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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress presidential forum in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2019. Political activist, the Rev. William Barber II sits at left.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

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What is the ‘religious left’? And what’s it up to right now?

Left-leaning people of faith have been in the national spotlight since President Joe Biden took office

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Jack Jenkins has spent years reporting on a phenomenon that many Americans reject.

It’s not Bigfoot or haunted houses; it’s the religious left, the somewhat loosely connected movement of pastors and faith-based organizations that advocate for left-leaning policies and tend to support Democratic politicians.

To be clear, people don’t deny that religiously motivated activists can be liberal or that left-leaning faith groups exist. Instead, they question whether these activists and groups are organized enough or significant enough to warrant the kind of attention that Jenkins feels they deserve.

Scholars, political insiders and pastors sometimes push back against even the term religious left, debating whether it captures the kind of work that’s taking place.

“Some people who might otherwise be classified as religious left, such as Poor People’s Campaign co-chairman the Rev. William Barber, actively reject the term (he calls it ‘too puny.’) But others, such as Muslim American activist and co-chairwoman of the original Women’s March Linda Sarsour, embrace it — and Sarsour has often worked with Barber,” said Jenkins, a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of “American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country,” which just came out in paperback.

All this semantic and organizational drama hasn’t kept Jenkins from writing regularly about left-leaning people of faith. And, in recent months, many of us finally started to understand the value of his unique obsession.

President Joe Biden’s election has thrust the religious left into the spotlight and made Jenkins a go-to source for information about religion-related policy moves and the future of faith-based political activism.

As I worked on an article last week about religious responses to Biden’s first 100 days in office, I asked Jenkins to discuss what the religious left is up to right now.

What was the religious left’s relationship like with Biden during the campaign?

Biden had undisputed clout with the most powerful voting bloc of the religious left (broadly defined): Black Protestants. His campaign targeted the group, and it’s not much of a stretch to say Biden probably owes his presidency to religious voters in general and African American churchgoers in particular: When I walked into a Biden campaign office in North Charleston days before the South Carolina primary that reignited his campaign, a giant handmade sign dangled from the wall — it read, “Preachers (heart) Joe Biden.”

Biden showed up at events hosted by prominent faith activists as well, and that relationship intensified after he won the Democratic primary. By last fall, Biden’s campaign boasted endorsements from hundreds of faith leaders, including many progressive stalwarts who had never publicly backed a candidate, not to mention activists such as Barber.

But the religious left is not a monolith. Sarsour ended up sparking tensions between Biden’s team and progressive activists simply for appearing at a Muslim delegates session during the Democratic National Convention. Biden’s team issued a statement distancing themselves from her — citing her criticism of the Israeli government — but activists rushed to Sarsour’s defense, spurring the campaign reportedly to apologize for the move during a call with Muslim leaders.

Sarsour also told me in November of last year it was difficult to inspire Muslim American voters — a key constituency in Michigan — to back Biden, because many doubted his White House would be able to offer “transformative change.”

What are the key causes driving the religious left’s activism in 2021?

The 2020 election fundamentally changed the posture of the religious left, shifting its relatively unified and profoundly defensive, protest-oriented approach while Trump was in office to a more stratified, legislation-focused approach with different groups emphasizing different priorities.

But current campaigns have a noticeable habit of overlapping. The Poor People’s Campaign (which, again, rejects the term religious left as well as terms like “left” and “right” in general) has been focused on poverty initiatives — particularly raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Their efforts have failed thus far, pushing the PPC to focus on eliminating the filibuster in the U.S. Senate — a major impediment to passing several sought-after pieces of legislation.

Ending the filibuster would also liken hasten the passage of a sweeping voting rights agenda championed by clergy — especially Black pastors in Georgia, Texas and Washington, D.C., including Sen. Raphael Warnock, himself a prominent Black pastor.

Meanwhile, a number of activists are already lobbying Biden and Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform and police reform, among other concerns.

How do you think the religious left rates Biden’s first 100 days in office?

In addition to cheering his work on the ongoing pandemic, religious left leaders have celebrated Biden’s efforts to cut child poverty, strengthen the Affordable Care Act, rejoin the Paris climate agreement and repeal the ban on most transgender Americans joining the military.

But fissures are already beginning to crack open, especially regarding the biggest political misstep of Biden’s first 100 days: his decision not to raise the refugee ceiling last month.

The move was widely seen as a broken promise by liberals in general and religious liberals in particular — especially since Biden reasserted his intent to raise the refugee ceiling while addressing an explicitly religious gathering shortly after winning the election last year. The backlash was swift: religious activists railed against the decision, as did the heads of the religious groups that help the government resettle refugees (six of the nine agencies that partner with the government to resettle refugees are faith-based).

True, the Biden administration reversed course within hours, suggesting the president would raise the refugee ceiling in May. But faith-based activists aren’t taking any chances, so I’d expect more activism as that date nears. (Note: Biden announced Monday that he’d raised the refugee ceiling for this fiscal year from 15,000 to 62,500.)

Let’s end on a lighter note. If you had to recommend a book, TV show, podcast or movie to someone who likes religion news, what would you recommend?

Well, I hear good things about this book called “American Prophets.” Someone told me it just came out in paperback, in fact. Just things I hear.

But setting shameless self-serving plugs aside, I’d point your readers to “One Night in Miami,” a film directed by Regina King and based on a screenplay was by Kemp Powers — a former reporter whose other writing credits include episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” and Pixar’s “Soul.” In addition to a gripping narrative and powerful performances, it features seemingly effortless — as well as effortlessly beautiful — depictions of Islam while painting a fictionalized account of very real gathering that took place in February 1964 involving Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.


Fresh off the press

As I mentioned above, my latest article looks at Biden’s most significant faith-related policy moves in the past three months and explores how religious groups feel about his presidency so far.


Term of the week: Orthodox Easter

If you, like me, saw social media posts over the weekend that said “Happy Easter!” you might have felt a sense of deja vu. Wasn’t Easter just celebrated in early April?

Yes, it was by some Christians, but members of Orthodox Christian traditions held their Easter festivities on May 2. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians typically celebrate the holiday on different days because they use different calendars. Orthodox Christians still go off the Julian calendar system, which predated the Gregorian one that most of the world uses today.


What I’m reading

With antisemitism on the rise around the world, mayors from communities across the country are working to protect American Jews. Religion News Service recently spoke with two such mayors about why such work is important. Each has been directly involved in caring for a community in the aftermath of a synagogue shooting. “On that day, I discovered that sometimes mayors have to be ministers, too,” said Steve Vaus, mayor of Poway, California.

One of my reporting mentors, Bob Smietana, released a fascinating series last week on the role of ghostwriters in the Christian world. Until I read his articles, I hadn’t realized how common it is for pastors to hire someone to help them write sermons or thought about how accusations of plagiarism could tear apart a congregation.


Odds and ends

If you’d like to read more about Biden’s first 100 days in office, check out CNN’s guide to his executive actions and The Associated Press’ overview of where he stands on key promises.

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