The religious crisis of American liberalism

The extraordinary arc of Barack Obama’s popular appeal tells a deeper story of America: of how the relationship between liberalism and religion was forged, then frayed and broken, and how the president’s rhetoric offered the mirage of healing. Theo Hobson asks what, if anything, can be recovered from the ashes of a once-potent compact.
Theo Hobson
26 January 2011

During his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to be doing more than getting himself elected president. He seemed to be launching a revival of liberal idealism, shifting the United States’s political landscape in the process. This impression hardly lasted beyond his inauguration as president on 20 January 2009. Never has a national mood of progressive optimism evaporated so fast. The parlous state of the economy doesn’t fully explain this: economic turbulence might actually be conducive to forging a new liberal movement, as Franklin D Roosevelt showed in the 1930s.

Maybe, nowadays, liberal idealism is something that can be conjured up at election time, to a greater or lesser extent, but is otherwise dormant. If so, this is an acute problem for liberalism. For its adversary, in the form of the Tea Party movement, has proved itself to be a dynamic populist force, which motivates its followers between elections as well as during them. The only popular American ideology, it has seemed in the last two years, is of the small-tax, anti-government variety.

Alongside campaigning on economic issues, the purpose of the Tea Party has been to expose Obama’s rhetoric of hope as inauthentic, even un-American: for here is the site of real popular American idealism. Ours are the real, passionate voices queuing up to demand freedom from state interference. Liberals have no response, except to recoil in distaste. They were excited recipients of Obama’s campaigning rhetoric, but lack the ability or inclination to echo this rhetoric themselves, to participate in it. The huge advantage of the right is that every ordinary conservative knows how to hum its tunes: liberals have a more passive relationship to their leaders’ rhetoric.

Why is liberalism so much culturally weaker than conservatism? Part of the answer, I suggest, lies in the relationship of liberalism with religion.

An alliance ended

Barack Obama’s vision of hope had religious echoes. He boldly presented himself as the heir of the civil-rights movement, which, thanks to Martin Luther King and others, was an expression of liberal Christianity as well as progressive politics. King himself was inspired by the “social gospel” movement that influenced Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The American liberal-left in the 20th century had clear links to religion. This overlap goes back to the abolitionist movement: Frederick Douglass was a forerunner of King. Lincoln was more reticent on religion, but powerfully suggested that divine justice was the fuel of the democratic project.

Obama knowingly drew on this tradition, with his impassioned talk of hope. This went much further than the “hope” rhetoric of other politicians; it often referred to the biblical concept of faith - implicitly, of course. He repeatedly characterised his candidacy as “unlikely”, and “improbable”: as if his career was a reason-defying miracle, as if he were not a normal politician but the amazed witness to God’s action, like Abraham or Joseph. It is little exaggeration to say that this prophetic theme gave him the edge over Hillary Clinton, a more experienced politician with very similar policies, and won him the Democratic candidacy, and then the presidency.

He understood that that the liberal vision is most powerful when in touch with its religious roots. Democrats had been routinely wary of pressing these buttons, which can misfire in various ways. Indeed the strategy almost misfired for Obama, thanks to his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

What enabled him to play the “prophetic” card with such success was the racial element: he could offer himself as a sign of the overcoming of racial division, and therefore a living icon of the liberal Christian vision.
This prophetic rhetoric is admirably rooted in American history, and Obama was a master performer of it. So why did his support melt away?

The problem is that this prophetic tradition, for all its attractiveness, lacks clear roots in contemporary culture. For the cultural overlap of liberalism and religion has been weakening for decades. In a sense the appeal of prophetic hope-rhetoric is nostalgic: it reminds Americans of a previous era of idealism.

In this previous era there was a strong culture of liberal Christianity for politicians such as Woodrow Wilson, FDR, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson to draw on. The old “mainline” Protestant churches, full of respect for the liberal state, were still very strong. Liberal Protestantism was America’s semi-official creed. This allowed Wilson to rein in the free market, and Roosevelt to implement the New Deal. Accusations that such policies were socialist did not stick, for their architects were clearly pillars of the nation’s Protestant establishment (establishment, that is, in the unofficial sense).

Liberal Protestant intellectuals had great cultural respect, into the 1960s. Thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr made it seem obvious that America was simultaneously liberal and Christian. The civil-rights movement seemed a new chapter in this story of the expansion of the liberal Christian vision. It still seemed that America was held together by a mild form of “civil religion” (a phrase coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967). And this civil religion emphasised the common good, and a liberal form of faith.

But in fact things were changing. The culture wars were underway. The fundamentalist strain of American religion revived. And anti-liberalism became central to the Republican Party, first with Nixon’s demonising of liberal elitists, then with Reaganomics.

And, perhaps most importantly, the old liberal Protestant consensus was crumbling. From the mid-1960s, the mainline churches began losing members fast: some opted for Evangelicalism, but most drifted away from religion. The most vocal Christians were now those who looked on liberal reforms with suspicion. Moreover, progressive causes had a new “secular” aura, especially with the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Roe vs Wade case in 1973.

The old assumption, that America was simultaneously liberal and Christian, was in tatters. The noisiest Christians denounced liberalism, and even implied that the separation of church and state was a misunderstanding. This dynamic has continued ever since: the old alliance of Christianity and liberalism has never been revived.

A recovery project

This is the background to Obama’s roller-coaster reception. He implicitly promised to restore the broken relationship between America’s religion and its liberal idealism. This appealed to liberals on a deep level. But in reality the old synthesis cannot be restored just like that. There was therefore something pretentious about Obama’s campaigning rhetoric. He implied the existence of a latent common faith that just had to be dusted down - but it had in fact been ripped apart by the culture wars. His famous rejection of the division of the country into “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democrat) states was, in effect, a promise to heal the culture wars. And the reconciliation of liberalism and religion is at the heart of this.

Obama’s rhetoric was therefore founded in a profound diagnosis of the nation’s inner division. America must end its painful culture wars and reunite around its old-fashioned liberal faith. But such a major cultural shift cannot be effected by a presidential election. Obama was announcing the need for a movement that transcends normal politics. It is hardly surprising that no such cultural shift suddenly became apparent.

And perhaps it is unsurprising that the main practical effect of his election has been anger on the right. The Tea Party movement has ostensibly focused on Obama’s economic policies, but much of its rhetorical violence comes from the religious right. What arouses such hatred is Obama’s affinity with the old liberal Christianity, his claim that America is founded in a liberal Christian vision. The suggestion that Obama is really a Muslim is a mark of how deeply the religious right fears liberal Christianity: it would rather pretend that it is contending with a different religion, or with atheism. It fears to admit the fact that there is another account of American religion.

But does the old alliance of liberalism and Christianity show any signs of rising from the ashes? No obvious signs: the liberal churches, such as Episcopalianism, remain far weaker than the Evangelical ones. But on the other hand there are signs that Evangelicalism is rethinking. Some of its leaders feel that it was damaged by too close an association with the George W Bush administration.

Many younger Evangelicals, such as the megachurch star Rob Bell, are developing a new, inclusive, socially engaged approach, in which poverty and global warming are taken seriously. The rather vague reform movement called “emerging church”, mostly made up of ex-Evangelical liberals, is also on the rise. The old paradigm, of dominance by the religious right, has a few cracks in it that might develop into serious fissures.

Also, the turmoil of the Bush years has led some liberal commentators to see the old culture wars as just too dangerous. The journalist George Packer, for example, argues that liberalism was led astray by arrogant secularism and identity politics; America must rediscover a deeper understanding of its liberal tradition, and the rediscovery of its liberal Christian tradition is a key part of this.

Obama was hardly likely to repair America’s divided soul single-handed, but his campaigning rhetoric, and the angry reaction of the right, has helped to clarify the question. Can America reject the illiberal religion that has dominated for a generation, and rediscover, on new terms, the old alliance of faith and liberal idealism?

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