The religious ‘left’ reasserts itself

Photo by Crazy George under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Best-selling books, high-profile conferences and a blog boom all signal a political renaissance of people who call themselves “spiritual progressives” or “religious liberals.” They include members of many faiths, and a prime focus is countering the politics of religious conservatives and critiquing their use of religious language. Issues such as poverty, the environment, AIDS, immigration, church-state issues and religion in public schools are attracting new coalitions of religious moderate and liberal groups and inspiring the formation of grass-roots organizations, sometimes in combination with secular groups.

This activity is occurring at a time when religious conservatives have gained influence politically and embraced issues that traditionally were championed by the religious left.

Evangelicals have made statements on global warming and are working on worldwide AIDS and poverty. While Evangelicals for Social Action has long been active on social justice issues, a much wider group of evangelicals appears to be gaining traction and visibility on a variety of social causes. In addition, issues such as immigration and poverty have drawn religious groups into partnerships across conservative-liberal lines.


Why it matters

Terms such as values, morality and Christianity have come to be popularly identified with a Republican partisan view in contemporary American politics. More voices, and more prominent voices, are objecting to this association, and liberal religious voices are pushing for action on issues they care about.



National sources


  • Progressive Democrats of America

    Tim Carpenter is national director of Progressive Democrats of America, a co-sponsor of the Conference on Spiritual Activism. It provides links to chapters across the country. It’s based in Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Evangelicals for Social Action

    Evangelicals for Social Action is a Christian organization that works on social concerns from an evangelical Christian perspective. Contact through president and founder, Ron Sider.

  • Faithful America

    Faithful America is an interfaith advocacy project of the National Council of Churches that is based in Washington, D.C. Contact through the website.

  • Faith in Public Life

    Faith in Public Life is “a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good.”

  • Sojourners

    Sojourners magazine is a progressive evangelical magazine in Washington, D.C. Its commitment is to faith in action for social justice. Jim Wallis is CEO and editor in chief of Sojourners.

  • Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

    The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut is one of the world’s leading archives of social science data, specializing in data from surveys of public opinion.


  • John C. Danforth

    John C. Danforth, an Episcopal priest and a former U.S. senator, has served as special envoy to Sudan under President Bush and also as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2004-2005.

    He is the author of Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (2006). In the June 17, 2005, New York Times op-ed piece “Onward, Modern Christian Soldiers,” Danforth called on Christian moderates to speak out in the debate on religion and politics.

  • Robert Jensen

    Robert Jensen is a an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, where he teaches media law, ethics and politics. He is the author of the 2009 book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, which recounts his return to church and his commitment to progressive social activism.

  • Jan G. Linn

    Jan G. Linn is author of Big Christianity: What’s Right with the Religious Left (Westminster John Knox, 2006) and a co-pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis. A former college and seminary professor, Linn calls himself a “recovering fundamentalist” who wants to reclaim the idea of Christianity as generous, or liberal, and tolerant.

  • Robin Meyers

    The Rev. Robin Meyers is a United Church of Christ pastor, syndicated columnist and professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. Books he has written include Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future.

  • Michael N. Nagler

    Michael N. Nagler founded the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is an emeritus professor. He is the author most recently of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families and Our World (Inner Ocean, 2004), and he is a follower of the Indian meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • Leigh Eric Schmidt

    Leigh Eric Schmidt teaches religion and chairs the religion department at Princeton University. He wrote Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality From Emerson to Oprah (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) and can speak about expressions of American spirituality, including their role in 19th-century communal living arrangements.

  • Ron Sider

    Ron Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which promotes Christian engagement, analysis and understanding of major social, cultural and public policy issues. He is also Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, Pa. He is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is a Christian author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on policies related to race, immigration and other religion-related issues. Arrange an interview through Meredith Brasher.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Thomas J. Carty

    Thomas J. Carty is an assistant professor of American studies and history and chair of the Social Sciences Department at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. He specializes in U.S. religion and politics and is the author of A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign.

  • John DiIulio Jr.

    John DiIulio Jr. is a professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A frequent speaker and writer on faith-based social services, he is co-editor of What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (Brookings, 2000).

    Contact: 215-898-7641.
  • Melissa Harris-Lacewell

    Melissa Harris-Lacewell is the Maya Angelou presidential chair at Wake Forest University. There she is the executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center. She is the author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (Princeton 2004).

  • J. Bryan Hehir

    J. Bryan Hehir is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is an expert on religion and American society.

  • Interfaith Impact of New York

    Interfaith Impact of New York is a statewide coalition of congregations and individuals from mainline Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions that work for compassion and justice in New York state public policies.

    Contact: 518-463-5652.
  • Ian Markham

    The Very Rev. Ian Markham is the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. He is an expert on mainline Christianity, and he wrote a book, with the Rev. Martyn Percy of Oxford, called Why Liberal Churches Are Growing. Markham is also the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong.

  • Andrew R. Murphy

    Andrew R. Murphy is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He co-edited the book Religion, Politics and American Identity: New Directions, New Controversies.

  • Dan Wakefield

    Dan Wakefield is a veteran writer and Unitarian in Boston whose newest book is The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate (Nation Books, 2006). Read an excerpt in the April 24, 2006, issue of The Nation.

  • Clyde Wilcox

    Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He specializes in electoral behavior and public opinion and can comment on the Catholic vote, abortion, gun control, gay rights, church-state issues and other issues involving religion and politics. He wrote “Abortion, Gay Rights and Church-State Issues in the 2000 Campaign” for the book Religion and Liberal Democracy: Piety, Politics and Pluralism and he is the co-author of The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

  • Alan Wolfe

    Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a frequent commentator on religion and politics. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, which focuses on the impact of evangelicals on American religious culture. He has written widely on secularism.

In the South

  • Ravi Batra

    Ravi Batra is an economics professor at Southern Methodist University and author of The New Golden Age: The Coming Revolution Against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming January 2007). Batra says journalists should investigate such issues as how political corruption creates poverty and how politicians exploit religion to get elected and then adopt policies to benefit themselves and the wealthy.

  • Allison Calhoun-Brown

    Allison Calhoun-Brown is associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. She specializes in religion and politics and African-American politics.

  • John M. Bruce

    John M. Bruce is an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. He specializes in politics and religion.

  • Penny Long Marler

    Penny Long Marler is a professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., with interests in the relationship between church and society and religious change. She has written about measuring growth in church attendance.

  • Kathy Miller

    Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization of religious and community leaders based in Austin that advocates for “a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right,” according to its website.  Contact through communications director Dan Quinn.

  • Robin Meyers

    The Rev. Robin Meyers is a United Church of Christ pastor, syndicated columnist and professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. Books he has written include Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • Michael Leo Owens

    Michael Leo Owens is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. specializing in urban politics; state and local politics; political penology; governance and public policy processes; religion and politics; and African American politics. He is the author of the 2007 book God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America and numerous articles and essays on faith-based community development and political mobilization by congregations in the United States.

  • Michael J. Perry

    Michael J. Perry is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University in Georgia and specializes in religious liberty issues and religious influences over politics. He is author of Religion, Politics and Nonestablishment, among others.

In the Midwest

  • Greg Boyd

    Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and author of The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, in which he says American Christians should seek to build the kingdom of God instead of building political power.

  • Paul Djupe

    Paul Djupe is a political scientist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he specializes in religion and politics. He edits the Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics series and has written about people of faith’s voting patterns, the religious right and faith-based opposition to socialism.

  • Kevin den Dulk

    Kevin den Dulk teaches political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His interests include American politics, religion and politics cross-nationally, public law and courts and political theory. He has written about free speech and religious liberty and about the legal mobilization of conservative Christians in the United States. He is the co-author of Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices.

  • Timothy R. Johnson

    Timothy R. Johnson is assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He wrote the entry on Roe v. Wade for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics (Facts on File, 2003).

  • We Believe Ohio

    Formed in November 2005, We Believe Ohio includes 100 racially and theologically diverse clergy interested in social justice.

  • Rhys H. Williams

    Rhys H. Williams is a professor and chair of the sociology department at Loyola University Chicago. He has done research on immigrant college students, including their attitudes toward religion and spirituality. He was also co-director of the Youth and Religion Project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, which did field work in the Chicago area to see how religious institutions can meet the needs of teenagers and young adults.

In the West

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Peter Laarman

    Peter Laarman of Los Angeles is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting and an ordained United Church of Christ minister. He is editor of the just-published Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Beacon Press, 2006) and knows a lot of other groups active on this subject.

  • Fred Plumer

    Fred Plumer, a retired minister, is head of The Center for Progressive Christianity, a web-based network of progressive faith communities. It is based in Gig Harbor, Wash.

  • Thomas P. Rausch

    The Rev. Thomas P. Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Catholic priest, Rausch is the author of Authority and Leadership in the Church: Past Directions and Future Possibilities.

  • Chris Soper

    Chris Soper is a professor of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and the author of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain: Religious Beliefs, Political Choices.

Related source guides