Dispatches from the Religious Left by Frederick Clarkson (ed)

We’re in a time of change at the point where religion and politics interact. The US is seeing more leftist religious leaders speaking up, and youth movements seem to be spending more time considering social and environmental issues than mainstream religious spokespeople (typically from the political right) have done in decades. With the Religious Left beginning to move from development to vague coherence, it’s past time to begin thinking about how people with related concerns can most effectively convert their beliefs and efforts into political action (both electorally and in a more cultural sense — change doesn’t stop at the ballot box).

Edited by Frederick Clarkson, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America offers an introduction to some of the issues concerned with the developing movement(s). It provides some useful and thought-provoking material, but it also shortchanges itself too much to be the indispensable tool it could have been.

The book takes for granted that its readers will have a similar set of beliefs, primarily accepting that they will be pro-choice, in favor of gay marriage, interested in health care reform, focused on social justice, and more. The Religious Left here comes pre-defined, and while that’s not a failure of the book, it does limit the audience largely to a very precise set of people: those that would be considered progressive even in secular terms, and also in the way we traditionally see religion vocalized in the public sphere (ie not for the Religious Right, nor for typically conservative pastors or evangelists). The audience is for leftists who consider themselves religious.

With that group of readers clearly defined and in agreement, the essayists are free to move from theoretical or philosophical arguments to practical tacks. Since the “what” and “why” appear to be predetermined (there’s little theoretical argument here, with the assumption that we all agree on, say, reproductive rights for the reasons traditionally proposed, sometimes with a more or less spiritual slant), the writers zero in on the “how” on a potential Religious Left approach to political action. The final third of the book outlines plans for organizing such a movement. On one level, it’s time well spent, given the amorphous nature of the Religious Left as characterized throughout the book.

On another, though, it’s seems out of place in a book on religious politics. While essays like Marshall Ganz’s “Thoughts on Power, Organization and Leadership” or “Using New Media to Strengthen the Religious Left” by Shelby Meyerhoff and Shai Sachs provide useful information (though the latter suffers from underestimating its readers Web 2.0 knowledge), they could appear nearly anywhere. The essays lack specific connection to a Religious Left, focusing more on general ideas of organizing, media usage, etc. Ganz’s lessons on leadership could be taken equally well by a secular conservative as by a religious progressive. Losing the religious element in the discussions means foregoing a vital element that differs this group from others, dropping off whatever would be unique to the Religious Left in harnessing and utilizing time, energy, and money.

The lack of religious content throughout the book remains puzzling. For a book explicitly about religious political action, there’s very little use of any religious tradition. Many examples in the book are taken primarily from religious actors (such as We Believe Ohio, a loose affiliation of leftist voices), but there’s no theological insight. Perhaps because it targets a core audience, the book lacks two key ingredients: arguments in favor of the given positions (Clarkson suggests that not all authors would agree on all points, but there are many tacit fundamental agreements throughout the book), and a language that enables religious moral positions to be translated to secular of political language. While there’s no intent here for theological treatises, there should still be room for a marshaling of spiritual forces.

At its weakest, Dispatches from the Religious Left remains a vague series of progressive or organizational commentary that provides quick general overview. Religion, rather than a motivating force, becomes a quick adjective for the people discussed. These people are religious, bur rarely do their positions seem necessarily religious. Throughout these essays, that word could be replaced with any other word, and the sense of the essays would remain.

Even the book’s middle third, on “hot button issues” focuses more on a general sense of how to act. The top exception comes with Dr. Peter M. J. Hess, who theorizes the split functions of religion and science, using both a theological and a philosophical understanding to translate a worldview into a functional ethic. However, while his thinking is logically sound, he puts too much restriction of religion’s purview to allow it to be a useful proposition. He weakens faith for a cogent argument, limiting the power of that argument even if providing for a sort of efficacy. So while Dispatches from the Religious Left may be useful to religious progressives in terms of how to take action, it isn’t specific to a religious movement (or movements).

To be fair, that lack of specificity has its benefits. In his afterword, Jeff Sharlet describes this collection not as a “vision” or even a sustained argument, but as “a collection of clues, leads, lessons learned, successful experiments, potential tactics.” It’s a conversation about these various issues — with the various writers quickly dropping in to offer a few words to prompt further thought, discussion, and, ideally, action — and not a prolonged essay. The breadth of views here allows for combinations and juxtapositions that being a movement toward a functioning progressive religious politics.

The highlight of the book comes with Chris Hedges’s opening statement from a debate with atheist Sam Harris. Hedges distinguishes faith from tribalism, building to a discussion of the evils of human nature (religious or otherwise) and the opportunities to surmount them, saying, “The point of religion, authentic religion, is … about the other.” It’s a compelling argument for religious faith as progressive action, but it is impractical in terms of organizing, mobilizing, and voting. In the context of the book, it’s a good counterweight to the practical, but nonreligious discussions.

Hence, much of the rest of the book, which, when the authors use enough space to dig deep, start to visualize a more active Religious Left, interpreting both the Religious Right’s rise and effectiveness, as well as the Religious Left’s inability to function efficiently. Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava nail the former topic, forcing a reconsideration of the traditional story of that group’s success. Rev. Daniel Schultz effectively tackles the latter. Couple this theoretical work with Hedges’s theology, and the groundwork is there to move into the particulars of organizing.

Unfortunately, the book never quite coheres (even in a relative sense, given its quick approach and discrete essays) and misses some vital points (even the timing’s bad — the book feels a little rushed, even in its copyediting and frequent typographical errors, and launches itself without an examination of the lessons of the recent presidential campaigns). Dispatches from the Religious Left is, as suggested, a start, with some insights to offer, but it ultimately lacks the power and particular religious force that could lead it to being something more, ideally a more significant approach to the issues as well as a plan for action.

RATING 5 / 10