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Steve Shiffrin

David, I think you are right about the data. And it is discouraging. I
plan to post about this at some point in the future. I want to explore
the other factors (other than left/right) that I think are at work. So
I will delay a response, but thanks, I appreciate your comment.

David T

There may indeed be almost as many members of the religious left as the religious right. So why the much lower profile?

The church members on the left give a much smaller fraction of their wealth to their churches. I'm a Unitarian Universalist. We're arguably the farthest left denomination in the US. We also are the denomination with the highest educational achievement, so our people generally have pretty good incomes. But we pledge at a dismal level. So our churches are underfunded, and we have a tiny impact and tiny visibility.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

One more thing for now: seeing Bob's reference to William Godwin over at the Mirror of Justice blog reminded me that the anarchist tradition (in both its philosophical and praxis incarnations) has much to teach us regarding the temptations of a singular or intoxicating focus on conventional power politics at the expense of social power generated from the hearts and hands of individuals.* And some on the religious Left have exemplified the best of this anarchist tradition (e.g., the Catholic Worker movement). As Richard Sonn writes in his brief study of this tradition,

"anarchism was more than a political theory of freedom from domination by any and all authority [save moral authority]; it was a faith, and a way of life. People did not simply understand anarchist ideas; they lived them [this applies to some extent even to a philosopher like Godwin, as Mark Philps' study shows us]. There has always been an existential element to anarchism that transcends dogma."

*One attempt--not altogether successful in my judgment (e.g., when it endorses the 'valorization of subjugated discourses' as such) but no less important for that--to flesh out an alternative conception of power (similar in some respects to that Gandhi endeavored to put into practice), is Todd May's The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994), to wit:

"The political character of social space can be seen by anarchists and poststructuralists alike, in terms of intersections of power rather than emanations from a source. This is not to deny that some points of power, may be more determinative for the social configuration than others [Gandhi would have said that even the power of the State 'emanates' in some sense from the people, whether or not they are cognizant of, or take responsibility for, such power; cf. Deleuze, who argued that all macropolitical power relationships must be understood on the basis of micropolitical practices.]. Nor is this to deny that certain relationships between points in a social space or field may be more important for understanding that social configurarion or more deeply reinforced than others: in our society, for instance, legal relationships are probably more important for understanding the politics of social space than religious ones, and psychological relationships more deeply reinforced than ethical ones. Thus, the picture of a network of intersecting power relationships is one in which certain points and lines may be bolder than others, but none of them function as a center from which others emerge or to which they return."

In short, there exists a heterogeneity of micropoltical (mesopolitical?) and macropolitical practices such that the former cannot be reduced to or absorbed by the latter, nor can the latter be reduced to the former, and the relations between these power practices is extremely complex and deserving of detailed examination (e.g., as in 'genealogies'). Communists and socialists alike could be said to have historically focused on macropolitical practices at the expense of micropolitical practices (one consequence of this is seen in Erich Fromm's pioneering study, The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study, 1984; the study was conducted in 1929-1930). Of course there were some on the Left worked hard to accord due attention to the "micropolitical," as documented in Elizabeth Ann Danto's remarkable book, Freud's Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis & Social Justice, 1918-1938 (2005).

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, very interesting as always. It calls to mind the fights within the right concerning the extent to which their leaders compromised their principles in order to maintain their access to political power (though if you believe David Kuo's book - I do) their power was overstated to begin with.

Robert Hockett

Thanks to Steve, Jimbino, and Patrick!

Steve, point very well taken. As we've discussed before, I'm often struck by the sort of charicture that the 'public reason disease' folk appear to entertain of religiously motivated political involvement. They seem to think that religious folk make claims of the form: 'I saw a burning bush. Therefore go out and feed the poor.' But of course no religiously observant human being I know ever talks or thinks that way.

Jimbino, by way of addition to Steve's reply to you, I would add that there seem to be an awful lot of athiest rightwingers out there to compete with what athiest leftwingers there are (not to slam athiests or non-theists or agnostics as a class, who I suspect are generally decent and loving or otherwise in the same proportions as are theists). Consider, for example, the many overtly athiestic rightwing folk who until not long ago dominated the ranks of 'law & economics' scholarship, and who still dominate the corps of Republican economists.

Patrick, yet again, Wow! Thanks for these wonderful reflections and cites. Will look eagerly forward to your coming further reflections on this!

All best,

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Ah, Bob beat me to it, as I wanted to make the same point about the religious Left (and much of the Left generally, as a matter of fact) often being out of the limelight as it were. And this is indeed often a virtue, again for the reason Bob suggests, namely, a comparatively greater "under the radar" influence. As Todd Gitlin made clear in his book, The Whole World Is Watching: mass media in the making and unmaking of the new left (1980), there's a price to be paid to the devil for being in the bright lights of the mass media, especially insofar as Leftists of all stripes come to believe such media attention is necessary to achieving their ends, often thereby engaging in forms of social action explicitly designed to garner such attention.

One of the reasons, I suspect, for this comparative lack of visibility (especially on a national stage) is the religious Left's according primacy to forms of spiritual praxis over a very public emphasis on religious orthodoxy or ostensibly correct doctrine and beliefs (the latter far more amenable to being depicted in terms congenial to the mass media's framing and telling of events and stories). Often the religious Left is rightly committed to what Richard Flacks (in Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life, 1988) has defined as the "making of history" in and through daily life which has, as a beneficial by-product, the capability of awakening otherwise "apolitical" folks to the possibilities for social change and cultural renewal on a terrain in which they are intimately familiar (and should the need arise for social and political action in wider arenas, it has the virtue of being grounded in a way that helps individuals resist the dark side of conventional political participation, what Gandhi referred to as the 'soullessness' of modern politics). I hope to speak more to this topic later.

Steve Shiffrin

Jimbino, thanks for your comment. I will pass over your revelation of antipathy to the left. I am interested in your claim that the left is becoming less religious. There is a small, but noticeable increase in atheism in the country and that may well come from the left. There is also a decline in church attendance. But I think it would be hard to show that was because of a lack of belief. Sex scandals combined with rigid doctrines regarding women and sex have caused many to leave religious institutions with their religious views intact. I would be interested in the data that supports your views. If it exists, how do you account for the fact that the religious left is almost the same size as the religious right?

Steve Shiffrin

Thanks for the comment. Here I think it is important to distinguish between public and private contexts. In private contexts there are many on the right who do not respect autonomy and they have become the stereotype. Most evangelicals, however, are trained to respect the autonomy of those they are trying to persuade. Persuasion works better when you do and they know that. In the public context referring to religion does not intrude on autonomy, and in recent years politicians have been afflicted with public reason disease. I do not know whether to blame John Rawls or to believe that such people have an insufficiently nuanced conception of the relationship between church and state. In the case of John Kerry, I think Bob Shrum in his book No Excuses referred to his failure to discuss his religion as New England reticence (though I may be confusing that with what Ted Kennedy says about himself in True Compass).


And the word "progressive" describing religious-left Latinos and African Americans should read "liberal" since there is nothing progressive about leftists.

Folks of the religious left are clearly on their way to becoming irreligious and atheistic leftists and libertarians.

For a while they have tried to maintain religious sentiment in their lives, but ended up by singing "green" and "all men are brothers" vapid lyrics set to the same old familiar god-awful religious tunes.

That could only last a short time, and now we hope to see the religious left come home to the cathedral-as-museum religion of their smarter European counterparts.

Robert Hockett

Sorry -- the word 'left' in the sixth line up from the bottom should have been 'right.'

Robert Hockett

Thanks much for this, Steve. Here's a shot at what might be another part -- albeit only part -- of the explanation: People on the left, it seems to me, have traditionally been more respectful of the autonomy of others than have people on the right. One result is that the religious left is more chary about religious flag-waving than is the religious right. A result of that is that the religious right is more visible as a class than is the religious left, and is accordingly thought to wield more public influence than does the religious left. I suspect that the truth, however, is that folk on the religious left are much more influential, 'under the radar,' than are those on the religious left. And this is all the more impressive not only for the 'handicap' that is the religious left's greater degree of quiet, but also for the handicap that is the religious right's tendency to discredit religion and religious politics in the eyes of fence-sitters and neutrals.

Steve Shiffrin

Justin, thanks for the comment. I agree that the increased secularization of the left contributed to this phenomenon. I think the rise of science played a role. I also agree that many thought they had to choose between religion and science though I think believing that would have to proceed from an impoverished theology, impoverished but held by a not insignificant percentage of those on the religious right.

Justin Nichols

I think part of the waning power of the Religious Left comes from the divorce of science from religion. As the two began to be seen as separate and mutually exclusive spheres of inquiry, those on the Left (often more amenable to science generally) were essentially forced to choose allegiances. The Right was largely insulated from this ideological schizophrenia and was therefore able maintain a roughly unified power base.

I see this trend shrinking as my own generation comes of age, with more people in their late 20's identifying themselves as both more religious than their parents and also more socially progressive.

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