Rise of the Party of Nones

In an article published at Slate last week, Ruth Graham speculates how the Christian Left could be poised to help Democrats take the mantle from the Republicans as the party of God. The mantra that the United States is a Christian nation has been uttered in various incantations starting with the seventeenth-century debates between Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island. At the root of their disagreement was Winthrop’s anointing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a beacon of light and a Christian “City on the Hill” blessed by God, while Williams argued for liberty of conscience, the right of all to practice their beliefs free from interference from the crown.

On the Americans United Wall of Separation blog, Rob Boston notes the fallacy of Graham’s desire to witness the elevation of the Christian Left as the party of God. “It can only be the party of what fallible human politicians perceive God to be. And isn’t it funny how the political views of that god always mirror those held by political leaders and their clergy allies?”

Tom Krattenmaker, author of the forthcoming book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Penguin Random House, October 2016) points to the dangers inherent should the Christian Left take Graham’s advice and learn a trick or two from the Christian Right. “Many of the most instructive tales are *cautionary* tales—nothing that Christian liberals would ever want to emulate (e.g. focus on political power, demonization of opponents, assigning an exaggerated importance to a given election, unsavory tactics that do not sync with any understanding of Christian ethics). To sum up, any emerging ‘Christian Left’ should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the Christian Right.”

John Shuck, host of the radio show podcast Progressive Spirit, remarks how the Christian Left isn’t very left: “Many gatekeepers decide who gets to speak, what issues are important and when.” He points to Graham’s elevation of bestselling authors like Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans as leaders of this new movement. “Why are they the left?” Shuck asks. “There are some real activists who put themselves on the line …[not just those] who get book contracts for a bunch of watered-down chicken soup for the soul.”

When given the microphone, these appointed progressive leaders tend to side with those in power who can ensure them a continuing stream of funding and followers. Case in point: Sojourners, a publication of the eponymous Christian social justice organization, claims to be a champion of the marginalized but refused to run a pro-LGBT equality ad on the grounds that it might offend some of their followers. Along those lines, when medical and legal evidence surfaced that a self-appointed US emergent church leader was abusing his now ex-wife, both Evans and Bolz-Weber chose to stand behind this man who has given both of them platforms, endorsements, and other accoutrements needed for one to become a bestselling author.

Furthermore, does the Christian Left even have the numbers to mount this campaign for political supremacy? According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming less religious but feelings of spirituality are on the rise. For example, The Round, a monthly celebration of music, art, and poetry sponsored by Portland Abbey Arts attracts as many and sometimes more people for a spiritual experience centered around the arts as those who gather for St. Andrew’s and All Souls Church’s (SAAS) Sunday service. SAAS provided the space to incubate Abbey Arts by providing free use of the Portland Abbey Undercroft for the first few years. The Rev. Karen Ward, founder of both Fremont Abbey Arts and Church of the Apostles in Seattle, started the PDX Round with moral support and advice from her long-time collaborator in the arts, Nathan Marion. Wardrobe says that Portland Abbey Arts’ core mission is to “bring people together across differences, to form renewed human community beyond all binaries, including the binary of religion and nonreligion.”

Also, the Oasis Network continues to form new communities in a quest to bring people together in caring communities with a secular focus. One sees similar efforts often led by pastors formerly employed in church settings though ventures such as Life After God and The Lasting Supper.

In a joint blog posting, Chris Stedman, executive director of the Yale Humanist Community (YHC), and Tom Krattenmaker, a YHC board member, describe YHC’s “Green Light Project,” designed to add a humanist/secular art installation to the holiday mix on the New Haven Green. They say it demonstrates how another story emerges when groups stop trying to claim spiritual authority. “When there’s understanding and appreciation on both sides, the secular and the religious can stand alongside one another, both literally and metaphorically, and work to make the communities we share more beautiful and inspiring in every season.”

With the rise of the nones, one wonders how many Americans actually want any political party to be fueled by a godly fire. Twice-elected President Barack Obama has the distinction of being the first president in recent history who has never attended a church regularly or had a pastor readily available on speed dial should a public prayer be required. Also throughout his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders continues to champion himself as a secular Jew.

Perhaps the Democratic Party would do better to target those on a quest for truth, be it spiritual or not. The more I connect with spiritual atheists and agnostics, as well as the occasional religious community or individual, I realize that while we all think for ourselves, we often speak a similar language at our core that connects us together in our shared humanity. Like Roger before me, I’ve become a seeker who is no longer saved but still searches.

Portions of this posting are excerpted from Becky Garrison’s e-book Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues. This e-book is available as a free download from now until Election Day 2016. Use coupon code CP99Q.