In my discussions about religion with secular liberals, a certain dynamic has become disturbingly familiar. Again and again, they will listen patiently to me talk about a liberation, feminist, or even just plain liberal theological perspective and then authoritatively declare, “That will never catch on.” A reading of the Bible that goes against long-standing tradition? “Too much of a stretch” — and, for some of them, even potentially dishonest.
What is so frustrating about this is that there are actual communities of actual human beings who live out the doctrines I’m talking about. There are still liberation theology-centered “base communities” in Latin America today, and there are feminist spirituality groups that serve as many women’s primary religious affiliation — not to mention liberal churches that, every Sunday, have women preachers, gender-inclusive and feminine language for God, and programs oriented toward social justice. These groups admittedly do not form the majority of Christians, and it is likely that they never will. And yet they exist — whether these teachings will “work” or “convince anyone” is not a hypothetical. They’ve had real effects on real people in the real world. And still: “it’ll never catch on.”
What is going on here? I would suggest that it’s something we might call “home-grown Orientalism.” Just as the Orientalist scholar critiqued by Said approached the Oriental as an eternal, unchanging essence that only the scholar can authoritatively speak for, so also does the contemporary secular liberal believe that religion is an unchanging essence that only the secular liberal can speak for. Secular liberals are amazingly adept at picking out which versions of Christianity are most credible, for example — and those are invariably the most tradition-bound or fundamentalist versions.
Other types of Christians are waved away as marginal, viewed as oddities at best and equivocating cowards at worst. What value-add is there to being a Christian for a liberal, after all? That is in fact a good question, and I’m not sure of the answer — and so maybe I could ask a liberal Christian and we could talk about it! But that never occurs to the secular liberal, because they already know what religion is all about — it appeals to people because of the unquestioning certainty it brings. In some of their more generous moments, secular liberals can even admit that they admire and perhaps envy the conviction of the religious person. But any religious person who doesn’t seem to them to fall into that category just doesn’t exist for them. You can remind them, and they will grudgingly admit that yes, there are still Episcopalians in this world. Yet as soon as things get going again, the Episcopalians have disappeared and the fundamentalists rule the day yet again!
In reality, of course, lived religion is not normally about unquestioning certainty. Nearly every religious person I’ve met has gone through periods of serious doubt and struggle — and indeed, I’d bet that a big proportion of those who seem most certain are fighting off an episode like that. Nor is religious belief or scriptural interpretation about simple assertion of axiomatic truths. They are arenas of argument and debate, just like all other important areas of human life. Nor indeed is doctrine the main attraction of religion for most people. What tends to happen is that someone finds a particular community attractive and then gradually begins to believe as they do. This is observable in other human social interactions as well, and we shouldn’t be surprised at this correspondence, since religion is something that human beings do and, as a corrolary, religious people are full human beings, with all the complexity and weirdness that implies. This is not to say that the religious right shouldn’t be opposed — but they should be opposed because they advocate bad things that hurt people, not because they advocate them in a particularly unquestioning way, etc.
One would think such insights would be readily available to secular liberals, who are widely renowned for their empathy with others and openness to other viewpoints. Yet one would be mistaken, because secular liberals are so empathetic that they don’t even have to ask people how they feel, so open-minded that they don’t even have to expose themselves to other views. And who better to empathize with and be open-minded toward than their polar opposite, the religious fundamentalist? Love your enemies, indeed! The numerical successes of conservative Christianity vs. liberal Christianity in recent decades is inarguable — yet one wonders how mainstream, how “dominant,” how unquestionably representative such Christians would seem to be be if the secular liberal guardians of the public sphere had not designated them as such, if they had not decided, for their own reasons, that they are the Christians who “count.”