For most of human history...the task of imagining a different future and giving people the inspiration and courage to reach for it has been the primary role of religious prophets. (So has the job of warning the people that they're wandering into grave error or betraying their own values, and must change their ways or face disaster.) Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice -- the voice that calls people to transformative change. Throughout America's history, our most evocative political prophets -- both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Van Jones, Barack Obama -- have invariably been people who spent a lot of time in the pews, learning to speak the kind of language that calls us to a better place.This is one of the things that, in my judgment, the new atheists have most consistently neglected in their analysis of religion. Following the lead of sociologists of religion (such as Durkheim) who see religion primarily as a tool for social control and regulation, they have lost sight of the fact that some of the most important figures in the history of religion have been counter-cultural "prophets," that is, individuals who channeled a moral vision challenging the establishment and its beneficiaries.
What Jesus preached wasn't status quo religion. It wasn't an opiate of the masses. It wasn't primarily about getting people to conform to the standards of the community. It was, rather, about standing with those who were marginalized and against the privileged elites of the day; it was about speaking out for those who were oppressed by the dominant social system.
There can be no doubt that religion has served and continues to serve as a tool of social regulation. In a sense, Robinson makes this point herself when she discusses the power religion has to organize diverse people into a cohesive community willing to work together and make personal sacrifices for shared goals. But if we reduce religion to this dimension--if we lose sight of the prophetic tradition that shakes up society and challenges the status quo--we fail to fully understand religion even in its social dimension.
Another point that Robinson makes is that "over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture -- and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation. Many, if not most, progressives in America are progressive specifically because they believe that this is what their faith demands of them."
Again, the most vociferous anti-religious voices today seem to lose sight of the role that religious communities have played in cultivating the very values that the anti-religious themselves tend to espouse, the humanistic concern for all people, the separation of church and state, the commitment to gaining an unbiased understanding of how the world operates. It may well be true that conservative religious communities have been one of the biggest sources of resistance to these progressive values. But this is consistent with it being the case that liberal religion has been one of the primary inculcators of these values.
Indeed, were I not a Christian I would not be as adamant and committed in my support for gay rights as I am. In fighting for my gay and lesbian neighbors, I am motivated and energized by the love ethic that Jesus proclaimed so forcefully. If there is a reason I stand for same-sex marriage, it is because I take myself to be called by God, by the very font of creation, to love my neighbors as myself. And I cannot see how to do that if I am consistently marginalizing my gay and lesbian neighbors by denying them the right to participate in the bedrock social institution of our culture.
Robinson also highlights a point that I have been making for awhile: Free market capitalism, paired with the powerful and psychological nuanced tools available to advertisers and marketers, has been a driving force in magnifying consumption rates. In the absence of a counterbalancing force, capitalism would push us ever deeper into a materialist culture in which people look for happiness in the possession of things. After all, people by more stuff when they think stuff is the source of happiness. And businesses thrive when people buy more stuff.
Where can we find a social force strong enough to help resist this inevitable tide of consumerism--a tide which is not only pushing us to the brink of environmental collapse but is systematically misdirecting humanity, leading them to keep looking for joy and meaning in more shoes or bigger TVs? How many of us pine for those college days when we didn't have a penny to our names...and then comfort ourselves by going shopping? Advertising has enormous power to speak to our hunter-gatherer brains, to convince us subconsciously (even while we consciously know better) that love is found in a bottle of Axe Body Spray and contentment is found in a Calgon bath.
In the face of this reality, Robinson reminds us that "progressive religion has always been America's most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed." As she puts it,
...our liberal faith communities -- mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims -- are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.I would add that progressive religious communities are the place that continues to remind us of something Aristotle stressed: Happiness is not found in stringing together as much pleasure as possible, regardless of what we take pleasure in. Rather, an essential part of happiness is finding pleasure in the right things. Because this is true, it matters how marketers and advertisers are using their power to shape our desires, to influence what we find pleasure in. It matters a lot. The more we can find pleasure in things that don't put us in competition with others for a shrinking pot of limited material resources, the better off all of us will be.
And religion teaches not only that we should care for the material needs of the poor, but that the best life isn't one of endless material consumption. Once our basic needs are met, what most enriches our lives isn't a bigger clothes closet or more gadgets, but more belly laughs, more hours in the company of loved ones, more time engaged in collaborative community projects, more spiritual seeking, more prayer and meditation, more compassion, more hope, more time spent feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
I think this message is true. And I think if we want this message to catch hold in the face of powerful market forces inculcating a contrary message with every resource at their disposal, we need progressive religious communities. We need them desperately.