Caring For The Least of These: Does religion provide a way forward for Southern progressivism?

Sarah and I were in St. Louis recently for a Spring Break vacation. While we were there, we met up with a friend of mine from my days at the University of Missouri for breakfast. After some discussion about the comings and goings of our individual lives, we eventually turned to politics. He got on me for being so hardline about the need for Southern progressives to talk like they are Southern progressives, instead of relying on the sort of conservative rhetoric that has traditionally produced short-term victories at the expense of long-time movement building. At one point in our discussion, he said the following:

Friend: So let’s say you had the opportunity to go to China and build an independent trade union there. What would you tell the workers there? Why should they join your union?

Me: I would tell them that they should join the union to have a greater say in their workplace, so that they could bargain for rights and wages and benefits, etc….

Friend: Do you know why you will be unsuccessful?

Me: Because they might not be used to independent trade organizations?

Friend: No. It’s because you don’t speaking fucking Mandarin! That’s the problem with the way that you are approaching things, Douglas; you aren’t speaking the language of the people that you’re trying to organize.

I thought about that for a second and dismissed it as crap. One of the consequences of speaking out as progressives in areas that have been traditionally hostile to progressivism is that we may have to give up the short-term victories that we are used to in the South. But when we start winning, it will be on our terms. It is always better to build a sturdy foundation at a very slow pace than to build a weak foundation that will blow away at the next strong wind.

But then again….maybe my friend has a point to a limited extent. Maybe there is a way that progressives can reach Southerners with methods that regular folks can understand without diluting the potency of the message. How might we be able to do this?

Two words: The Bible.

Religion courses through Southern life in the same way that blood courses through our veins. According to a Gallup poll released last year, eight of the ten most religious states are in the South. The most popular weatherman in Alabama (and likely the South) is also a Sunday School teacher, as was Jimmy Carter, who served as Governor of Georgia and the 39th President of the United States. Listen to any major elected official in the South, and it will not take long before they begin to talk about their faith has influenced them. Hell, it is even a staple in Democratic political ads down here:

But as you listen to those commercials, personal faith is being used by candidates to justify running away from core progressive values. Indeed, that is the only side to religion and faith that many progressive Southerners see; elected officials using the liberating Word of Jesus Christ to justify the sort of oppression that He railed against throughout the Bible. Restrictions on reproductive justice? Tax cuts? The wholesale destruction of the welfare state? All justified by the Bible, apparently. Matthew talks about caring for the “least of these”, yet how many Southern governors have decided not to expand Medicaid for the poor? How many places can you witness human suffering in your own backyard down here? As the Rev. Jim Rigby states in this piece about the progressive Christian community in Texas:

“How many times did Jesus talk about homosexuality?” Rigby asks. “Abortion? A flat tax? Zero. How many times did he talk about sharing everything and not judging? The great themes are about liberation and about love.”

The greatest Southern progressive movement of all time, the Civil Rights Movement, was incubated in churches across the South. Despite that, it seems that contemporary Southern progressives have been unable to effectively harness the power of religion to make the case for progressive change.

We know that there are progressive churches in the South; in Tuscaloosa alone, I have counted three in the two years that I have lived here. There are two Reconciling Congregations (GLBTQ-affirming United Methodist churches) in Alabama, and 38 across the South, with many more Reconciling communities of faith, study groups, and campus ministries. Given that my experience with progressive churches has largely been limited to the United Methodist Church, there is no telling how large the progressive faith community is down here. A 2009 poll showed that the South had the highest proportion of known progressive religious activists. Just think about all of the progressive issues that we could push forward if we all banded together on a regular basis and spoke out for those who cannot? If we spent a little bit of time working our neighbors and having those sometimes uncomfortable conversations about human suffering and injustice? Simply letting Southern progressive Christians know that there is a community of like-minded people that exists can be what lights the fire of people and encourages them to get more involved in making change in the South.

If you question whether this approach can work on a population that sometimes seems hardened to anything progressive, I am your living example that it can. I came up in the Baptist church in Virginia, and it was not at all affirming. As such, my beliefs and worldview mirrored that of my church: I was anti-GLBTQ and I thought that abortion was a form of murder and an unconscionable crime. I acquiesced to capitalism, and never thought about the effects that it had on the environment, poverty, or workers rights; why would I? Many churches were preaching the “gospel of wealth”, and such considerations seemed insignificant. While my turn to the Left began long before I walked through the doors of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis (I did not join the church until 2009, and I began my progressive journey around late 2002-early 2003), my experience there quickened it. I was at a church that, for the first time, preached about poverty as a social ill, and not a personal failing. Hunger. Environmental degradation. The lack of rights for children and other vulnerable communities. I saw the Gospel of Social Justice in action, with a jobs center and various meals programs for the homeless in downtown and lobbying for the rights of GLBTQ persons at the State Capitol. I saw an engagement with the community on matters of justice and policy that I had never witnessed before at church, and it had a profound impact on my development as a person.

My friend was right in a way; we must talk with communities, not at them or down to them. If we are going to do that in the South, we must take our progressive message of justice, dignity, and realizing the full potential of all human beings and make it real to everyday people. There is no better way to do that than getting our neighbors to fully consider the question that has become fodder for bumper stickers and wristbands across the world:

What would Jesus do?