By Jack Jenkins. HarperOne, 2020. 352 pages. $27.99/hardcover; $12.99/eBook.
In the publication of books on the religious right, there is no end. White evangelicals have been the most consistent supporters of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and a cottage industry of authors has emerged to explain their thinking. Journalist Jack Jenkins’s American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country is one of the rare books that explains the other pole of religion and politics: the progressive faith communities that have made up the religious left and opposed Republican policies.
Jenkins makes clear that he is not writing a comprehensive history; instead, the book is a contemporary account that examines where the religious left has made an impact. Chapters cover immigration policies, LGBTQ rights, the environment, economics, interfaith activism, and other issues. Jenkins is a sympathetic chronicler of the movement, having spent time both connected with the Democratic Party and working as a religion reporter.
One refreshing aspect of American Prophets is that Jenkins does not try to portray the religious left as rising above the fray of partisan politics simply because it is religious; rather, the loosely connected movement of clergy and laity is clearly aligned with the Democrats against the Republicans. In this book, religion matters in electoral politics. Jenkins points out that President Barack Obama’s 2012 faith outreach meant that he managed to “shave off a section of the evangelical vote in the general election,” making particularly important gains among young evangelicals in swing states. The religious left also shapes the legislative process. In the first chapter, Jenkins argues that the passage of the monumental Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 was made possible by strong alliances between faith-centered policymakers and religious activists, boldly claiming that “if it weren’t for the Religious Left, the ACA probably wouldn’t exist.” Prominent leaders, groups, and organizations connected to the effort are lifted up in Jenkins’s recounting of the events that led to the ACA, including John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP); Carol Keehan, a nun in the Daughters of Charity and head of the Catholic Health Association; and the Faith in Public Life project, which was created by CAP in 2005 and is now an independent organization. These players were largely responsible for framing the healthcare policy conversation in a “profoundly moral context,” one that centered “health care as a basic human right.”
Readers of American Prophets get a thorough introduction to the personalities and organizations that make up this rich religious movement. William J. Barber II, the Disciples of Christ minister and charismatic leader of the Moral Mondays protest movement in North Carolina, appears in the pages alongside Sharon Brous, the outspoken rabbi in charge of the IKAR (“essence” in Hebrew) Jewish community in Los Angeles, and the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson. Jenkins explains the religious left’s involvement in trying to counter White supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and he interviews participants about the vibrant religious community that grew up around the pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota and South Dakota. Jenkins is keen to remind readers that the religious left is made up of “far more than activist organizations that conveniently help Democrats”; they are first and foremost religious communities, and he pays particular attention to that dimension.
Jenkins’s admiration for the religious left at times leads him to depict the movement as more unified than it is. Jenkins acknowledges that the coalition can at times be fractious, noting that some progressive White evangelicals and Black Protestants are opposed to same-sex marriage, and that there have been heated discussions between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim activists on the topic of Israel and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Yet Jenkins generally gives the impression the religious left is a cohesive and coordinated whole, brushing past some of the serious theological, cultural, racial, and political divisions that occur even among allies. The book is ultimately an admiring portrayal but one that would have benefited from a more thorough consideration of the flaws that have kept the religious left from being as potent a political force as the religious right.
Ultimately, American Prophets is an important work of journalism that documents a crucial movement in U.S. religious life that receives far too little public attention. Quakers are likely familiar with several of the efforts for social justice that are described in this book, as many Friends have taken an active part in furthering these causes. Though he seldom mentions Quakers, Jenkins provides a larger perspective, which will allow Friends to see where their own labors intersect with work being done by others on the religious left. Quakers would benefit from reading this book and understanding themselves as one part of this surprisingly diverse multiracial and interreligious community.
Isaac Barnes May is an assistant professor of American Studies and a Project on Lived Theology research fellow at the University of Virginia. Isaac is a member of Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting.