Jenkins shows that a new cohort of faith leaders are wielding power not for corporate powers or a warped libertarian version of Christ’s teaching but to bring about a more just and egalitarian world
That we are living in the fruition of a multi-decade project of social engineering by white Evangelical Christians to turn the United States into a theocratic state is inarguable. The Vice President, Secretaries of State and Education and the Attorney General all ascribe to deeply conservative Christian doctrine that has allowed for the rationalization of Muslim bans, family separation policies and new salvos in the forever war against legal abortion. The judiciary has been seeded with theocratic judges from its highest levels to its lowest. The man in the White House counts the worst hucksters and charlatans of the “prosperity gospel,” a spiritual Ponzi scheme where scripture is used to rationalize greed and excess, as his spiritual advisers. State and local governments in swing states are populated with Evangelical acolytes intent on limiting voting rights and dismantling public services in the name of maintaining power. It is a terrifying time, The Handmaid’s Tale adjacent, that we were warned was coming by intellectuals like Christopher Hedges, Michelle Goldberg, Kevin M. Kruse and Diana Butler Bass, but their heeding went largely ignored.
This movement of the aptly named Religious Right has given Christianity a bad name, at least as contended by Jack Jenkins, a journalist on the religion beat whose work is driven by his Christian faith. An umbrella term that gives shade to the like of Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell, it provides an easy shorthand for all acts of oppression and conservatism performed in the name of Jesus Christ, but Jenkins insists that an alternative exists in binary, a Religious Left as he coins this alternative movement. But this is not as simple a distinction as Jedi and Sith. Both progressive and regressive Christianity consist of a multitude of sects and faith traditions, and there is a very real distinction along racial lines that defies any attempts at politeness. That Christians want these nuances recognized when Americans so often refuse to see other faith groups as anything but monolithic and single-minded is an irony Jenkins notes, and while the author doesn’t assume the role of critic, many of his subjects are happy to take the job.
Disappointment in their churches, institutions or the rest of us served as a catalyst to many members in this loose coalition, but the greatest strength of the Religious Left is its diversity of racial representation and spiritual perspective. Christians, Muslims and indigenous people are part of this progressive movement, though many reject Jenkins’ labeling as either too derivative of their conservative competition or inadequate to describe the work they are doing. He calls them prophets in reference to the “prophetic tradition of social justice,” spiritual activists who have been at the center of social justice movements throughout American history “often rising to meet moral crises in times of need.” Abolition, suffrage, equal rights, prison reform, welfare, income equality and environmentalism, to name but a few, have all had a spiritual movement at their center.
Jenkins uses these ongoing movements and the activists who now lead them to chronicle the emerging power of religious progressivism. He begins with healthcare, intertwining the creation of the Affordable Care Act with that of Catholic nun Sister Carol Keehan, a woman most famous for ridiculing Catholic congressman Paul Ryan over the cruelty of his budgets for poor and working people. Making healthcare accessible to all has been a lifetime passion, one that pitted her and her fellow nuns against bishops and Pope Benedict. But they were undaunted and helped shepherd the healthcare bill into law.
It is a fascinating chapter because it illustrates the depths of Barack Obama’s own Christian faith, how integral Black churches were to his political ascent and how disdainful the Republican smear tactics against him really were. But, the other point of interest comes from Sister Keehan herself while she recounts her victory lap for the passing of Obamacare. The law is deeply flawed in great part to her effort to remove abortion, contraception and euthanasia from its pages. While she is proud of the expansion of healthcare coverage, she and the other Catholics involved worked diligently to achieve their theocratic ends and won most of what they wanted. Her efforts feel less progressive in the telling and more like a warmer, friendlier version of the kind of restriction strived for by the bishops she professed to battling. It breeds skepticism of Jenkins’ aims as the lead chapter, but that impulse quickly fades.
Jenkins follows with Reverend William Barber and his Moral Monday movement created in reaction to the election of Trump and the ruthlessness of the Republican controlled legislature in North Carolina. Barber’s movement embraces intersectionality and so does Jenkins’ reporting as the links between all oppressed people become evident in the following chapters. Scenes shift from Occupy encampments to Standing Rock, from Charlottesville to Mauna Kea, but the structure of the stories are almost always the same: David is fighting Goliath. Christian socialists and anti-capitalists, women and LGBTQ pastors, Muslim activists and Indigenous leaders are all battling an entrenched, White, heteronormative, profiteering elite bent on consolidating resources and power at the expense of the marginalized. It is impossible not to be moved by the work these people are doing and their willingness to put themselves at risk for a more equitable and just world. Their commitment and bravery will leave you questioning your own beliefs and wondering what actions you might take to help bring about change. It is a great book to inspire the social activist within while subtly proselytizing for several doctrines.
Old habits are difficult to expunge. There was a time when only fringe candidates discussed their faith on the campaign trail, but now all presidential candidates must explain their relationship to god. With Bush II and Trump, this has been cause for fear. With American Prophets, Jack Jenkins shows that a new cohort of faith leaders are wielding power not for corporate powers or a warped libertarian version of Christ’s teaching but to bring about a more just and egalitarian world. There is still unease that the separation between church and state has become a forgotten edict, but these activists offer us some real hope and excitement about what is possible. The world needs fixing, and maybe we have an opportunity to get more right this time.