I'm grateful to the ReligiousLeftLaw gang, particularly Steve Shiffrin, for inviting me to join.
When Steve e-mailed me with the invitation, one of the first questions I asked myself was whether ReligiousLeftLaw was mainly aimed at politically leftoid folks with a religious bent or religiously left folks with a political bent. It turns out that Steve sort of addressed the issue in his introductory post on the blog. In any event, I quickly decided that my question was itself sort of silly and anal.
More interesting, though, is this related question: Let's define the religious left, very roughly and tentatively, as tending toward some sort of religious universalism, comfort with freedom of inquiry and with self-consciously non-literal or non-absolute readings of sacred texts, aversion to very rigid doctrinal formulations, and a positive engagement with both secular culture and other religious traditions. Let's define the political left, again very roughly and tentatively, as tending toward a commitment to individual and collective rights (or at least many types of individual and collective rights) along with a strong dose of social and economic egalitarianism and real skepticism about the power of the unfettered market to meet basic human needs. What is the relation between the two? And what, for that matter, is the relation between religious conservatism and political conservatism?
It is certainly absurd to imagine that there is any automatic, foundational, connection between location on the religious spectrum and location on the political spectrum. There are also a healthy number of counterexamples to any easy assumption we might want to make about such a connection. (See here.) I'm not just thinking of American evangelicals on the left (see Michael Perry's recent post about recent voting trends among younger evangelicals, who might be accused of drifting at least a bit left on both dimensions, but of such truly bracing, outlandishly radical, thinkers as the "Radical Orthodox" "Christian socialist" group assembled around John Milbank. And while it's a bit harder, as Steve suggested, to find folks on the Christian left and the political right, they do exist; one quick Google search found me the Facebook site of the "Conservative Forum for Unitarian Universalists." (See also this helpful sermon by an Oklahoma UU minister.) And while it's dangerously anachronistic to project back words like "left" and "right," it's certainly becomes even easier, if we turn back to the early twentieth century and earlier, to find religious conservatives at the forefront of politically progressive thought and action, and religious liberals on the other side.
So, if there's no automatic, logical, link, is there at least a tendency? Is there an imperfect, but still real, connection between religious universalism and economic egalitarianism, or between appreciation of the open texture of religious texts and the defense of individual liberty?
I don't know, and the question is too complicated to even begin to deal with here. Yes, political and religious liberalism both have strong roots in the same formative moments in the Enlightenment and Reformation. But that proves too much, for those grand historical forces influence almost everybody today -- right, left, up, or down. My guess is that many of the connections we often assume are just obvious between the political left and the religious left (and between the political right and the religious right) in our own time and culture are deeply contingent. Our present state of affairs have a lot to do, I think, with the role of the Social Gospel in mainline Christianity, and with the cultural alienation of evangelicals around the 1920's, which knocked the wind out of the William Jennings Bryan populist synthesis of political progressivism with conservative Christianity. But I could easily be way off.
Anyway -- and this is the real point of this post -- I want these connections to be contingent and accidental and open to transformative rethinking. Now, personally, I'm sort of mildly center-left religiously and sort of mildly center-left politically, so this is not my own plea for understanding. But I do believe in a variation of the medieval principle of plenitude: I think it's enormously healthy for our spiritual and political lives and for our common religious and political discourse when a maximum number of logically coherent intermediate ideological categories find real, robust, living instantiations, and we're not just left with easy choices and simple dichotomies. So I want to cheer on the politically conservative Unitarians and the politically liberal evangelicals and all the rest. I want to learn from them, and be challenged by them. I hope they find their voice in our otherwise way-too-polarized culture.
For what it's worth, some of my own scholarship has tried to break down easy assumptions about the connections between various staring pont and various possible conclusions. See, for example, here and here and here. If anyone's interested, I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments.