05/01/2008 10:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Politics of Religion in the United States

Who would have thought that at this point in the presidential campaign season it would be the Democrats who are embroiled in an intra-mural battle over the influence of a perceived religious extremist?

Remember, after all, it was the Republicans who played to form in their early May 3, 2007 debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. MSNBC moderator Chris Matthews asked "How many of you don't believe in evolution?" Three of the ten aspiring presidential candidates (former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado) raised their hands, thus confirming the stereotype that at least within some quarters of the evangelical Right, there has been little intellectual progress in the almost hundred years that have passed since the Scopes Monkey trial. As the evangelical church historian Mark Knoll once wrote, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

In addition, both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney clearly staked their presidential hopes by following George W. Bush's playbook of securing the evangelical base of the Republican party. As Romney desperately and all-too-transparently pandered to the Christian conservatives by reversing his positions on abortion and gay rights, Huckabee proudly pronounced himself as the authentic "Christian leader," forcing Romney to explain his Mormonism and eventually squeezing him out of the race to the chagrin of the Republican establishment. This was the Republican party that we expected. Right?

But much has changed. We are now witnessing not only an emergent progressive movement within evangelical Christianity (led by the likes of Sojourners director Jim Wallis, emergent church leaders Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and others), but more generally, a new politics of religion within the United States. With the success of the John McCain in securing the Republican nomination, it is clear that the evangelical Right no longer has a stranglehold on the Republican party.

But even for those who still count themselves as religious and political conservatives, there is a broadening of their concern beyond the hot-button issues associated with the culture wars. For every John Hagee, there are even more prominent evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren who have shown real leadership in the discussion about such issues as global poverty, AIDS in Africa, and global warming. The bombast and stridency of a Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson have become passé for this new generation of evangelicals.

Just as they've reached out, it is as if the Democrats have suddenly found their religious voice. For good or bad, those on the Left have learned the importance of speaking the language of "values" and how to frame their policy convictions in moral terms. Yet still, it seems the mainstream media and the campaign attacks have not quite caught pace. Consider the case of Obama over the past week: Is he a secular elitist who views religion as a crutch for the economically downtrodden (pace Thomas Frank) or a radicalized Black militant inflamed by the tenets of liberation theology (pace Jeremiah Wright)?

If your sense, like mine, is that neither of these tired and worn-out categories ring true and who have grown weary with the politics of religion that feeds on and exacerbates divisions, then my new book, which is co-edited by Neal Magee, called The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States might be just the book for you. It contains short and accessible essays by emerging young scholars who are working at the nexus of religion, politics, and culture. It does not shy away from exposing the absurdities of Bush's own religious rhetoric, from deconstructing the logic of evangelical Christianity and from pointing out the theocratic, even fascist, tendencies within certain elements of the religious Right. But it does not stop there. It also highlights the important contributes made both by radical religious visionaries and radical critics of religion throughout American history. It defines and introduces readers to the burgeoning movement of prophetic evangelicalism. And ultimately, it argues that the very terms religion and politics must be redefined and redirected if we as a nation have any hope of finding our way forward.

As stated in the books preface, now that the sleeping giant, which here refers to the political mobilization of religion, has been awoken, this and future elections will deal less with waking up the giant than they will with what it does now that it is awake. It seems to me we find ourselves at precisely that point now. If you pardon my mixing of metaphors, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle again, but what we can and must do is repudiate the narrow-minded religiosity that exploits fear even as it is driven by its own fear of change and that plays itself as victim of a hostile secular culture even as it sits in the very halls of power. And further, what we can and must do is harness and direct the power of religion towards a progressive political agenda.

This book's aim is to be one such effort towards precisely that end.