The “Sith Effect” & the Religious Left
A recent post at the New York Times site Fivethirtyeight contemplates the viability of the “religious left,” and makes some interesting points backed up by data on demography and trends in the negative opinions of liberal voters concerning organized religion. The headline is a bit misleading—the story acknowledges there is a religious left, but the thrust of the piece is that it will not be a political force going forward to match the religious right. This is an interesting observation, since the current consensus stemming from the last couple of election cycles (as far as there is one) is the likely decline and possible death of the religious right. The author makes some good points, but I wonder if he isn’t missing a key element, something I like to think of as the “Sith effect.” My impression is that a good number of liberal Christians became so as a rejection of a more conservative religious upbringing, rather than having grown up in a liberal Christian household or church. (Just as it does in the Stars Wars universe, where the Sith seem to get most of their members from former Jedi who rejected their training.) Thus if, as some trends seem to suggest, conservative congregations keep growing (or at least surviving) in defiance of a wider decline in religious belief and practice, there will continue to be a religious left, even if the author is correct in assuming demographic changes will prevent it from becoming a political force.
I’ve always wondered why some religious liberals didn’t just go the whole way, and abandon their religious faith completely, but I guess we are finally seeing the fruits of what John Henry Newman called the “halfway house” to atheism (his word for theological and religious liberalism). Of course, unlike the Blessed Newman, the author of the article was mostly concerned with religion in a political sense—his sense of the religious left’s worth is primarily how much it helps advance progressive political goals. This is surely a big reason why the “religious left” does not jump ship entirely from organized religion: religious institutions are valuable for things like political organizing, distributing resources, patronage, etc., and most people whose goals are primarily political are loathe to part with such things. But it may also have to do with the “Sith effect”: having rejected “fundamentalism,” the new adherents to liberal congregations may feel the need to overcome the old faith too strongly to abandon the new one, especially if, as is the case in America, the old faith in question is a powerful political force standing in the way of your political goals—even more so if those political goals are the fulfillment of your most cherished religious beliefs or theological principles. And however false or heretical those beliefs may be, they are genuine religious and theological beliefs, and not *merely* political ones. It’s true that the next generation of liberal Christians will not feel the same pull, but then as long as there are strong “conservative” religious communities, I suspect their will always be those brought up within them who come to reject it. The more clear, and well defined the identity is, the easier it is to define oneself against it. And this is not a phenomenon that is limited to religion, obviously.
I have sometimes remarked to friends that I wished those people of faith who had liberal or progressive political views could separate them from their theological positions (not necessarily their religion as such, but only those theological positions that are irreformable–the indissolubility of marriage comes to mind. But this does not seem to suit most religious liberals, though there are of course exceptions. In any case, I don’t see the religious left going anywhere any time soon. Though left/right, liberal/ conservative, are not immutable categories, for a dogmatic religion like Catholic Christianity, the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy pretty much has to be, and I suspect those other, binary political categories are parasitic upon it—which would explain why they are so hard to separate in practice. And because many liberal Christians become so by a rejection of their conservative upbringing, they often arrive at their liberalism while still members of “conservative” religious bodies, and so have access to resources and networks they otherwise would not have, even if “liberal” religious institutions are in demographic decline. The Catholic Church—not to say the papacy itself these days—is a good illustration of this. It ought to give Christian traditionalists like myself pause to consider that the Church, though she is the mother of saints, is also the mother of heretics, too.