Against Moral Austerity: On the Need for a Christian Left

Against Moral Austerity: On the Need for a Christian Left

Secular and religious progressives should work together to reach beyond blue strongholds and forcefully show that moral concerns are not limited to the religious right.

Rev. William Barber (right) and a fellow speaker at a “Mountain Moral Monday” event in Asheville, North Carolina, August 5, 2013 (Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press)

Despair and defeat can drive many of us to our knees in prayer. In moments of crisis, we cry out to the heavens for mercy or justice; God, so easy to forget in times of abundance, suddenly returns as a presence in our lives.

So it is, after a fashion, with the Democratic Party. When it loses the presidency, or gets rebuked in midterm elections, questions about religion inevitably reemerge. These can take any number of forms: concerns about winning over “values voters” or addressing the “God gap”; a jealous appreciation of the organizational prowess of the religious right; or practical debates about outreach efforts to religious voters by candidates and campaigns. In these days of rage and fear, we are pondering these matters once again.

Religion was inextricably bound up with Donald Trump’s victory last November. Or rather, white Christians broke for Trump—white evangelicals especially, along with a majority of white Roman Catholics. But religion has also featured notably in the emerging resistance to the president. Progressive Catholics have explored turning their parishes into sanctuaries for immigrants, and some who wear the collar have offered searing indictments of Trump. The brilliant work of Rev. William J. Barber’s Moral Mondays movement continues. Mainline Protestants have found a cause around which to rally, with places like Union Theological Seminary in New York becoming hubs of debate and organizing. And between the anti-Semitism of the “alt-right” and Trump’s push for a Muslim ban, there exists the beginnings of a new solidarity among people of all faiths.

This time, it seems, we might be called beyond the narrow tactical arguments that come after defeat, however necessary they are—the ways Democrats can do better with this or that religious “demographic” in the next election—and to offer a moral and spiritual response demanded by crisis. That crisis is shaped by the two principal elements of Trumpism-in-practice, white nationalism and a brutal economic vision designed to crush the most marginalized. Together they constitute a massive push to dehumanize the poor, immigrants, the sick, the “losers” of the present age. While this certainly has a policy dimension, this crisis must also be met with an alternative moral and spiritual vision—the hope of a better way to live together.

Working at Commonweal, an opinion magazine edited by lay Catholics, the intersections between religion and politics occupy many of my waking thoughts. Even so, I’ve thought about them more, or at least with more urgency, in recent months. Something’s gone terribly wrong in our political life and culture, and many of us are considering what we really believe, what we owe each other, what it means to be a good citizen and neighbor. Politics and morals and spiritual reflection all mingle together; I can’t finally separate them from each other, at least in my own life.

The first Sunday after Trump’s inauguration I served as a Eucharistic minister in my parish in New York, helping distribute the bread and wine that Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ—a meal that joins together those who share it. The urban parish is diverse, and has a vibrant social-action committee. It’s a place where well-off, white residents of the Upper West Side mix with poor folks of all races. As the communion line snaked its way up to the front of the church, I pressed hosts into the hands of disabled people, rich and poor people, LGBT people, African Americans, immigrants, people without papers, and Latinos. It felt like an affirmation—an expression of solidarity, however incomplete. It was a reminder, as Pope Francis recently put it, that “the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The ‘you’ is always a real presence, a person to take care of.”

It’s the kind of experience I’ve had a few times of late: my religious faith answering the fears of the moment, most of all as a call to really live, as my priest implores us at every Mass, as if “the other is your brother or sister.” Generosity and concern certainly don’t require the backing of religion. But for me, such compassion is given shape and direction by the rituals and teaching of my church; it is the language I speak, the beginning if not the end of how I think about the problems and dilemmas we’re confronting.

It reminds me of a line one of my teachers, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, would frequently recite: “Dr. King didn’t have a preference, he had a dream.” Her intention was less to show that religion had a rightful place in American political life or to offer a commentary on “church and state” than it was to point to the limits of political language—the “neutral” language of economics or contemporary social science was insufficient to inspire either solidarity or hope.

I also suspect she was making a point about democracy: that we all come from different contexts and backgrounds, are steeped in different moral and religious traditions, and our political life is diminished if those must be shed entirely before making arguments about the common good or the pursuit of justice. There is no view from nowhere; when it comes to moral argument, there is no universal language. And the hope of democratic politics is that deliberation and persuasion can happen among people who actually engage each other, even if they don’t start from the same place. Even more: that political struggle can itself be morally transformative.

This is why it might be the left, as distinguished from today’s mainstream liberalism, that’s better situated to join forces with the religious resistance to Trump.

While it’s perilous to move too easily from generalizations about liberal political philosophy to the day-to-day politics of today’s mainstream liberals and the Democratic Party, it’s useful to underscore a tendency they share: an attenuated vision of politics, one suspicious of moral appeals. The development of liberal political thought has been aptly described as the “organization of separations” by the contemporary French thinker Pierre Manent. We know about some of those separations from our civic catechisms: the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, the separation of public from private. If we celebrate them, we should also recognize the way they reflect a characteristically liberal suspicion of democracy and a narrow vision of politics, tendencies that culminate in the supposed separation of “the market” from politics, which is really to say the separation of economic activity from moral ends.

Let’s call it the problem of liberalism’s moral austerity—a kind of companion to the economic program of the same name. Too often mainstream liberals chafe against robust moral critiques of the status quo, whether connected to religion or angry progressive populism, whether they invoke the language of sin or the language of greed and corruption. The idea of a moral politics itself seems dubious, too fraught with passion and hope, too detached from technocratic solutions for the guardians of the liberal center.

This is the deeply anti-political strain that runs through liberalism, an aversion to the task of moving others to fight together for a genuinely decent and just society—and all the argument, persuasion, and organizing that requires. The rhetoric of choices, nudges, and incentives comes naturally to the liberal mind and it threatens to become all liberals can offer—an attachment to the existing order and a deference to “the market” that can do little more than promise slight improvements to the status quo. The political theorist Sheldon Wolin has pointed out the liberal assumption that “the meaning and scope of politics is to be ‘settled’ beforehand, that is, before conflict and controversy among social groups and the alignment of classes is recognized.” Liberals have arguably done best when they avoid this narrow vision of politics—when they have underscored the democracy in “liberal democracy.”

A recent example of what it might look like to draw religion and the broad liberal-left together in a way that resists amoral centrism took place last April, during the Democratic primaries. On the eve of the New York contest, Bernie Sanders traveled to the Vatican for a conference on the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus annus. That document itself marked the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, which sought “to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor”—a context seemingly made for the democratic socialist from Vermont. Given Sanders’s arguments about the U.S. economy, it was a creative move, linking struggles here with Pope Francis’s denunciations of trickle-down economics in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, and calls to confront climate change in his recent encyclical, Laudato si’. It was also an exercise in coalition building, an attempt to bring a popular pope’s moral authority to bear on issues of economic justice and find ways to convince more people to fight for a fair and sustainable economy.

Not everyone was happy with Sanders’s gambit. In Rolling Stone, Sarah Posner wondered, “Is he crossing a constitutional line by seeming to endorse a particular religion or religious view?” Later in the article, she raised specific disagreements with the Catholic Church’s official positions on abortion and LGBT issues—disagreements Sanders, and even many Catholics, share. But going to the Vatican to talk about the economy doesn’t imply support for the entirety of Catholic doctrine, and the reaction slipped toward a narrowing tendency too often at work in liberal politics: immediately trying to decipher if Sanders’s maneuvering fell on the right or wrong side of a line, rather than understanding it as a way to rouse consciences, reach new constituencies, and build a case against exploitative capitalism that appealed to hearts as much as minds.

You could also see that tendency play out in Tim Kaine’s performance during last fall’s vice-presidential debate, when he explained all the ways his faith had not informed his decision-making. He seemed to claim that religious faith could inspire public service, but not shape the content of what that service means in practice. He affirmed that “you should live fully and with enthusiasm the commands of your faith. But,” he continued, “it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else.”

Kaine’s restraint was not entirely unappealing when juxtaposed with the hardline religious conservatism of his debate opponent, Mike Pence. But it also revealed a politics drained of urgency. Kaine spoke as if religion could matter in one of only two ways: as a private, personal ethic or something imposed on everyone else. As an example of keeping his faith from intruding on his decisions, he pointed to his implementation of the death penalty as governor of Virginia, even though he morally opposes it as a Catholic. It’s an interesting example, in part because Kaine’s power to commute sentences meant he had an unusual degree of latitude on the issue. It’s also worth noting that Kaine’s position is not one he’s obliged to hold by his church, which means he’s doing more than unthinkingly applying dictates from on high. There are entirely secular reasons for objecting to the death penalty, reasons that Kaine undoubtedly has pondered, like the possibility of executing innocent people or the racial discrepancies that afflict the American criminal justice system. I suspect many people grapple with this issue and others in a way that reflects a similarly complex mix of motivations and arguments: religious prompting giving rise to more “secular” searching, moral concern tangling with empirical evaluation. That complexity should be understood and spoken to, not feared.

The suspicion of religious and political alliances that I’m questioning is largely driven by issues where there are clear divides between secular progressives and many religious groups—for example, on abortion. But there is no one model for how religious groups or individual believers approach even that fraught issue. Some on the religious left are straightforwardly pro-choice. Other left-of-center religious voices, including magazines like Commonweal and Sojourners, have tried to challenge what it really means to be “pro-life” by arguing that any discussion of abortion that leaves out poverty, medical care, maternity leave, and support for young mothers is woefully inadequate. The point here is that being religious doesn’t mean your politics have already been decided for you; religion can infuse political debate with a moral urgency that opens up possibilities for political action rather than shutting them down.

The secular and religious left should work together on the other issues they do agree on—it is in the nature of political coalitions, after all, to live with a certain amount of disagreement. The extent of that coalition should be determined more by shared ends than by a demand for shared reasoning—by overlapping aims, not spiritual alignment. That means a liberal left that embraces the messy work of democratic politics: connecting with those of different views; seeking converts wherever they might be found; and realizing that religious faith can be where arguments start but rarely end. The result might be a broader and stronger coalition of secular and religious progressives, one that reaches beyond blue strongholds on the coasts, and forcefully shows that moral concerns are not limited to those peddled by the religious right.

These are times when political unrest and moral crisis seem inextricably linked: on that the secular left and the religious left can agree. It’s striking how many of the issues now being bitterly contested take the form not of differing solutions to agreed upon, circumscribed problems but call forth clashes over wildly divergent values. The right’s mask has slipped all the way off: the proposed plans Trump and the GOP have for immigration enforcement, refugees, the treatment of Muslims, war and peace, healthcare, and the economy are exercises in cruelty and brutality. What’s increasingly at stake is the claim to being a decent society at all.

Michael Walzer has wisely suggested in these pages that the task of the left today is “to stand in the center and on the left at the same time.” Part of what that should mean is holding open the space for moral argument and religious sentiment on the broad liberal-left. The left must remind those more inclined toward liberalism’s narrowing tendencies that politics is inescapably moral and defend a more democratic, even populist politics that is more attuned to shared aims, whether or not they are inspired by faith.

In the short term, what this might look like seems obvious: resistance to the current administration. People of faith and the more secular-minded who lean left, or who simply react with disgust to the designs of this president, can link arms against a common threat. Consider the charge of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego to grassroots Catholic activists earlier this year, when he called on them to “disrupt” those who would rip families apart through deportation, rob the poor of medical care, and strip food stamps from the hungry. His address also included a brutal condemnation of our economy: “let all the world know that this economy kills,” he cried.

This is not the language of a technocrat. How his call for disruption plays out practically is a matter of strategy and organizing. But what McElroy said next strikes me as especially noteworthy:

We, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, of people of all faiths and no faith, we cannot merely be disruptors, we also have to be rebuilders. We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person. . . . We must rebuild a nation in solidarity, what Catholic teaching calls the sense that all of us are the children of the one God, there are no children of a lesser god in our midst.

The focus here on the dignity of the human person can be the moral basis of an egalitarian, pluralistic politics. It is why the religious left should really be left. And it holds out the deepest reason that should be so: the hope for an anti-meritocratic politics.

As finite beings, our knowledge of God is by necessity incomplete, uncertain, complicated by doubt and mystery. Perhaps to live among children of God is to live among those who sometimes also elude us, whose experiences and struggles are not our own. And yet it is such people we are called on to love. This is the way of grace: a way of relating to others not dependent on fully understanding them, and not limited by what they’ve supposedly earned.

This basic moral posture means viewing people in terms other than efficiency and utility. It demands humility in the face of social problems: refusing to pathologize the poor; understanding how circumstances or bad luck press upon us; and grasping that we are fallible and flawed beings, not utility-maximizing agents. No human being should be a mere abstraction, a person whose life and livelihood is made expendable by the supposed demands of creative destruction. It also means seeing through the illusions of those who believe the present order of things, the “winners” and “losers” of the status quo, have truly earned all that they have. It becomes a plea to de-link our politics and economics from notions of deserving and undeserving, from the self-serving justifications of meritocracy. We have to strip away the illusion that things are the way they are simply because of differences in virtue.

The starkest divides that we face are over these matters. And when it comes to such fundamental convictions—on what serving the dignity of the human person means, on what our neighbors deserve—religious people, social democrats, the populist left, and compassionate liberals can find agreement.

When pressed, I can’t disentangle these political and moral commitments from my faith. But though I may use words like grace or mercy and believe every human being is created in the image of God, it should be no barrier to shared work and shared hopes even with those left cold by religion. Now is the time to learn that the name of our desire matters less than the work, here and now, it calls us to do.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine.

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