When Reverend Rick Warren handles the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration next week, the day after we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, many Democrats will be disappointed and hurt, even with the recent announcement that the progressive minister Sharon Watkins will give the sermon at the national prayer service on the day following the inauguration.
When Obama selected Warren, an outspoken social conservative -- who supported the campaign against gay marriage in California and has made numerous disparaging comments about homosexuals and women -- to give the invocation at the inauguration, many of Obama's supporters were furious. To select a person whose views stand in such contradiction to progressive Democratic principles seemed an affront to what this campaign was about. The invocation is just a symbol, but symbols matter in politics, and this one does not sit well with many Democrats.
There was another reason that many of Obama's supporters were hurt by the decision. This was a slap in the face to many activists given that Obama's victory benefited from a dramatic mobilization by progressive religious leaders and organizations to bring back the religiously faithful into the Democratic camp -- to separate the notion that there is an inevitable connection between conservatism and religion.
Making that separation has been difficult. Since the 1970s, conservative religious organizations and leaders dominated national politics. The Religious Right tapped into a tradition of political activism, most famously rooted in the fundamentalist attacks on Charles Darwin and evolution in the 1920s, and connected themselves to the Republican Party. While religious conservatives often felt that they were ignored by Republicans after the elections were over, they stuck with the GOP. They became an important source of electoral support for the party. Not only did evangelicals move solidly to the Republican fold, but formerly Democratic groups like Catholics did as well. This election cycle, desperate to stimulate enthusiasm within the base, John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his candidate because of her ties to this community.
But in the 2008 election, the strategy didn't work. Polls show that many religious Americans did not automatically move toward the right. Although most evangelicals refused to budge, younger evangelicals turned out for Obama. Catholics moved back to the Democrats and Jews and mainline Protestants voted for Obama in very high numbers.
The disillusionment with the Bush administration, and the conservatism that he represented, has left some religious Americans scratching their heads and rethinking their political affiliation. The mobilization of Democrats through organizations devoted to winning back the religious vote, such as Matthew 25, proved to be effective. While much of the press was focused on Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his polemical sermons in Chicago, there was much less attention paid to the dramatic emergence of new liberal religious organizations who were pivotal to Barack Obama's campaign.
The history of liberal religious activism is nothing new and the current generation of leaders would do well to gain a better understanding of just how deep this tradition is. Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics is a perfect starting point. The book traces the connection between religion and politics since the founding of the nation. Lambert provides some fascinating analysis of moments when liberal religious figures were influential.
When some American groups started to fight against the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century, religious leaders were pivotal. A host of religious organizations drew on Christian theology to attack slavery. Churches split along regional lines as early as the 1830s. Some northern religious leaders accused southerners of privileging the "Slave Power" over God.
Religion was also an engine behind social reform during the progressive era. The Social Gospel Movement was composed of religious leaders who railed against the social conditions that many working and lower class Americans faced in industrial and urban America. Liberal Protestant and Catholics as well as Reform Jews were at the forefront of the campaign to combat the blight found in urban America. One member of the social gospel movement, Charles Brown, told Church leaders in 1904 that "Jesus would found the social order on the basis of human brotherhood in the service one another" rather than capitalist profit.
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, religious leaders were some of the most progressive voices on issues of war, social justice, and civil rights. The national Council of Churches, formed in 1950, preached the need for religious pluralism and tolerance. The Federal Council of Churches issued a statement in 1946 opposing America's decision to drop the Atomic bomb, proclaiming that "As American Christians, we are deeply penitent for the irresponsible use already made of the atomic bomb."
Black churches and preachers, such as Martin Luther King, headed the civil rights movement that transformed America and culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They drew on religious wisdom and rhetoric to explain their cause. There were many Jewish leaders and Jewish college students who marched with African-Americans in the South. Even as civil rights moved leftward, the clergy continued to participate. There was a small cohort of black ministers who formed the National Committee of Black Churchmen, which broke from the National Council of Churches, who said: "Black Theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity...."
The possibility for a revival of religious liberalism is very real. Warren no longer has to be the face of religion in American politics. The election showed there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in attracting evangelical voters to the Democratic Party. But the changes that we have seen among religious Americans are significant and the emergence of leftward religious organizations has altered the political landscape. The leaders involved in this shift would do well to look back at their own history, traced so well in Lambert's book, to draw ideas and wisdom from previous moments when conservatism did not have a lock on this relationship.
More soon from the academy....
Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books. For more information, see