Column: Freshman congresswomen reopen debate about religion’s role in politics


Faith, Race and Progressive Politics in the Democratic Party

alt text By Tessine Murji, Reporter, The Real Chi

Within mainstream American culture exists a polarized spectrum where religion is painted as either an oppressive barrier to freedom or as an emancipatory path to ultimate salvation. As a result- those trying to exist in the gray zone between holding progressive beliefs and maintaining theist values are held at a public moral standstill.

Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have faced extreme scrutiny from establishment Democrats in Washington since taking office. They’ve had to publically prove their Americanness to be taken seriously in the political sphere; consequently introducing a conversation about faith, race and progressive politics to our zeitgeist. 

Dr. Heath Carter, associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago,” described the mutually evolving/devolving status of religion and the American political left through a pre and post Cold War framework. 

“In the not so distant past, during the Civil Rights era and what not, you had a Christian [leftist] consciousness that saw an intuitive connection between faith and politics,” said Carter. 

“When they see a black Muslim, it cuts across stereotypes.”

During the Cold War, Carter explained, the Christian right successfully co-opted religious rhetoric from the left by labeling Civil Rights activists as communists. 

This time period allowed Republicans to weaponize religious rhetoric from the left and sell a political conservatism rooted in free market policies and Christian doctrine. Because anything related to communism like advocating for worker’s rights and concepts of economic/social equality were seen as taboo during the Red Scare, the shift in political religiousness from left to right succeeded and has dominated the political-religious narrative since.

Marlon Millner, PhD candidate at Northwestern’s divinity school, said there isn’t room for religious groups in mainstream progressive discourse; that leftist conversations are dominated by white liberals who are theoretically dedicated to anti-oppressive ways of thinking but who actively exclude religious voices from the political sphere; adding that most religious people come from marginalized racial backgrounds and lower socioeconomic statuses; making the exclusion of religious voices in politics an exclusion of black, brown and poor people in politics.

“Progressive voices in a paradoxical way are tied to a type of neoliberal capitalism. They’re complicit on the structure they think they are resisting. These acts of philanthropy and equity are dependent on structural injustice, and on the marginalization of religious voices that are marked in racist terms,” said Millner. “The left wants us to think they’re not doing anything wrong, [by dismissing religion in the name of reason] but black folks can’t get to the table without a radical disavowal of religion. King was good but his references to the Bible are seen as irrelevant.”

"..These acts of philanthropy and equity are dependent on structural injustice, and on the marginalization of religious voices that are marked in racist terms."

Carter had a more positive take, and noted that establishment Democrats are aware the Black Church holds a lot of clout when it comes to the political sphere. He cited Reverend William Barber’s involvement with the 2016 election and Obama’s gospel-like rhetoric as proof establishment Democrats acknowledge, if anything, the connection between black people and Christianity. 

Jimmy Rothschild, member of If Not Now, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Never Again, and other progressive Jewish groups around Chicago said that religion is a deeply intersectional tradition; that for Muslims, Jews and non-white Christians; culture and religion don’t exist separately, in a vacuum, they exist tangentially and intersect in ways white culture and white Protestantism, for example, don’t.

“All of these traditions have this melding of textual, cultural, ritual and linguistic elements that are really wrapped together in a way northern-European Christian religiosity isn’t. We think about religion in the U.S. as private, and that it’s just about belief; for so many people, expressing your religion is not about your private relationship with the divine. In the Jewish context, the Muslim context, the hispanic Catholic context, religion is more about what you do than what you believe,” said Rothchild. “You can’t separate the Civil Rights Movement from the Black Church.”

"..I don’t see any way in which the Dems will flourish at the national level without taking faith seriously."

Rothschild said Democratic representatives can’t digest Congresswoman Omar’s political rhetoric seriously because they haven’t found a way to pigeonhole her identity yet. “When they see a black Muslim, it cuts across stereotypes,” said Rothschild. “People’s stereotypes of Muslims are right-wing, and they assume all black people are left and liberal.”

Carter noted Omar’s Muslimness is foreign to American religiosity in “the public square,” whereas Christianity and Judaism in the public square have had more time to marinate and become more palatable to the liberal American public. 

“I think this is a real tension in the party. I don’t see any way in which the Dems will flourish at the national level without taking faith seriously. if anything religious voices will get more hearing in the years to come.”