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Why progressives need a better conversation about faith.
Rejecting religion won’t defeat the evangelical right–it’ll just push more voters into their arms.
It’s hard not to feel like America is moving backward right now. If it’s not the impending overturn of Roe v. Wade, it’s the inaction on guns, state-level policies intended to demonize LGBTQ+ Americans, or book bans.
All of this has roots in a single political phenomenon: The incursion of a totalitarian strain of evangelical Christianity into our public life. Demolishing the barrier between church and state at every turn, it is one of the most caustic forces in American politics. The evangelical right has weaponized the Republican party and captured the courts–the conquest of a disciplined, decades-long crusade. In pressing their religion into our laws, they are betraying the very freedom of religion that led millions of people of faith to flee here centuries ago.
This faith-wrapped totalitarianism has earned a clear and resounding response on the left: full-throated resistance. I commend the tone and strength of the opposition. Yet I worry that, at times, it’s had the wrong focus. Rather than attack the totalitarianism inherent in the evangelical capture of American public policy, some have attacked the value of faith itself. Not only does this miss the point, but it’s dangerous, both for protecting our public policy from the incursion of religious minoritarianism — and because we’re alienating some of the most important voting blocks in our coalition.
First, on the merits, the totalitarianism of today’s evangelical incursion is not inherent to faith. Though we assume that faith adherents will necessarily try to coerce non-adherents into their practices, what most people of faith want is the right to practice as they choose — or not at all if they choose. Indeed, in a recent poll, majorities of nonevangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Jews supported the separation of church and state (Muslims weren’t included in the poll). The Muslim faith tradition has a principle that is illuminating here: “There is no compulsion in religion,” meaning that it’s logically impossible to force an act of devotion. What is the meaning of a prayer that’s forced, after all? Admittedly, the principle is routinely and flagrantly violated by governments abroad that use faith as a tool of control (just as it has been by totalitarian evangelicals here at home). But that captures the inherent tension here — it’s not about faith, but control. That faith can be used as a tool of control does not imply that that control is inherent to faith, a central misconception that erases the value of faith to people who choose it.
As both a proud Muslim and a proud progressive, I find that the tension across these has become increasingly difficult to hold. Though our movement takes pains to welcome Muslim identity, I often find an implicit mistrust of the personal beliefs and practices that come with the faith. The idea of prayer or religious discipline is openly mocked or scorned. Increasingly, I find myself in conversations with progressives of faith who ask if there’s a place for them, too, in our proverbial “big tent.” One Black activist with a long history of Democratic party activism told me recently, “I just feel like they’re trying to squeeze us church folk right out of the party–even though we’re the ones who keep them in power.”
Indeed, faith communities and institutions have been on the front lines of some of the most important struggles for freedom and equality in our history. The Black church has long been a pillar of civil rights organizing. Before he took his place among the saints of American civic religion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher of actual religion — a Baptist minister. Through their belief in Tikkun Olam, or “repair the world,” the Jewish community has long championed progressive efforts to promote equity and take on poverty. America’s Muslim community, targeted after 9/11, has led progressive coalitions against the misuse of state power and state-sponsored discrimination. American Muslims have understood that any effort to read religion into our laws not only violates the principle of the separation of church and state — but will necessarily impose on our rights to practice as we choose. Sikh leaders have long organized to take on community poverty and hunger. And so on.
And yet our failure to appreciate the critical role of faith for so many communities has handed conservatives a wedge. We risk aiding and abetting conservative efforts to brand progressives as anti-faith–and losing support because of it. That may get to the heart of two demographic electoral questions that are exceedingly hard to answer. First, Democrats lost 10 points among Latinos in the 2020 election compared to 2016. Why are Democrats losing ground among one of America’s fastest-growing communities (who, for so long, the party assumed would break for them)? Second, why have progressive candidates struggled among Black voters in Democratic primaries?
Faith remains an important force in American life. Though the number has been falling, nearly 70% of Americans identify with some religion. But it is far more prominent a force in the lives of Americans of color. Black and Latino Americans are more likely to believe in God, call faith a “very important” factor in their lives, and attend religious services. A full 84% of Latinos report that faith is important in their lives — and nearly three-quarters regularly attend religious services, for example.
Perhaps even more importantly, faith institutions remain an important space for political organizing. There is a broad consensus among both Black Americans — religious or not — that Black churches and even Black mosques have played an important role in the struggle for Black equality. A full 44% of Black churchgoers reported listening to a sermon on the subject of racial equity.
In another poll, nearly half of Black and Latino Democrats said that they believed that “churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society” and “mostly bring people together.” That compares to 39% and 32%, respectively, among white Democrats.
To be clear, progressives must continue to reject the attempt to write any particular religion’s laws into our public laws in a secular, pluralistic society. But this is not the same as rejecting the choice to practice a particular faith or none at all. Confusing these two issues risks undercutting the role that faith communities have played in the struggle for a more just, equitable, and sustainable America. It also risks inadvertently turning faith into a wedge issue that drives would-be progressives away. Rather we need the nuance to embrace faith as an important force in the lives of those who choose it, while rejecting the notion that any faith ought to be written into our laws.
It turns out that freedom from religion implies freedom of religion. We would do well to embrace both.