The religious pendulum swings again

American pastors are getting back into the political game — from the left.

The American Values Network, for instance, has launched ads on Christian and country music stations advocating strong government action on climate change.  One ad begins like this: “As our seas rise, crops wither and rivers run dry, God’s creation cries out for relief.”  Another, after quoting the Gospel of John, ends like this: “Please join the faithful in speaking out against the powerful.”

And then there’s health care.  About 30 religious leaders are holding a summit today for members of the Obama administration and Congress on the moral need for health care reform.  This event comes on the heels of 47 faith leaders signing a declaration demanding a health care bill and about 600 pastors joining together to run health care ads in five key states last weekend.

The story here is the pendulum of religious activism is swinging back toward progressivism.  Over the course of American history, communities of faith were instrumental in the movements for abolition, labor rights, and civil rights.  Pastors played prominent and often decisive roles in working to shake the conscience of the nation.  But for the last generation or so, a different image of religious activism has emerged.  We’ve had the Falwells and the Robertsons and the Dobsons.  We’ve had abortion and gays and school prayer.  Social justice fell by the wayside.

Not everyone agrees on how this movement got started.  The conventional argument is the modern-day religious right arose as a response to Roe v. Wade.  An intriguing counter to this view comes from Columbia religion professor Randall Balmer, who insists the movement began in order to defend the racist practices of a Christian university.  But no matter.  The tides turned, and conservative religion was in the ascendancy.

Today, however, the tide appears to be turning back.  And in the process, a series of questions arise: Will the religious left fall victim to the same sort of partisanship that came to plague the religious right?  Or will it insist on being prophetic?  For that matter, will this new movement even become powerful enough for such concerns to matter?  Only time will tell.  For now, suffice it to say that change is afoot, and a different set of religious actors are taking their swing at the political pinata.

Jesse Lava also blogs at

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