2014 Archives

TEXAS FAITH: After the Religious Right, will the Religious Left reassert itself with a focus on economic justice?


The following is from the April 29, 2014, edition of the Texas Faith blog published by The Dallas Morning News. William Lawrence, dean and professor of American Church History in SMU's Perkins School of Theology, provided commentary for this blog.

May 15, 2014

By Wayne Slater

The recent history of religious activism in our politics has been largely about the Christian right. Robust new churches and growing congregations are part of the success story of conservatives who have focused on social and family issues. At the same time, something else has happened. Young Americans today are less affiliated religiously than any time in our history. Fully one-third of Americans under 30 are unaffiliated with a formal religious group, according to Public Religion Research Institute. One in five 18- to 29-year-olds say that religion is not important in their lives, compared to only 10 percent of those 50 and older who say that. . .

Is the time ripe for an active push for social justice by the Religious Left, including active government involvement, active church engagement? And if so, would that actually stem our growing secularization, help close divisions between religious and secular Americans, and strengthen the weakened infrastructure of liberal churches?

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

For the past hundred years in American religious life, there has been an ebb and flow of influence by conservative and progressive forces of faith. In the early twentieth century, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy roiled the religious community. In the middle of the century, the progressive denominational and ecumenical interests were dominant. In the closing decades of the century, the religious right imposed both its will and its framing of public issues on American culture. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, words including “Christian” and “Evangelical” had been distorted to the extent that their original theological meanings disappeared in a wave of ideologically and politically conservative understandings.

One of the most effective ways for religious progressives to reassert themselves is to reclaim their own language and to reconnect with their own histories. William Jennings Bryan, in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, identified himself as a Christian socialist. In that same period, religious bodies and church-related organizations felt compelled by their own identities in mission to create institutions that had some capacity to promote the welfare of society in general. They supported improvements in the quality of public schools, they established private schools, they opened hospitals, they built orphanages, and they led the way toward massive social changes in public health, in voting rights for women, and in attention to the needs of the poor.

The time of the progressives is at hand. But in order to claim our place in the future, we will have to reclaim our heritage from the past.

Read the full blog.

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