With much fanfare last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions formed a “religious liberty” task force, lamenting how American culture has become “less hospitable to people of faith.”
His message likely resonated with people who imagine there really is a “war on Christmas” because, well, that is what conservative clergy, talk radio and Fox News tell them.
“Let’s be frank,” Sessions said. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. It’s no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically and defeated.”
“Religious liberty” has in fact become a coded call to arms among evangelical conservatives, and the phrase subtly obscures an important fact: among Christian communities that are potent political forces in America today, the overwhelming majority are conservative.
To be sure, there are actual issues surrounding religious liberty, but they concern LBGT rights, reproductive freedoms and President Trump’s demonization of Muslims, among others.
Conservatives have leveraged religion since the 1980s as an effective political hammer — remember the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition? So where have liberal faith leaders been and why do their communities pale as a political force?
Reasons are many, but if summarized in one word, it could be “timidity.” At least that’s what Michael Schuler thinks. He is the Unitarian Universalist pastor who led Madison’s First Unitarian Society for 30 years before retiring in June. Since 1988, he was among Madison’s most prominent and visible religious leaders, with a style that might be described as provocatively intellectual. Schuler got his undergraduate degree in political science and holds a master’s of divinity and a Ph.D. in the humanities.
FUS, as it is called for short, is in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed national historic landmark just west of University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. It has 1,450 members, of which, for full disclosure, I am one. Schuler and I talked in an FUS classroom recently about why right-wing religion can be so politically potent while liberal faith communities often struggle for impact.
For one thing, Schuler said, conservative clergy are more often “considered to be, in a way, spokesmen for the almighty, so there’s more uncritical loyalty to the pastors that are moving into the public square and applying their religious principles to current social and political issues.” Liberal congregants are less likely to accept assertions at face value, Schuler said.
Fifty years ago, he noted, liberal clergy held greater sway.
“When we think about the civil rights movement and even to some extent the anti-Vietnam movement in the ‘60s, that was led by progressives and based on broad biblical principles of justice and a preference for the poor and the downcast, the message of universal peace that was culled from the gospel,” Schuler said. “I think that was extremely important then.”
But the racial tension and violent protests that ensued brought a retrenchment to more societal conservatism, and he added: “I think a lot of progressives got cold feet.”
Schuler recalled a widely circulated list of the 20th century’s 100 most influential Madisonians and it included Max Gaebler, his long-time FUS predecessor and civil rights leader, and Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky. (The Rotary Club of Madison still gives an annual humanitarian award in Swarsensky’s name.)
Schuler doubts any current member of the Madison clergy would make such a list in this century in part because — he said, smiling — the media no longer regard them as top-tier community leaders.
“I also think there has also been a kind of native timidity on the part of liberal clergy,” Schuler added.
“Here in Madison, there are many mainline protestant churches and congregations, but the times I’ve gone to rallies, the times that I’ve been asked to address crowds down on the (Capitol) Square, participate in some kind of panel discussion, it’s the same five, six, eight clergy always at these events.
“The vast majority, and I can’t say what these clergy are saying to their own congregations, but they’re kind of invisible as being public figures.” (Schuler did note that local African-American clergy are more visible on issues, particularly racial justice.)
Schuler recalled: “Back in 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I preached a sermon … expressing in the strongest possible terms my objection to the direction in which George W. Bush was taking us and I’ve never been shy about doing that.
“In the last couple of years, the congregation has been regaled with many comments, either oblique or explicit, about the current administration. Part of it has to do with the man’s moral failings, but a lot of it has to do with the policies he’s pursuing. I can’t understand how anybody could possibly — any person who is scripturally literate and has a strong moral foundation — avoid speaking to those issues.”
The arguments are available, he contended: “People who are trained at reputable seminaries know that for every (negative) reference to homosexuality there are 600 references to the importance of people of God attending to the poor and to the marginalized. On balance, progressive clergy have got all the ammunition they need to be able to make the connection.”
Schuler said conservative church leaders often adhere to the simplest reading of scripture to support their message, “but they have no way of being able to contextualize what they’re reading because they don’t understand the history, what scholars call the ‘Sitz im Leben,’ the ‘setting in life’ in which these texts emerged.”
Schuler cited other trends, including that mainline churches are generally “hemorrhaging members,” pointing to increasing secularization in culture and many alternative ways to spend time.
After we talked, Schuler noted in a follow-up email how the “religious right, because of its obsession with sexual politics to the exclusion of other issues, has succeeded in alienating a great many younger Americans.”
But, he added, “Unfortunately, their response has too often been ‘a pox on all your houses,’ as if all religious organizations subscribed to this retrograde, distasteful agenda.”
Still, he ended on an upbeat note, pointing to a recent Salon article that predicts that “evangelicals’ knee-jerk, hypocritical support for the Trump administration would do them lasting damage among Millennials and other younger Americans. They’re trading short-term gain for future irrelevance.”
He concluded with a thought that mirrors my own: “One can only hope.”