Blindspots on the "Christian Left" Beat
Getting Beyond the Democratic Party at Prayer
|Dean Dettloff||Mar 24, 2019||6|
Religion journalists are starved for attention. I don’t say that as a put-down. This might just be proximity bias, but few other beats seem to me to have to constantly convince editors and readers that they matter as much as the religion beat. The efforts are important. People should be paying attention to religion journalists, not least because stories about faith often contain many more stories—about race, class, sexuality, solidarity, hatred—that make up the texture of society.
In lieu of that being obvious, however, a pervasive strategy for religion journalists since 2016 has been to connect religion reporting directly to political reporting.
Among the angles here, the one I follow most is the narrative around the “Christian Left.” (NB: I don’t mean to conflate the “Religious Left” and the “Christian Left,” a problem Harmeet Kamboj points out, but to intentionally pull out the Christian part of that story.) In response to the predictable proliferation of articles on the “Christian Right” before and after Trump’s election, religion journalists looked for an analogous constituency on “the Left,” usually a synonym for the base of the Democratic Party—and what they found led to both an over-identification of the Christian Left with the Democrats as well as a confusion over what the “Christian Left” means.
During the 2016 primaries, for example, given the sheer cynicism of the Christian Right, Ruth Graham suggested in a cover story at Slate that the Democrats could become the new “Party of God,” with Christians recognizing themselves more in the old-fashioned liberal Methodism of Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump’s evangelical status as a “baby Christian.” Since then, debate over the “Religious Left” made a few waves among the commentariat, with some, like Daniel Cox at 538, arguing it doesn’t really matter and others, like Jack Jenkins, replying if you know what you’re looking for it’s hard to deny its importance.
The journalistic jury is still out, but the object of debate is tacitly agreed on: the Christian Left boils down to Christians who like Democrats and Democrats who like Christians. Symptomatic of the desperation of religion journalism, the impulse to prove “there’s always a religion angle” sometimes translates into obsessively highlighting even the vaguest reference to God by Democrats. But pointing out every time someone mentions God, or every time a group of pastors listens to a Democrat, isn’t really telling us anything meaningful, and it shapes a certain expectation about what it would mean to talk about the Christian Left that excludes a lot.
While reporting on the religion angle of Democrats is important, the reduction of “the Left” to the Democratic Party has given religion journalists an unfortunate tunnel vision that left some of the most interesting stories of the last few years either to specialized outlets or uncovered entirely. And more importantly, that omission has led to certain overzealous pronouncements that erase the more radical elements of the Christian Left, for example in Jenkins’ suggestion that Corey Booker “could be a candidate for the ‘religious left.’”
Take the story of the Friendly Fire Collective in Philadelphia, for instance. Emerging from a group of radical Quakers, though inclusive of many other spiritual communities, Friendly Fire has put itself to work both intellectually and in direct action, describing itself as “a network of individuals, cells, and communities committed to being doulas of the apocalypse, loving a new world into being.” Through its blog and newsletter, it transmits excerpts from a wide range of leftist theologians, political theorists, and histories in an accessible way, operating as something like a devotional for revolutionary people of faith. A recent post, for example, weaves together biblical passages and insights from French philosopher Michel Foucault, concluding “We must kill this God, this cop within. We must allow empathy, love for our neighbor, to crucify piety within us. If we are to believe in a God, may this God look like Christ: a comrade in the struggle, willing to enter our messes in solidarity.”
Put simply, this isn’t Corey Booker’s theology.
Beyond translating and disseminating radical literature, however, Friendly Fire has actively intervened in local Philadelphia politics. In early 2018, the group organized a deeply spiritual spring retreat that concluded with a march to a local May Day rally, led by a banner that read “ALL COPS ARE APOSTATES.” They followed up that summer by being significant organizers in the Occupy ICE encampments in the city, where members were arrested. In a theological reflection from the event, one FF member vividly and painfully recalls the scene (tw: police violence):
Bike cops began pushing forward. Officers kicked us as they stepped over to arrest us. I had a rosary in my hands. I was praying to Mary, the Mother of Liberation, as officers forced my hands behind my back. I heard them screaming, “She has a rosary! She has a rosary!” I felt them rip it from my hands. They broke it, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it in front of me. I continued to pray as they dragged me through the street, as they hit my head on the van again and again, as they drove the van with me hanging out, my legs still on the sidewalk. I thought of the thousands of immigrants whose rosaries were taken from them as they crossed the border. I thought of the children who cry every night begging for their parents. I thought of Christ being violently arrested and beaten. And I considered myself blessed to share in his wounds.
Though Friendly Fire recorded its own versions of these events, they received no media attention at all from career journalists on the religion beat. And that’s not for lack of trying. FF members reached out to journalists, but to no avail. (Full disclosure: I also tried to pass this information along to other journalists I know who cover this as a regular beat, and my comrade Matt Bernico and I interviewed Friendly Fire members on The Magnificast, once on the retreat and once on Occupy ICE.)
It’s a strange omission. Whether or not a journalist agrees with the rhetoric or tactics of Friendly Fire, surely “Philadelphia Christians say All Cops Are Apostates on May Day” or “Radical Christians Arrested on the Front Lines Against ICE” are pretty juicy headlines. As far as I know, the group has only been covered once, in a story by John Noble on Christians and the 2018 Prison Strike at Sojourners.
Friendly Fire is a glaring example given their regular public documentation and willingness to talk, but it’s not an isolated example. If journalists interested in the Christian Left felt the need to cover more radical movements, the reliable Catholic Worker remained a fertile source for stories.
In 2017, for example, two members of the Catholic Worker in Des Moines, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, turned themselves in after sabotaging the DAPL and running from private investigators. The story was picked up by Mike O’Loughlin at America Magazine and was mentioned, albeit briefly, at the National Catholic Reporter. But the story showed up primarily not from people whose niche is covering religion, but rather in some progressive outlets (Democracy Now!, The Intercept) and the Des Moines Register (including a story about an FBI raid on the associated Catholic Worker community).
That’s not an isolated story, either. The Des Moines Catholic Worker has had an ongoing campaign against drones, which member Frank Cordaro regularly reports on through email. The Catholic Worker in general has been talking amongst itself about how to move beyond its whiteness, an incredibly interesting and important conversation, reflected in actions by Catholic Worker members like Erica Sherwood and Joe Kruse joining Black Lives Matter activists to shut down intersections and a light rail station in Minneapolis. And just recently, the “Four Necessity Valve Turners,” a group of “Catholic Workers and farmers,” were arrested and jailed for turning off Enbridge pipelines. These stories were mostly circulated in local news, and occasionally got exposure through NCR and a handful of people on social media, but they never gained steam and didn’t seem to even appear on the radar of career religion journalists.
A Wealth of Stories
Friendly Fire and the Catholic Worker are only two examples. If journalists thought to look for a religion angle on political activity that was further left, they would find a wealth of stories that have yet to be reported on. Who is interviewing members of the DSA Religion and Socialism Commission? Who is asking members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation what they think about church (I know members who go, if you’re looking)? Who is interested in Christians for the Abolition of Prisons? Who is inquiring about why the Communist Party of the USA says something about Christians every once in a while? Who followed up with antifa after Charlottseville to find out what they thought about the clergy they defended? Who is getting in touch with radical Christians from earlier decades—not just the usual suspects like those who hung out with the Berrigans, but also folks like Gil Dawes, the pastor who invited Angela Davis to speak about a strike at his church in 1980—to find out where they are now?
All this reflects, I think, a basic journalistic bias against a version of the Left that doesn’t fit neatly into the prepackaged talking points of the Democratic Party and those that orbit it. These would all be stories of Christians who would be significantly to the left of Democrats, and Democrats wouldn’t like them all that much either.
That’s not to say this is an intentional bias. Maybe sometimes it is, maybe sometimes it isn’t. It does take a lot of time and work to understand the terrain of the radical Left, and I hope to provide some resources to make that clearer in this newsletter. But whatever the case, the situation is severely limiting our perspective on what the Christian Left is. Even if journalism merely reflected the world it reports on, coverage of the Christian Left would be woefully inadequate. Journalism isn’t just a reflection, however; stories create narratives that impact and shape the world, expand or contract our imagination concerning what’s possible. Right now, the narrative about the Christian Left, again by intention or not, is often a story about the Democratic Party at prayer, a narrative that creates a certain idea about what the Left is or could be, and what Christians are and could be.
Though it’s obvious from my social media presence that I’m not too excited about Democrats, I’m not trying to suggest here that everyone is missing the real Christian Left. I’m saying the Christian Left is more than what it’s usually reduced to by the media class, and that reduction, as Hollis Phelps persuasively argues, is misleading us about where the most meaningful stories about the Christian Left might be found. Of course, this mirrors a problem for reporting on politics generally, but the unique position of religion journalism, which is already constantly fighting for a place in the media landscape and attentive to stories outside the typical news cycle, has good reason to fill out what gets missed in all that reporting—it just needs to find the right missing things.
There are important exceptions. Reporting on how Christians have engaged refugees, for example, is thankfully plentiful, and some career journalists, like Kaya Oakes, have a reputation for looking for under-reported religion news, most recently in a great article on Catholic activism. The exceptions, however, usually prove the rule; Oakes concludes her article, for instance, noting the new face of Catholic activists eludes major outlets. Reporting on Christians and refugees rarely connects the dots to the troubling reality that the Democrats, too, not just the Republicans, have had a hand in creating the social turmoil abroad that has displaced so many people in the first place, suggesting to have solidarity with refugees is to be at odds with both parties.
Let’s Say More in 2019
In terms of the self-interest of people on the religion beat, there’s a lot of opportunity for scoops, exclusives, and getting ahead of the news cycle for folks who put in the time. As a part-time journalist, knowing a thing or two about these themes has helped me find interesting stories, and editors for the most part understand their value, like in America Magazine, where I was able to talk to Rachelle Friesen of Christian Peacemaker Teams about how and why she got involved in an antifascist group in Toronto, or at Sojourners, where I got to profile Kathleen Schultz, IHM, former National Secretary of Christians for Socialism. There are so many stories like this that a few journalists could never cover them all, and there won’t be a shortage of them, either. There’s a lot to be said—and a lot that risks going unsaid—in 2019.
As primary season comes into full swing, there will be plenty of stories about the faith of Democratic candidates. There should be (though preferably without identifying them with the “Christian Left” itself).
But journalists on the religion beat owe it to their readers to also cover Christians who will continue to organize not for domesticated versions of capitalism, white supremacy, heterosexism, etc., but a world without these structures altogether.
These Christians are easy to find.
Just look for handcuffs and busted rosaries.