In 2021, religious figures capturing political headlines usually come from the far right. Their engagement ranges from pushing for restrictions on abortion and LGBTQ rights to relentlessly promoting former president Donald Trump. Most recently, right-wing pastors have offered to help people receive religious exemptions from coronavirus vaccine mandates in exchange for contributions. As midterm election campaigns kick off, religious conservatives will mobilize behind Republicans, looking to build on recent gains in places like Texas. While figures like the Rev. William Barber, who founded Moral Mondays, continue to agitate from the religious left, they have far less impact on national politics.
But it wasn’t always this way.
The power of religion to advance liberal goals was on display in an iconic photograph taken on March 21, 1965. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walks arm in arm with prominent civil rights activists, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche. A nun on the other end of the front line of marchers is holding civil rights activist John Lewis, whose skull Alabama state troopers had fractured two weeks earlier during another march for voting rights. During the 1960s, Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, stood at the nexus of religious leaders who linked tradition, theology and ritualistic practice to the fight against social injustice.
But in the 1970s, in the words of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a liberal rabbinical association, the “Christian Right” claimed the “Public religious space.” Subsequently, even within Judaism, tensions over Israel have dominated political debates, while neoconservative voices have become pronounced.
Yet secular activists would do well to see the potential of the religious left. Religious leaders like Heschel imbued the push for liberal policy with a level of moral authority that benefited the social movements of the 1960s. Figures such as Barber offer an immense resource as liberals confront pushback from party leaders who worry their agenda goes too far and entrenched opposition from Republicans. Embracing the religious left could make social reforms far more achievable.
For Heschel, the Jewish tradition was deeply connected to the fight for social justice. An immigrant from Warsaw who had been forced out of Germany by the Gestapo in 1938, Heschel arrived in the United States in 1940 as part of a program to rescue European Jewish intellectuals.