By Leah Pryor-Lease, Director, Rights Faith & Democracy Collaborative
In his essay, The Death of Christianity in the U.S., theology professor Miguel De La Torre argues that the white Evangelical faith tradition “has ceased to be a faith perspective rooted in Jesus… and has become a political movement whose beliefs repudiate all Jesus advocated.” He notes how Evangelicals have turned away from values rooted in justice and a love of one’s neighbor and “constructed an exclusive interpretation which fuses and confuses white supremacy with salvation.” What could have motivated such a fundamental shift in values? De La Torre believes that it was all done to curry political influence—and the evidence bears him out.
White evangelicals’ “Faustian bargain” as he calls it, have distorted our country’s fundamental understanding of religious freedom. To be a person of faith in America, you might think you’re required to oppose a litany of civil-rights protections—especially those related to reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality—and that you must fully support the rights of other Christians who claim their faith demands that they ignore policies that protect targeted communities.
We’ve been led to believe that Evangelicals have always shied away from political matters, until they were so enraged by the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the fundamental right to abortion, that they were moved to organize in moral opposition—likening themselves to abolitionists of the past. But when historian and Episcopal priest Randall Balmer researched the origins of the Religious Right, he found that “it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the Religious Right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”
Weyrich recognized that he could build a powerful coalition of religious, economic, and social conservatives—a “moral majority” to remake the laws of the land, they just needed a catalyst. The gambit paid off: Even as it appeared the Right was losing legal and policy ground in the 2000s, they continued to double down on so called moral issues—none more so than LGBTQ issues and reproductive health.
Public opinion also started shifting around this time, with the majority of Americans, including most lay people of faith, turning away from the hardline views of those who claimed to speak for religious Americans. The terrain was shifting so much that conservative faith leaders began to openly encourage individuals to disregard civil-rights laws they didn’t like, eventually leading to landmark fights like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This shift led to the development of a new narrative: Christians as victims of secular culture.
Christian conservatives deftly created the perception that all people of faith oppose progressive issues. But this simply isn’t true. It’s a myth that has taken hold primarily because the voices of white Christian conservatives have dominated the media, marginalizing Black and Brown faith leaders.
From Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rev. Dr. William Barber, countless faith leaders have led social-justice movements because they are moved by their beliefs to act for the common good. If we hope to erase the stereotype that all religious people oppose equality and justice, we must elevate the voices of diverse faith communities. These communities of faith offer an authentic and convincing counterargument, as their traditions respect the dignity of all people and compel them to preserve the freedoms of women and LGBTQ people. Efforts to restrict access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and to limit LGBTQ protections have a disparate impact on communities of color, giving this cause particular urgency.
Fortunately, there is no lack of brilliant leadership hailing from diverse backgrounds and traditions to carry this fight forward. In addition to emerging work that highlights diversity and inclusion within progressive Jewish, Muslim, and other religious minority communities, there are also powerful leaders at the forefront of the “Badass Christianity” movement, which De La Torre has championed in his work.
Ministers and theologians who identify as LGBT and Queer, like Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and Rhina Ramos, are creating affirming spaces and frameworks that lean into theology’s role in social justice and activism. They are joined by countless people of faith and clergy members working for reproductive justice, such as SisterReach’s Cherisse Scott and Interfaith Voices for Repro Justice’s Charity Woods. Prominent faith leaders like Bishop Yvette Flunder have preached the theology of acceptance—a radical inclusivity that leaves no one behind—for more than 30 years.
These people are just a small sampling of the powerful religious leaders at the head of progressive movements across the country. They certainly hope to move us forward as a nation, but they also aim to remind us that religion began as a means of inspiration—a force that should increase our humility, reveal our humanity, and lead us to treat one another with greater compassion and respect.