Religion and progressive politics in America: A book review
Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” speaking in lower Manhattan at the Whitehall/South Ferry terminal. Shortly after this speech this contingent of nuns took the ferry to Staten Island where they spoke a second time, about the effects of the Ryan budget in the U.S. House of Representatives in the lead-up to the November 2012 elections. / Thomas Altfather Good, September 24, 2012 (Creative Commons)

For so long, conservatives and the rest of the political right have had such a tight iron grip on the religious label, they’ve left most Americans thinking that religion is found only within the GOP and the circles close to it. Little is talked about when it comes to religion in progressive politics.

But that image isn’t the reality. In fact, religion runs deep in progressive politics. That phenomenon is widely explained in Jack Jenkins’s new book (published April 21) entitled, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. This treatment expands on what the religious left really is and how it’s had an impact throughout our history, as well as in the more current politics of both Obama’s and Trump’s administrations. The book really hits the nail on the head—with only one real caveat to be made, which I’ll get to later.

The religious left is an “amorphous, ever changing group of progressive, faith-based advocates, strategists, and political operatives.”

This quote is what Jenkins uses to sum up what it means to be part of the religious left. I could find no better way to express it. The religious left isn’t just one thing or one type of person. Expanding so greatly at different times, it often can be quite complex to understand or identify. From the Methodists to the Episcopalians to the Native Tribes, there are so many different variations within this tendency. Jenkins goes into depth on those diverse sects that make up the left and the work that they’ve done.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to be getting in this book. Past history? Specific groups or religions? Or would it only focus on mainstream Democrats and those who identify as liberal?

Most of Jenkins’s chapters, and the topics he picks up, tie in with historic leaders and movements. For example, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had started a Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his assassination in 1968. But his vision didn’t just fade away. It has been relaunched by the Rev. William Barber II and still exists today. Other examples deal with the Social Gospel, a Protestant movement that applied Christian ideals and ethics to social problems in the nation and world. This movement embraced not only MLK and many other religious leaders of the civil rights era, but other famous figures such as Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, the Muslim Malcolm X, and so many more.

The Social Gospel, with its near- or explicit socialistic principles, remains a powerful force. We see it all around us in the movements that the left has created, whether it be Occupy Wall Street or even Pope Francis fighting against climate change. The Social Gospel has led many of its adherents to consider themselves Christian Socialists. Jenkins does a magisterial job at showing both the history of these ideals and movements and their relevance in today’s politics and religion.

Jenkins highlights the Obama administration, as well as other prominent Democratic leaders, and cites the fact that Obama created a faith team that helped him enormously in winning over different religious groups in both of his elections. Yet alongside his praise, Jenkins isn’t afraid to speak about the on-the-ground reality of some of these individuals and the damage that they have done. For example, he discusses in great detail and length Obama’s role in deporting millions of immigrants, one of the highest rates in American history. And even though he mentions the transformative progressive work of Pope Francis, Jenkins makes sure to note that the Pope still refuses to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery.

Jenkins also explores the failures of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, who made little effort to reach out to religious groups and people of faith backgrounds. In his thorough discussion of democracy and socialism via the Social Gospel, he gives credit to the protest and resistance movements that have been led by open socialists and communists, with plenty of spiritually motivated clergy mixed in.

The author writes about Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, notable for being the first gay man at that level; the nuns whose moral suasion helped pass the Affordable Healthcare Act; and even some Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) who fought back against the Trump presidency.

Considering the generous breadth of his coverage, I was surprised that most of his attention is directed toward Christian denominations and their work. In the end, he doesn’t talk a lot about other religions and their work. It felt like a lot of religious groups are only sprinkled throughout the book, with only Native American tribes and their work against the North Dakota Access Pipeline getting any real spotlight. Even when Muslim or Jewish voices and movements are brought up, it is primarily about interfaith work done with other religious groups. I would have liked to hear more about the efforts of Buddhists, Hindus, and even the Satanists—yes, as a Christian. I wouldn’t mind hearing about the work Satanists have done in progressive politics.

Regardless of this small critique, Jenkins does an exceptional job explaining the religious left and its vital work. Don’t let this small issue be a reason not to read this book because, trust me, you will learn a lot and realize how truly progressive religion may be the secret weapon of the left.

I enjoyed Mr. Jenkins’s book and found myself wanting to read more. Each chapter is a whole new story, a movement, preacher, or history lesson. I found myself deeply intrigued, and proud of the work the church has done and continues to do, especially now under Trump’s ultra-conservative pro-evangelical administration. I highly recommend picking up a copy and reading it for yourself or your book club.

Jack Jenkins
American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country
HarperOne, 2020
352 p., $27.99
ISBN 978-0-06-293598-4