Here’s some news that isn’t news: It’s not cool to be Christian. In today’s unprecedentedly partisan world, most left-wing perceptions of what it means to be Christian rank right up there with Confederate flag bumper stickers and NRA membership. Because of the ways in which the right has hijacked the religious moral high ground, it’s not just uncool to be Christian on the left. It’s downright subversive.
I was baptized Episcopalian nearly 10 years ago, after a bout of major depression. I was in grad school at a private, secular university, and (perhaps due to being a little loony at the time) I did not keep my conversion secret. Instead, I invited my dissertation advisers to my baptism (they did not show) and began wearing a cross. A few months later, when I had a couple of faculty members over for dinner, one noticed my framed baptism certificate.
“You’re religious?” he asked. “How bizarre! I mean, how exotic.”
His reaction was hardly surprising: among intellectual and progressive circles, being Christian is often synonymous with the worst elements of the far-right. Intolerance. Homophobia. Sexism. So-called “family values” that only recognize one kind of family. Xenophobia. And this is no surprise: the way that some conservative political leaders exploit and distort the message of the New Testament, Christianity can seem nearly grotesque. To me, every time Paul Ryan opens his mouth, whether it’s repealing the Affordable Care Act or cutting Medicaid and Social Security, he makes Christianity seem like a whole-hearted embrace of totally un-Christian values. Guess what, Paul? That is not what Jesus would do.
I had flirted with faith for years, but I did not make a commitment until I was in my 30s, grappling with serious depression. Attending a Compline service (an evening service that is almost entirely conducted in sung prayer) on Palm Sunday, I listened as the priest stood at a darkened altar, lit only by a few candles, and spoke about the significance of the Easter season as a battle between the dark and light. Crucially, how light can overcome darkness. Father Paul’s words sparked in me a conversion experience: I felt an immediate and overwhelming desire to be baptized. I realized that the core of Christian faith was forgiveness and compassion — two things I had been unable to give myself during a period of despair so severe that I was nearly hospitalized.
High on Christ at the time of my baptism, I trumpeted news of my new faith to anyone who would stay still long enough to listen — behaving just like any member of the newly converted. But my evangelizing met a quick end, as I gradually realized that my fellow grad students and professors thought that I had really lost my mind. I quit wearing my faith on my sleeve, and learned that some things are better left unsaid.
But last year, I started wearing a cross again, after my mother was hospitalized with a near-fatal infection. Lo and behold, a co-worker approached me and wished me “Happy Advent Season.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I wished him a Merry Christmas.
What does all this mean in the age of Trump? Nothing good. By hiding our light under a bushel (to use a Biblical metaphor), the religious left has virtually no voice in this country. Many may not believe in the existence of a religious left, but it does exist, and it has never been more needed. Since taking office, Trump has all but declared war on the most vulnerable in our nation.
In response, believers of every faith have offered aid and political action: The Council on American–Islamic Relations has provided legal advocacy for Muslims affected by the travel ban, the Anti-Defamation League called out Trump for failing to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and World Vision publicly criticized the administration for cutting foreign aid. At the same time, more and more people are reaching for faith these days: a recent Reuters piece reported that monthly lectures at the New York Theological Seminary have been filled to capacity since the election.
The question is, does this demographic have any political power? Given the fact that many are unaware that being on the left and being Christian are not mutually exclusive, clout seems unlikely. And it must be acknowledged that there is a documented decline in religious affiliation among liberals: a recent FiveThirtyEight article asserts that nearly 40 percent of liberals are not religious according to data from the General Social Survey (GSS).
But think about what could happen if people like me were willing to come out of the closet and start organizing. Christ was a socialist: he believed in sharing. He was also liberal: he took care of the poor and the sick; he welcomed those who had been marginalized and outcast by society. Contrary to popular belief, he said nothing about gay rights, abortion, or stem cell research. His most important message was not complicated — love one another.
I believe those on the religious left need to get loud, and we need to change the talking points. The only reason the political right has been able to define — and I believe distort — religious values is because they have been using the pulpit as a bully pulpit. Which makes being a person of faith seem pretty unattractive. But we can change this perception.
So to all my brothers and sisters: quit worrying about what others will think of you, and get involved in the faith-based resistance. This call to action should be made most insistently in the halls of academe, where so much activism begins, and where faith is so often disparaged. Liberals and academics need to be reminded that pairing religious belief with ethics and social justice is nothing new: from Thomas Aquinas to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Gandhi to Malcolm X to the Dalai Lama, this is a very old tradition.
Faith could also be the ultimate bipartisan move: if we on the left can demonstrate what we have in common with those on the right, we can make progress towards things that we all want. Better healthcare. A safer environment. Improved schools. If we can get together, we can make a difference in this withering and decivilizing climate. A religio-political movement from the left? They’d never see us coming.