Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Non-Messianic Progressive Movement Politics

This may be my only chance to blog for the week. There some events happening in Denver, CO that I want to pay close attention to. ūüôā

As we in the U.S. have these political conventions and the Fall final campaigns for U.S. president (and many other “downticket” races that are just as important in the long haul), I want to articulate that my primary earthly political allegiance is to what I am calling “non-messianic progressive movement politics.”¬† I think this is an appropriate role for Christians or other persons of faith. Yes, I am a registered Democrat, but no my major concerns aren’t with the success of the Democratic Party–except and only as far as, the Democrats are a vehicle for progressive social change.¬† This hasn’t always been the case: The Democratic Party began as the Democratic-Republican Party in the age of Jefferson–progressive on issues like religious liberty, but champions of slavery. As it transformed to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, it became the champion of “ordinary citizens,” rather than just the landed gentry, but only if those “ordinary citizens” were white males.¬† (Every woman and person of color must have very mixed feelings going to annual “Jefferson-Jackson” dinners held by the Democratic Party.) Jackson is not a name that could evoke good feelings for Native Americans, since he is responsible for the Trail of Tears and for increasing the genocidal policies of the U.S. to the earliest Americans/first immigrants.¬† And Jackson’s party was a party which continued to champion slavery.¬† After the Civil War, the Democratic Party fought Reconstruction, mostly fought equal rights for women (Democrats in Kansas and elsewhere sometimes championed voting rights for white women because they hoped it would help keep African-Americans “in their place”), and championed segregation/Jim Crow.¬† During much of this time it was the Republican Party who, despite their otherwise firm support for big business, pushed for the expansion of rights for women and racial minorities.¬† That did not change until 1964-1972.

My earthly political commitments are primarily to movements for peace, for racial and gender justice, justice for persons of all sexual orientations or gender identies, for ECONOMIC JUSTICE FOR THE POOR (which is the largest ethical theme of both Testaments of the Holy Bible, but NOT the major ethical priority of far too many U.S. churches), for the health and integrity of God’s creation, for the empowerment of the marginalized and weak and for checks and accountability for all those who have economic or political power.¬† To the extent that Democrats stand for those things, to that extent ONLY will I support them with my money, time, and vote. I will also continue to help people movements pressure them (and Republicans and everyone else) to be more progressive, more just, than they otherwise would be–and to hold them accountable for their actions.¬† No one gets a free ride, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) whom I am praying will become the next president of these United States.

Such movement politics is non-messianic because it doesn’t expect any political leader or movement leader to save us, not even politically. It expects all leaders to be flawed and to need to be pushed and to be accountable by people movements.¬† It takes a long haul look and, for Christians, figures that the job of Messiah is already filled.¬†

The strategy is one of inside/outside pressure: Electing (flawed, human, frail, but good) good, progressive candidates who want to make strong changes for justice, peace, and ecological integrity–those who work within the system, but also hope to change it for the better.¬† But also continuing to organize people movements outside the system which can go further on their own, can change the terms of debate, and can hold leaders and parties accountable. (Conservatives ought to try this as well. After all, for the first 6 years of G.W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans had control of all 3 branches of the federal government, but made no move to restrict abortions, despite campaign promises to the contrary.¬† I am pro-choice, but I believe the huge numbers of abortions are grossly immoral and that abortion needs to become a rare choice for tragic events.¬† I am glad that pro-lifers have pushed the Democratic Party to put reducing abortions into this year’s party platform–and we need to hold them to it.)¬† As one example, see the Million Doors for Peace Campaign to be held this fall, beginning 20 September.¬† Other examples: The One Campaign against povery used the announcement that Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) was to be Obama’s running mate to rally members to send Biden a petition to join the One movement and dedicate his energy and position to eliminating hunger and poverty worldwide.¬† (They had done similar petitions to both party platform committees, succeeding with the Democrats, and plan on emailing a petition to McCain’s running mate when s/he is announced–although it is probably Romney.) True Majority is pushing for Democratic candidates to endorse a Next New Deal for a greener, healthier economy from the bottom up with better education for all.¬† There will be a major conference on torture in September, hosted by Evangelicals for Human Rights.¬† And so it goes: not just electing candidates, but pushing them and holding them accountable.

All politicians, even great leaders, need to be pushed by people movements.¬† Abraham Lincoln had to be pushed to give the Emancipation Proclamation–he was far more cautious about ending slavery than he should have been.¬† Franklin D. Roosevelt was originally a moderate alternative to the plutocracy of Herbert Hoover–he had to be constantly pushed to make the New Deal more progressive.¬† Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson were originally lukewarm to the Civil Rights Movement (as Eisenhower had been–and Nixon hated it with a passion) and more worried about the way it could alienate whites from the Democratic Party than about true racial justice. They had to be pushed.

This does not make electoral politics unimportant:  Progressives have spent the last 8 years trying to contain the damage caused by Bush and I believe that would also be what we would be doing during a McCain presidency.  I would rather be working to make important gains for justice, peace, and ecological integrity than working to keep the damage to a minimum. 

But electoral politics are not everything.¬† And sometimes, elected officials change–as in the example of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).¬† I am a Democrat, but I have voted for Republicans before when they were the better candidates, and will again, no doubt. I said months ago that if retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) of Nebraska, one of the few Republicans who voted against the invasion of Iraq and has been a constant voice for ending it, ran and won the GOP nomination and the Democrats elected a hawk, I would vote for Hagel.¬† I stand by that, but it didn’t happen. Hagel didn’t run and the GOP nominated a superhawk–who was once a maverick on other important issues, but has run on continuing Bush’s agenda into the future.¬† Meanwhile, the Democrats, while not nominating their most progressive candidate (Kucinich) or one of the others to the left of Obama (and I now thank God that John Edwards didn’t win the nomination!), did select someone more committed to peace and justice than any presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (who also had his cautious, conservative side).

I hope Sen. Obama becomes President Obama–but if he does, I will work to hold him accountable and if he doesn’t, my commitment to non-messianic progressive movement politics continues.¬† After the Convention, I hope to follow this post up with a reflection on the transnational calling of Christians (as Jews before us) to be a creatively maladjusted minority (“transformed and transforming nonconformists” in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words) in whatever society we live–rather than either to rule or withdraw.


August 25, 2008 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. Thanks for posting this. As you might have seen (http://returngood.com/2008/08/21/endorsements/) I am struggling with how to fit my inclination for politics with my faith, and I enjoy seeing how others think about it.

    Comment by dcrowe | August 25, 2008

  2. Michael,

    This is well said. I have quite similar leanings as you (though I seriously disagree with you on abortion), but I hang around a lot of self proclaimed “sectarians” who I respect and admire. However, they always end up fearing I’m “compromising” and putting my faith in the earthly city, and I fear they’re being covertly duplicitous, because they fail to recognize their complicity in many other areas that come with being an American. It’s always a good conversation to have.

    Personally, I see voting as a matter of prudential judgment, not just principles, though principles are involved. I think this election could truly change at least a few important things in American society: 1) healthcare reform is truly in our grasp, which would make care more readily available for the least of these. 2) The war in Iraq and moving toward some resolution in this debacle. 3) More just economic policies because I do believe Obama will better regulate the so called free market, which not even Bill Clinton did. This also includes a more responsible energy policy. Of course, my positions are much radical than the democratic party, but they are the closest and are moving in towards my positions. Perhaps someday I will elect not to vote in an election, but that will depend on the situation. Until then, I will vote for the part which moves the most toward my own positions.


    Tim F.

    Comment by Tim F. | August 26, 2008

  3. Rick Warren on the Evangelical Left and Jim Wallis:


    ‘Overhyped.” That’s how the Rev. Rick Warren describes the notion that the evangelical vote is “up for grabs” in this election. But what about the significance of the evangelical left, I asked the pastor of Saddleback Church after his forum with the presidential candidates last weekend. “This big,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

    Sitting on a small stone patio outside the church’s “green room,” I question him further — has he heard that the Democratic Party is changing its abortion platform? “Window dressing,” he replies. “Too little, too late.” But Rev. Jim Wallis, the self-described progressive evangelical, has been saying that the change is a big victory. “Jim Wallis is a spokesman for the Democratic Party,” Mr. Warren responds dismissively. “His book reads like the party platform.”

    Comment by Jennifer | August 27, 2008

  4. Warren may have a point about Wallis’ most recent books. His earlier books were far more radical and independent than Democratic politics. But Warren must not be reading recent studies by the Pew Center showing that most Americans want churches to ‘stay out of’ electoral politics.
    The Religious Right’s leaders are dying off and it’s influence is shrinking–although it may still be able to rally for this election cycle.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 27, 2008

  5. […] wrote about a topic on my mind: how to reconcile a detachment from the kingdoms of the world with citizenship in the […]

    Pingback by Link Roundup « Return Good for Evil | August 28, 2008

  6. How’s Sarah Palin for ‘progressive’? Flipped on its head and backwards?

    Gutsy or stupid; I’m not so sure.

    Great post, by the way. Exactly proper, but, unfortunately, I don’t see Christians in America ever holding on that loosely to politics in general. The pendulum just swings from left to right.

    Comment by Chris Donato | August 29, 2008

  7. Hi Michael,

    You do well to acknowledge the lukewarmness of the Democratic Party to integration, but I don’t think you give enough credit to Nixon. He actually put some teeth into school desegregation. Schools actually got integrated under his administration.

    Comment by James Pate | August 30, 2008

  8. […] Michael Westmoreland-White’s non-messianic progressive politics […]

    Pingback by Politics and Christianity: Some Perspectives « Theology Forum | September 5, 2008

  9. There’s an article at The Nation’s website that hits some relevant notes: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080915/hayden2

    Comment by dcrowe | September 5, 2008

  10. Come on Michael, time for you to get blogging again!

    Comment by Curious Presbyterian | September 8, 2008

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