Welcome to the FDL Book Salon on Robert Jones’ new book, Progressive and Religious: How Christian Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders Are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life. It’s a really interesting and engaging read, and offers some valuable insights into how politically progressive religious people find the source of their progressive values in their religious traditions.
Because we are in the throes of the presidential campaign, peoples’ minds (including my own) tend to be calibrated toward well-known and highly politicized religious movements like the religious right, which emerged with the expressed purpose of influencing elections, or the less easily defined religious center/left, which seems to seek to influence candidates’ and parties’ positions on issues but hasn’t organized, as the right has, as a reliable voting bloc for either party. Recalibrate your thinking for this discussion, though: it has nothing to do with electoral politics, and everything to do with community organizing.
Robby opens the book with interviews of Jewish leaders, and the central concept they lay out — that of tikkun olam, or repairing the world — is a guiding principle even for most secular Jews (and Jews, both religious and secular, tend to be politically progressive). God made the world imperfect, messy, broken, and it’s our job to fix it. That principle informs the imperative to help the poor not just as an act of charity, but to question authority, raise hell, and transform society. It is, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, tells Robby, “establishing the conditions for justice.”
It’s not a huge leap from that concept to the underlying principles of Christianity, of course, but that central element of Jesus’ teachings has been so warped by judgmental, condemnatory fundamentalism and the political rise of the religious right that many people don’t associate it with our country’s majority religion. I know I promised not to talk about the election, but Sarah Palin’s RNC speech was emblematic of religious right disdain for the social justice Jesus. As was pointed out by many after her speech, Jesus was a community organizer, but you might forget that if you listen to the religious right too long. In those circles, Jesus’ teachings on poverty have been eclipsed by a handful of bible verses that have been twisted to condemn homosexuality.
Alleviating poverty by radicalizing social, economic, and political institutions is central to the social action of the Christian leaders in Robby’s book, as well as the Jewish ones. I was struck by the discussion in the book of the “extravagant welcome” these Christian thinkers find in Jesus’ teachings, and the imperative of welcoming all to an “open table.” (Similar concept in Judaism is how it is a mitzvah, a blessing, to welcome guests into your home.) But the “extravagant welcome” is not just into one’s literal home, it’s about, again, transforming the world to subvert the conditions and institutions in which inequality — of wealth, of opportunity, of education — persists.
While poverty is at the fore of these activists’ teachings, they extend that “extravagant welcome” to people marginalized and shunned by the religious right. In John 3:16, the verse cited by religious right activists to emphasize the imperative of salvation (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”) these activists find “whosoever” to include everyone, and especially the LGBTQ people the religious right has condemned to hell.
The holistic theme of transforming the world, of course, runs through all three Abrahamic traditions, and Robby’s interviews with Muslim leaders reflect this view as well. Muslims in America must combat terrible stereotypes about not only their religion but themselves, and as a tiny minority — less than one percent — of the American public, that is surely daunting. Yet for the leaders profiled in the book, the principles of justice, goodness, and beauty are central to their teaching, as well as the imperative of ijtihad, or the independent thinking required to link centuries-old traditions to democracy and human rights. In denouncing the extremism of some Muslims, progressive Muslims say, in language that would resonate with Christians and Jews, “that what you do to my fellow human beings, you do to me.”
Robby also briefly explores American Buddhism, which, unlike the other religious traditions, is not based on monotheism and sacred texts. I have to admit to a paltry understanding of this religion, but Robby’s exploration of “Engaged Buddhism,” or the “interbeing” of all things, was a nice primer.
Many people think of religion as a set of principles, rules, or ceremonies, or possibly a way of connecting to a community with a shared place or tradition. But Jones’ book casts it as something else, as well: a philosophy for social change that challenges authority, and that is often elegant and revelatory, even for secular allies.