What a crappy week. And now one of my favorite progressive news sites, AlterNet.org, is getting squeamish about religion. Witness how a tone troll has made them frown:
Professor James Rohrer wrote that while he was a long-time loyal AlterNet reader, he was concerned about our coverage of faith and religion. His complaint was that AlterNet too frequently portrays religion as the domain of right-wing fundamentalism and carries an overall anti-religious editorial tilt. Rohrer argued this has the effect of alienating millions of our readers who are progressively inclined. He challenged us to consider whether this approach stands in the way of building the unity we need to achieve the broad social change that the vast majority of Americans want.
“One would never know from AlterNet that there are today significant numbers of evangelical Christians who work for peace and justice, such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams who embed themselves as witnesses for peace in the midst of war zones,” Rohrer wrote to us. “One would never know that much of the history of socialism in America has been intertwined with religion. One would never know that many brilliant philosophers, scientists, artists, and scholars in virtually every field of research are also people who have a deep personal faith in some traditional religion.”
At least one point above is fair: perhaps one wouldn’t have known any of those things from reading AlterNet, but I thought that was the point — to advocate for underrepresented progressive voices. I don’t care how much liberal Christians whine otherwise, they get plenty of coverage in the progressive media, as they have since the days of abolition and the days of abolitionists — hell, Huffington Post drools and fawns over every woo left-leaning religion story they can snag, while only rarely giving atheists a fair hearing. AlterNet was one of the only major progressive news blogs that helped bring balance to the coverage overall. Now non-believers are back to having no real media advocate. Not even on the fringe of the Democratic Party? Fucking great.
I’m sorry, but to me it just seems like AlterNet is caving in to the liberal Christian privilege that has permeated the progressive movement for decades in order to win readers and gather donations. All that talk of movement unity? Blowjob.
Liberal Christian Privilege
The truth is that Rohrer told AlterNet they were missing out on a huge pot of money by alienating liberal believers. And Rohrer was right, but let’s ask why. Is it because the articles that were critical of religion were unwarranted and so alienated liberal believers? Or is it because liberal believers enjoy their privilege and won’t support any organization that doesn’t prop up their failing collective ego, no matter how much they agree with said organization in every other respect?
Similarly I think it’s true, as AlterNet says, that movement unity is threatened by alienating religious progressives. Again, though, I want to ask why that’s true. Is it because unwarranted criticism of religion has pushed progressive believers away? Or is it because progressive believers won’t warrant any sustained criticism of their religion, even if it’s pointed at conservative abuses and doesn’t stereotype all believers?
Also, I think it’s true as Rohrer writes that the religious have been active in, even central to progressive causes since the dawn of progressive causes. He mentions socialism, but the more common reference is to the Civil Rights movement, in which African-American churches played a leading role. I have no difficulty conceding this point with the caveat that non-believers have also been integral to progressive causes, including socialism, since the dawn of progressive causes.
Unlike Christians, however, we Nones have rarely been allowed out of the closet in these movements (except socialism). Aside from the obvious fact that most people in U.S. history have been Christians, non-believers must also endure intentional marginalization in progressive causes by the “political realists” of every era. Even when we do have leadership roles, as did freethinkers like A. Phillip Randolph (Civil Rights) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Suffrage), we are often marginalized in the history of progress in favor of more accommodating figures like MLK Jr. or Susan B. Anthony, respectively.
The fact is, liberal Christians need no media advocate to trumpet their role in the progressive movement — U.S. history was written to privilege them. Now? If Rohrer and his millions of readers are any evidence, they just want the privilege to keep on flowing their way, or they’ll take their progressive movement and go home.
I know I’m not alone in trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that liberal Christians are demanding from secular activists. For the most part, we seem to agree that the wall of separation be absolute, and that violations of that constitutional principle be exposed and corrected. For years many of us have been practically begging our liberal Christian allies to try harder to police their own churches and call out the bigots in their midst, so we don’t have to, because we shouldn’t have to, and anyway we’re on the outside looking in. Instead they have largely take a defensive posture toward atheists for calling out the bigots that mainline liberal Christians refuse to tackle.
Not all liberal Christians refuse to tackle the fundies. One does find the odd exception evidenced by the existence of multiple books with titles that are variations of “Jesus is/was a Liberal“, and of web sites like JesusIsALiberal.org or ReclaimJesus.net — which proclaims that Jesus was a liberal, and that conservatives have perverted the true faith:
Who is the real hypocrite? He who speaks out or she who remains silent? In the bully pulpit of public opinion, when a message of exclusion, indifference, and hatred is being preached in the name of Jesus, who is the real hypocrite in remaining silent? Silence = Acquiescence = Acceptance = Approval ….
Moderate and liberal Christians, unite! Reclaim Jesus from the evangelical Christian wrong.
But at the same time, across town at the other liberal church, the congregation is trying to build unity through Christ with the same conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists! It was only a couple years ago that, for instance, that liberal Christians leaders were vowing to be nicer to their fucknut crazy conservative fellows. More than 100 Christian leaders, “ranging from conservative evangelicals to liberal mainline Protestants, say they want to contribute to a more civil and moral tone in the nation’s political discourse.”
Through “A Covenant for Civility: Come Let Us Reason Together,” the leaders pledge to try to create “safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion” in their churches, which have too often “reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ.”
“The church in the United States can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences,” the covenant says.
Now we know where these liberal Christians real priorities were — not with progressive causes, but with winning souls for their god. To them, both are the same cause. Their idea of how to combat the insertion of too much conservative God-talk into public discourse is to insert media accounts of Christian peace and social justice activism in war zones. Then they wonder why progressive atheists target them? Did they think we were just waiting for Jesus to be liberal before we’d start believing? C’mon!
Hey Rohrer, you wanna know what actually is just as bad as conservatives inserting God into everything? Liberals doing it. Cut it the fuck out, and then we’ll shut the fuck up. That’s the order of operations.
3-Way Liberal Christian Codependency Clusterfuck
This bizarre behavior is what I like to call the 3-way Liberal Christian Codependency Clusterfuck, in which liberal Christianity as a whole tries to at once appease and distance itself from both the conservative Christians with whom they are “united in Christ,” and progressive liberals with whom they are “united in Cause.” Rohrer has leveraged the narrative that liberal Christian churches are the backbone of the progressive movement, which is true insofar as i.e., Black Churches played a central role in Civil Rights, and lately it seems they really like to remind the rest of us that, “Without us, you are nothing.” They feel like their faith is under attack from God’s Own Party and the Godless Left, and now, by God, they’re taking their Jesus back and they say they need our help.
What’s really happening is that the fundamentalist Christians have been bullying and beating up on the liberal Christians since the ’80s or before, and now the liberal Christians are gonna pass some of the pain along to progressive organizations who don’t privilege them. In turn, the progressive organizations need the followers and their funds, so they appease the liberal Christians by passing the pain along to the next turd down the hill. In this case, that’s us atheists. Liberal Christians feel victimized by the fundie bullies, and now anyone who questions their defensive narrative is crossing into tetchy territory. To call out religious privilege in society, or — worse! — Christian privilege in the progressive movement? Rohrer calls these kinds of call-outs ‘alienating’. The webcomic xkcd explains it better:
Rohrer don’t know shit about ‘alienation’. What he knows is privilege.
What’s he’s claiming only feeds into the right-wing myth of a liberal war on religion, when the cold facts speak to the long decline of liberal Christianity in the U.S. It was just this month that the New York Times published Ross Douthat’s Can Liberal Christianity be Saved? in which Douthat (no true friend to progressive causes) opines that,
[I]f conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves ….
As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.” Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.
The point of this last paragraph has some merit: the world has changed, even since the Civil Rights era. Liberal Christianity no longer really is the center of the progressive movement, and it’s not because liberal Christians have gotten less religious, as Douthat (wrongly) suggests. It’s because we figured out that we never really needed to involve Jesus in the first place, and there’s a growing understanding that even the most liberal of churches always has an ulterior, religious, motive. Sure the church is the piper we’ve had to pay for civil rights and civil liberties. But that doesn’t it make it right. It certainly doesn’t mean the movement should keep going on this way!
Rohrer has himself provided another example of the very same privilege to which the now-ousted atheist authors were decrying until he came along! If it wasn’t so frustrating, it’d be ironic. If it’s not granting religious privilege to highhandedly and single-handedly alter AlterNet, overnight, because a privileged class of society thinks they were publishing too many articles on religious privilege, and not kissing enough liberal Christian assets, then I don’t know what is.
Building Common Ground, not Unity
There’s a larger question here: whether or not “building the unity” should really be our goal. Unity is overrated, I think — we should be trying to build the intersection, the common ground. That means when our movement gathers in force for a Big Cause — something like global environmental catastrophe — we should be leaving out the smaller causes that aren’t common to that day’s action. Nations with many political parties have gotten used to working on common causes together, and disjoint causes separately. In the U.S. we only have two parties, and especially on the Left we have a hard time setting our primary causes aside to collaborate on bigger issues.
For anecdotal evidence, I cite every coalition activist movement on the Left since the WTO protests, including Occupy Wall Street. Everyone brought their own agenda, and came looking for allies for their cause. They didn’t come to fight the cause, and as a result, there was no cause. As a whole, we were not willing to set aside our differences and focus on a common agenda. Now OWS languishes in the throes of a slow death by a thousand tiny liberal and libertarian cuts, and the truly marginalized (unlike liberal Christians, as a group) again have no voice.
The progressive commons must remain secular so that any believers or non-believers can talk about all our real world problems — leaving our souls or lack thereof out of the conversation. What Rohrer is doing is blackmail, and I can’t understand why it’s so hard to understand that we just don’t want to pray before coalition meetings. We want to work together, we just don’t want to pray, first.
It’s not secularists who are inserting religion into the secular public sphere; we’re calling out those who do. If liberal Christians would call out their own hypocrites — I mean really call them out — then maybe it’d get done the way they would like to see it done. Instead, they are silent, and so enable their allegorical abuser. They don’t get to come in now and tell us we’re doing it wrong.
In their own turn, invested liberals are silent, worried to death about losing moderate and independent voters, and so enable their abuser when they let liberal religionists bully them, as AlterNet did. Now AlterNet is apologizing to the religionists on all the mean atheist’s behalf and promising to behave better in the future by not letting us have our say on their site.
The atheists get their walking papers. ‘Find somewhere else to publish your alienating views,’ AlterNet has said. Message received, loud and clear, AlterNet. But you do realize you’ve just alienated a whole different audience?
Yeah — only it’s one you already had. (Isn’t there an Aesop fable to that effect? Something about a dog, a bone, and a reflection?)