Liberal Religion’s Moment
For those of us who are adherents of liberal religion in America, this is our moment.
Liberal churches and synagogues—and all other religious institutions that share our ideals—must step up at this time of crisis for our country. America is in peril, and we must take the lead in saving it, preaching a message of justice and compassion. But we must do more than preach. We must offer an action agenda that is also a moral agenda, rooted in Biblical teachings and religious precepts—an agenda that will lift our nation’s sights and challenge our nation’s conscience.
There is no one else to play this role. If we fail to rise to the challenge, the result will be catastrophe. American values will be undermined in a profound way. And not only that. The religious congregations that we serve will be seen by our members and by all Americans as irrelevant at precisely the time when they are needed most.
Religious congregations are essential right now because the problems that America faces are without precedent in our country’s history. Following the election, Americans looked around and what they saw everywhere was incivility, division, and bigotry. The campaign of President-elect Trump incited people to hate, and hate they did. Hatred is infectious, and the result is that the fires of intolerance are roaring unconstrained.
All Americans are worried, and some are terrified. Working Americans fear that their paychecks, which have been shrinking in real dollars for a quarter century, will continue their downward spiral. Muslim Americans wonder if they will be required to register with the government. Hispanic Americans wonder if members of their family will be swept up in midnight raids and banished from our country. African-Americans fear that police violence directed at their children will increase. Those things that unite us all as Americans – our common culture, shared ideals, commitment to diversity, and fierce patriotism – have been pushed aside and forgotten.
These problems cannot be solved by individuals. There has been much talk about the need for concerned Americans to sign petitions of protest and contribute money to advocacy and social service organizations. Such steps are worthwhile, but nowhere near enough. The sad truth is that we can no longer count on our national government to do its job and solve our problems. America’s agenda is being driven not by the values of the Constitution but by the politics of prejudice, posturing, and posing.
With our federal government in disarray and American politics fundamentally broken, we must turn to institutions closer to home to sustain our values. This means state and local governments. But it also means our churches synagogues, and mosques.
For most of us, after all, religion remains the primary source from which our values derive. At a time when technology and frequent job moves have left us bereft of community, it is our congregations that fill the gap. Other clubs and civic associations have faltered, but churches and synagogues remain strong and robust. They are the places that extend a loving hand to every embattled soul—the one place that cares about you as an individual. They are the places where Americans turn for help in raising their children and in connecting with the sacred. They are the places where no one suffers alone or grieves alone.
And liberal congregations are especially important at this moment because of their belief that religion always involves concern for the poor and needy, and giving a fair shake to all. Liberal churches and synagogues say that yes, we must pray with fervor and read the Bible with diligence. But without concern for justice, they remind us, there can be no authentic spirituality or wisdom. To talk about God and ignore justice is wrong, and to cloak yourself in religion and forget mercy is blasphemous.
This does not mean that liberal religion should be engaging in partisan politics. There is no such thing as Democratic religion or Republican religion. Churches and synagogues do not endorse candidates or political parties. But it does mean that religious leaders should speak to values and issues of consequence. It does mean that our congregations should remind us to challenge the entrenched and work for a better day. It does mean that if this great country is to choose healing and hope over hurt and hostility, the faith traditions that have guided us since our founding must continue to guide us still.
This is the time, then, for the voices of religious moderation, religious liberalism, and religious reason to come forward and help fill the moral void of our land. This is the time when liberal religion, and maybe liberal religion alone, can rally America to protect the weak, the vulnerable, the struggling worker, the immigrant, and the children of poverty.
And I am not talking now of one religion but of a grand coalition of religions. And I am not talking of spouting clichés and slogans, but of serious action and advocacy. There are many possible agendas for such a coalition, but the following 4 items are for religious leaders to consider.
First: Take on those politicians who have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.
Inspired by President Obama and President Bush, most Americans still see this country as a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different, to be who we are, and to follow our own religious path. In fact, America has done a better job than most of the world, including Christian Europe, of embracing its Muslim citizens and welcoming its Muslim immigrants. Americans respect religion and believe in God, and if liberal churches and synagogues fight hard and do their part, there is no reason that Americans should not continue to respect religions different than their own, Islam included.
Second: Insist on access to healthcare for all, and be ready to advocate on both the state and federal level.
Before Obamacare, Massachusetts, prodded by a broad religious coalition, passed a law providing health coverage for almost all of its citizens. In the likely event that Obamacare is repealed, other states will consider taking similar steps, and religious voices will be critically important. As religious people we know that something is profoundly wrong if somebody else’s medical crisis is no longer our problem, and if we are unwilling to come to each other’s aid. If we take access to health insurance away from millions of Americans, we will lose our humanity, and we will have failed as a nation. Only by assuring such access can we honor the image of God in every human being.
Third: Provide moral and legal support to immigrants entitled to be here and demand compassionate treatment of those here without sanction of law.
Anti-immigrant rancor is not new in American history. A populist backlash has accompanied every wave of large-scale immigration. But what we are seeing now is not simply another round of immigrant bashing. It is strident xenophobia that has made the obscene routine and depleted us as a nation. And it has made hatred respectable, even though it masquerades under the guise of patriotism. Especially distressing is the fact that conservative religious people are joining in this chorus, ready and willing to deface the promise on the Statue of Liberty. What Bible are these people reading? Have they not at least glanced at Lev. 19:34, Numbers 15:16, and Mathew 25:38?
Fourth: Strengthen the ritual and liturgical elements of your congregation’s religious life.
Congregants will best be able to deal with difficult public issues if they are fortified by their faith. Liberal congregations that are most effective in public advocacy are those that do not ignore liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals. The best way to counter the cheap platitudes of our political season is to begin by strengthening your religious community with prayer, study, and the rituals of your tradition.
This is only a partial agenda. There is, in fact, much more for liberal religion to do.
The election of Donald Trump was the greatest political surprise in American history. Everything that once was certain about American politics is now very much in doubt. The children of America recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, but we no longer know if we can pledge to them a future that includes the decency, fairness, and compassion that have always been at the heart of the American experiment.
But that is where liberal religion comes in. In America, our houses of worship are the touchstones of our future. And we, in the liberal religious community, know that the moral anchor of every major religious tradition is fairness and compassion. Can the America of Trump be a fair and compassionate place? Despite the President-elect’s words, we must make it so. Doing this is our duty to God. And we must not fail, because if we do, the battle for the soul of America is lost.