christians who give generously of our time and money to progressive causes, I find we are caricatured, misrepresented, vilified, and dismissed at every turn. The “secular left” routinely zeros in on, at best, the most conservative elements of the Gospel faith, and at worst on repugnant outliers like Westboro Baptist.

So here, Secular Left, is my earnest plea to you in this time of testing for the American Experiment.

Please do not represent us all by drawing disproportionate attention to the worst among us. Let me offer an example.

There was a church near my home that was across the street from a high school, and ran a free daycare center in the basement so students with babies could finish high school. They got picketed by a bunch of “Christian” protesters with flyers saying  “Trinity Church Supports Unwed Motherhood.” It’s dishonest to focus on the flamboyant cretins to the exclusion of the more numerous people of good will, but because it supports your biased views, that is what you generally do.

Please stop that. It isn’t helping anybody.

I once pitched a story to a national liberal magazine about the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations, and its work to pressure banks into fair lending practices and chain stores into fair labor practices.  After much hemming and hawing the editor told me that a significant portion of their readership would “scream bloody murder if we ran anything positive about the church.”

Don’t do stuff like that.  It’s not okay when Fox Noise censors the news, and it’s not okay when you do it.

It’s disingenuous at best to point to Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Sarah Palin and Ralph Reed and say “Christian,” then point to Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day and say “Liberal.”

That’s as dishonest as anything Faux News does.

Let me remind you that every single one of the great movements of social reform in America, including child labor laws, women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement (and yes, regrettably, prohibition) began in the churches. Yet you routinely portray all Christians as reactionary, and all progressives as secular. How can it possibly help matters to trash-talk people with whom it would be so easy to make common cause? Stop doing that.

You ought to know that there is a huge fault-line forming in the evangelical churches. An increasing number of young evangelicals are more gay-friendly, more concerned for the environment, and more in tune with Biblical imperatives about social justice than their elders are. Do you really want to drive them away, dividing the progressive movement when it most needs to be united?

Eighty-six evangelical leaders signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative in February of 2006.  Yes, the James Dobson crowd has been viciously attacking them ever since–but that, it seems to me, is all the more reason for you to rally to their side instead of throwing them under the bus.

You are tarring a very large and diverse group of people with the same brush–for Pete’s sake, between 60 and 70% of the students at the evangelical university I taught at voted for Obama!–and it calls into serious question your commitment to accuracy and fairness.  (This Christian university also offered exclusively fair-trade coffee in its café before any other coffee shop on Philadelphia’s Main Line, and has been run solely on wind power since 2006.)

As a person whose denomination is one of several that are regularly vilified by the right and which Fred Phelps is pleased to call “The Faggot Church,” I find your apparent refusal to bring any nuance into your characterization of the churches offensive. I would like to be on your side, but too often you are just plain rude. Why would you do that to people who are disposed to be your allies?

The biblical prophet Isaiah wrote these words as an indictment of the religious establishment of his day, and though they are still true enough to sting, a very great many of us, believe it or not, do take them very much to heart:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves,  and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers…You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high…

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

(Isaiah 58:3-9, ed.)


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


32 Responses to “My Plea to the “Secular Left”—from a Christian.”

  1. jjhackett505 says:

    Well put, Scott. I often feel the need to explain my Christianity to my liberal friends and my liberalness to my Christian friends. The compatibility of these labels seems obvious to me, but the GOP has so successfully staked their claim as the "party of faith" as to leave those of us on the Christian left struggling to be recognized.

    I have an atheist friend who, whenever he's had a few drinks, harangues me about my church-going ways. I always tell him that even if he can't understand the need for religion in my life, he should at least be grateful that someone from the progressive side is holding onto some turf in the religious realm. Seventy-nine percent of adults in the US identify themselves as Christians. If they all vote as a block, the other twenty-one percent are screwed.

    • YesuDas says:

      I had one of those friends too, Jen–and a Marxist to boot.. One evening his drunkenness took on a maudlin, guilt-ridden quality as he lamented his own shortcomings. When I tried to reassure him, he shook his head and said that as he wasn't part of the solution, he was obviously part of the problem. "Whoever does not gather with me, scatters," I replied. "Yeah!" my friend said. "Who said that?" "Jesus," I told him. After the few seconds it took that thought to leap his sodden synapses, he said, "Wow; there's a lot of Marx in the Bible, isn't there?" Ah, alcohol!

  2. Bruce says:

    Well put, Scott. Maybe its the "all you non-Christians are gonna burn in hell" kind of thinking that kind of makes one pause. But I've always felt that Jesus was the the true "OL" (original liberal!) Or maybe "OS" (original socialist). Progressive Christians and Christian churches (like All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena CA) are always welcome in my book, and I greatly appreciate their teachings and actions. Your essay is a timely one and I hope is widely read.
    Bruce Stephens
    BTW, where was Jesus between the ages of 13-30? Inquiring minds want to know…

    • YesuDas says:

      Thanks, Bruce; I'm glad that some of us are being heard over the din. Re. your question–not in India, if that's what you're implying. And not in England, either, tradition notwithstanding. If the young Jesus was indeed influenced by Indian thought, I think it far more likely that it's because Capernaum was a stop on the Silk Road than because He somehow got to India as a young man. Or it may be that there are some truths of which people in all times and places lay hold, simply because they are true. Or maybe you didn't even have the Jesus-went-to-India theory in mind, and I am just running off at the mouth.

      I subscribe to the theory that the young Jesus was, for a time, a disciple of His cousin, John the Baptizer.

  3. Betherann says:

    YES YES YES! There is so much more gray in this world than either the far right or far left want to admit.

  4. danielle says:

    I don’t think it is a matter of “side” as much as “winning”. There is much to critique christians and christianity for (and of course religion generally), making it easy to overshoot in the name of being “right”.

    Unless one can hang back, the subtle, though present, will not “manifest”, being overshadowed by impatience or urgency of the present.

    But in defense of the secular left, I think much of the anti-religion enthusiasm is fading as the alienation that comes with the hard line becomes obvious, and that their could-be allies are as in favor of a secular government as they are.

  5. Joe Sparks says:

    The secular left is abound in rigidities and can by no means be accepted as guides and religious institutions have made attempts to build communities of people, to provide people with a place to stand up for what they believe in, and to provide structures to fight against poverty and for human liberation. Unfortunately, religious institutions also have been largely co-opted by class structure to separate people from one another and to provide yet another means of social control. One rigid notion is that God is a male, this idea provides the foundation for patriarchy within religious institutions and within the family. Men are cast as patriarchs and as " in charge of the family," while women are made to be subservient, which robs men of their full humanness and sets up sexist oppression.
    We need to call for an end to the use of religion and religious structures ( such as the "religious right" in the US) as a cover for any anti-democratic activity or as suports for any oppression and exploitation of human beings. Consider acceptance of women priests and other religious leaders as rational models. Eliminate the concept of "sin." We need fresh intelligent thinking from both groups.

  6. profebc says:

    I would agree that pointing to Romero or King et al as merely "liberal" is reductive. But who has the biggest finger? It was Glenn Beck at the "Rally to Restore Honor" at the Lincoln Memorial who minimized liberation theology as being "Marxist" when just down The Mall at The Museum of The American Indian, we see that liberation theology has its roots in the indigenous of this continent, not Europe. "Faux News" plays a kind a theocratic demagoguery that has no equivalent opponent in a country where the majority identify as "Christian.

  7. yombuddy says:

    A non-Christian liberal here.
    Jesse Jackson once remarked that even he would get a bit uneasy if a young black man seemed to be following him. That is not racism, just rule-of-thumb generalization. Does it mean that Jesse thinks ALL young black guys are muggers? Of course not. Does it mean that he knows that a very large percentage of muggings are by young black guys? Bingo!

    Same with "Christians." The largest percentage of American Christians who make a public point of their religion are right-wingers. The Evangelicals, who have a strong hegemony in contemporary Christianity, were stunningly absent from the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly all the strongly anti-liberal voices we hear are using the Christian vocabulary to make their points. OF COURSE liberals get uneasy when the topic of Christianity comes up!

    The antidote? Exactly what you are doing. Advocate for social and economic justice using the Christian vocabulary of words and images. This Buddhist cheers you on!

    • YesuDas says:

      Thank, yombuddy; I do what I can!

      I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "hegemony"–nobody is ruling over *me*. They are certainly the loudest and most headline-grabbing, if that's what you mean, but they don't exercise the authority over the rest of us that the word "hegemony" implies. With respect to the Civil Rights movement, I fear you are mistaken; the Civil Rights movement was spearheaded by the evangelical churches, It wasn't really until the Reagan era that the right co-opted the evangelical churches and took social justice issues of the table. Happily, the coming generation seems to be putting them back on the table.

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  9. René Cousineau says:

    I am sending this article to my best friend. We grew up together, and have seen the best and the worst of each other. In my early teens I hit my punk-rock-mean-streak and, as she was being raised in a very devout Christian family, refused to hear her out on pretty much anything and more or less forced her to put up defenses, which I also cut down. I haven't even thought about this dark time in our friendship for years, and reading this has brought it all back.

    The good news is that, at this point in my life, I have grown into a much more accepting person (trying to be more and more so everyday), and this article lines up completely with how I currently feel. My bestie and her family come from this very crop of open-minded, open-hearted people that you speak of. I'm lucky that I am able to see that now, and regret that it took me so long.

    Thank you for making your plea, both eloquently and passionately.

  10. 13thfloorelevators says:

    Nobody owes you anything.

  11. AlanHaffa says:

    I am a progessive secularist and I do not judge all Christians in the same light. At the same time, it is hard to ignore when christian churches get involved in politics and try to use religion to advance their agenda. The fight over Gay Marriage in CA is one example. But I do know that the heart of Christianity is truly socialist and radical. MLK says as much in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He says Christ was a revolutionary, and he was. I have no doubt in my mind at all that if Jesus were alive he would have been in the Capital in Madison these past few weeks and he would have stood up for working people and the poor there. So, I do have a great deal of respect for Christians who try to live in a way that accords with the Sermon on the Mount.

  12. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Alan; and nobody is asking to to ignore that stuff–I certainly don't!

  13. TamingAuthor says:

    Perhaps research is needed. Perhaps it is the liberal culture that is prejudiced and presenting slanted news. Perhaps it is the liberal secular culture that is nurturing stereotypes and hatred. Maybe that is not just an accident, or an oversight, but the actual inherent nature of the philosophy.

    And perhaps the stereotyping of Fox prevents you from taking a close look at the diversity represented. Perhaps the liberal view conditions a person to make false attributions so as to maintain mental consistency and party loyalty. What would happen if you discovered Fox represents a mix of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, and even secularists. If you discovered that fact (which is not that difficult to ascertain) what would that mean to you?

    Could it perhaps mean that not only are you being disparaged as a Christian but also as someone who wishes to entertain a plurality of views and freedom of opinion?

    Prediction. As a Christian you will never find a home in the progressive movement. The closest you will come is a sad caricature of Jesus as an early Marx. That, on the face of it, should tell you enough for you to back the bags and move on.

    • elephantjournal says:

      Greg, as you know, Trungpa Rinpoche hosted Buddhist-Christian dialogues with many great teachers from various traditions. I have love and respect for the Christian faith, having grown up in and around it—except for how I see it represented by partisan hacks. ~ W.

  14. elephantjournal says:


    Andrea: Liberals are sterotyping the fanatic ultra right wing Christians, not Christians at large. You have to admit that there's some insane stuff coming out of that sector including Westboro Baptist, GOP wanting to take over women's wombs etc

    Mary F: There are some who portray groups in stereotyped ways. For the most part, people of all kinds have more nuance and complexity than we give each other credit for.

    Donald J: I don't believe in the Left
    Right Paradigm! They both are already bought
    and paid for!!!!!!!! That's
    Not something I'll dumb
    myself down for!

    Avtar K I believe Mr. Robinson makes a very good point, one worthy of reflection by anyone claiming to be a Progressive.

  15. radicalprogress says:

    As an ex-Christian, I have to point out that the problem isn't confined to the left, most of the right agrees with the typical secular leftist. The right assumes that its capitalist, eurocentric, patriarchal, militarist, and anti-science views are the "true Christian" views and any "so-called Christian" who identifies with the left is a false Christian. Never mind that many of the most ardent free marketeers are Ayn Rand-style atheists.

    I am not sure if this problem can be fixed. When I read someone criticizing "all Christians" for believing creationism, I mentally reinterpret it to mean "all the Christians" that writer has mentally identified as such. Lumping people into groups is an ingrained habit across the spectrum. An old joke goes, "there are two kinds of people, those who divide everybody into two kinds… and those who don't."

  16. annonymous says:

    while it might not be fair that the "secular left" groups moderate religious people with the extremists, it is true that without the moderates, the fundamentalists would simply be crazy. The extremists derive (and expand) their influence in part because of people that are fair-minded and reasonable that still believe the same basic religious ideology; the extremists just take their fundamentalist belief to another level.

  17. GMD says:

    I'm impressed by the church with the free daycare in the basement. That is exactly the kind of thing I believe Jesus wants us to do. Yet the right-wing, politically active Christian crowd is so much *louder* than people like those at your church (and in the other examples you cite), that it's hard for anyone in the echo-chamber of our public, to hear anything else. Quite possibly they are so much louder because they are busily being loud, rather than (like U.S. nuns?) quietly going about the business of doing what God, in the Bible verse you quoted, asks of us. Perhaps the answer lies somewhat in "be louder," as well as doing these good works.

    Because the answer to hate speech is not censorship, but more speech.

  18. Heather McCaw says:

    Thank you for this. I was raised as both a liberal and a Christian in a New Testament church. Even though I would say my deepest core values are Christian, in recent years, I've felt more alienated from Christianity with a capital "C" than ever. The political polarization of our society has drawn lines across everything from the Boy Scouts to fast food restaurants to the church. I feel like I'm going to touch the third rail if I discuss religion with anyone I know to be a political conservative. I don't want to have to defend my liberal views (or hear their conservative ones) expressed through the lens of Christianity. And it's hard to disentangle politics from religion because my liberal views are directly the result of my Christian views, just as I'm sure many conservatives will say the same. I hope that more formerly conservative members of the Evangelical church will come forward in this fashion to let us all know that nothing is black and white. I also hope mainstream progressive churches will be more vocal in presenting the view that liberals can be Christians, too.

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