If there was any lingering doubt, last week made it clear: The religious left is not a curious outlier in American politics. The religious references during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the inaugural prayer service held Thursday morning with a powerful lineup of religious leaders and the swearing in of the Rev. Raphael Warnock as a newly minted senator are proof that progressive people of faith are a powerful force in American politics.
If there was any lingering doubt, last week made it clear: The religious left is not a curious outlier in American politics.
The religious left was galvanized during the deeply amoral presidency of Donald J. Trump. But it was the religious right that for the past four years has dominated the conversation. Trump relied on religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham to rally his conservative base. He hired televangelist Paula White to serve as a White House adviser. Videos that surfaced from the Capitol riot showed just how intertwined an extremely conservative brand of Christianity has become with GOP ideology.
Trump advanced religious nationalist policies to pander to his base, many of which actually had a significant, harmful impact on religious communities. For example, he advanced a distorted interpretation of religious freedom that actually enabled discrimination against religious minorities, LGBTQ people and people seeking access to reproductive health care. One of the most enduring images of the Trump administration will be the president's photo-op holding a Bible at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, just hours after the tear-gassing of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters nearby. The photo was was condemned by many religious leaders across the political spectrum.
Biden, a devout Catholic, has wasted no time highlighting a different spiritual orientation. He started Inauguration Day by inviting leaders of Congress from both parties to attend Mass with him. His inaugural address not only included quotes from the Bible and St. Augustine, but he also paused in the middle to lead the nation in a moment of prayer. It was “an inauguration filled with faith,” according to Religion News Service.
Thursday morning’s National Prayer Service, which Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris attended virtually, featured a powerful homily by the Rev. Dr. William Barber II. Barber is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and one of the most recognizable faith-based social justice advocates in the nation.
“Grant us wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour until, together, we make sure there is racial justice and economic justice and living-wage justice and health care justice and ecological justice and disability justice and justice for homeless and justice for the poor and low-wealth and working poor and immigrant justice — until we study war no more and peace and justice are the way we live,” Barber said. “This is the only path to domestic tranquility and healing.”
For progressive people of faith, there is no single issue; our calling is for manifold justice for all people. Rabbi Sharon Brous, senior rabbi of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles, and a renowned spiritual leader of social justice movements, shared a prayer during Thursday’s service for a “theology of radical equality” and a “new America, built on love, rooted in justice and propelled by our moral imagination.”
The leaders who spoke at the inaugural service are among the many progressive people of faith who played a leading role in the Black Lives Matter movement, gave voice to the public health and economic disparities of the Covid-19 pandemic and opposed the rise of violent white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the U.S. Capitol.
It featured such notable progressive religious leaders as the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of the Obamas’ former church, Trinity United Church of Christ, who in 2019 organized a campaign to eradicate over $5 million worth of medical debt for residents of Chicago’s South Side. We also heard a prayer from Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist whose December 2016 speech went viral when she posited that Trump’s inauguration might be the “darkness of the womb” rather than “the darkness of the tomb.”
The service also included leaders from religious traditions that are not always known for their liberal leanings: the Rev. Dr. Alexia Salvatierra, an evangelical leader who literally wrote the book on faith-rooted organizing; Emma Petty Addams, the executive director of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, who worked to protect the integrity of the 2020 election; Sister Carol Keehan, past president of the Catholic Health Association, who cautioned last year that any Supreme Court decision undermining the Affordable Care Act would be “unspeakably cruel”; and many others.
We also witnessed the swearing-in of the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate. He will continue to serve as pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he is a successor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock will now be “the most visible, prominent figure of the progressive religious left,” as The New York Times reporter Jennifer Medina wrote on Twitter shortly after his election.
Warnock’s historic win comes alongside that of Jon Ossoff, who will be the first Jewish senator from Georgia. In his first interview as senator-elect, Warnock referenced King and his fellow civil rights leader, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. "I think Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who said when he marched with Dr. King he felt like his legs were praying, I think he and Dr. King are smiling in this moment and we hope to make them proud," he said.
The notion of religion and public policy is shaped by media coverage, and the religious right has dominated these public conversations for decades. For example, in a new study, our team at the Center for American Progress found that journalists at mainstream media outlets favor anti-LGBTQ voices when religion and LGBTQ rights intersect in news stories. This contrasts with the fact that the majority of religious Americans support same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans.
Some say the religious left is insignificant because it is comparatively less powerful than the religious right. But this a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you take the time to look, you can see that pretty much every progressive cause today has religiously motivated organizations and individuals driving its support.
This is in large part because the religious left is increasingly diverse. Thursday’s service featured prayers from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Navajo, Hindu, Sikh, Mormon and other traditions. There is a broad and powerful coalition of religious groups that support a progressive way forward for our country.
The question of whether or not the religious left exists in today’s American political landscape can be put to rest. The coalition that put Joe Biden in the White House and Raphael Warnock in the Senate includes many people of faith with diverse religious motivations. We stand on the shoulders of generations of faith-rooted activists before us, and we will be taking part in every movement for social, racial, economic and climate justice for generations to come. For far too long, the religious right has controlled American religious discourse. But no longer.