What’s Religion Good For? Progressives Weigh In

The answer many progressives give to the question, “What’s religion good for?” is troubling in at least two ways. Not only does it conflict with traditional understandings of religious freedom, it also does harm to the integrity of religion itself.

It turns out that there’s nothing grassroots about the groups “Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good” and “Catholics United.” Emails published by WikiLeaks reveal that they’re astroturf groups created by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and funded by George Soros and other outside donors “to organize for a moment like this.”

These emails certainly tell us a lot about the state of religion and politics today. But they also reveal an important and often overlooked historical connection. Those who have studied the progressive movement from the turn of the twentieth century onward probably won’t be surprised by WikiLeaks’ revelations.

The emails sent by Democratic Party operatives—including Podesta, John Halpin, and Jennifer Palmieri—certainly confirm what many conservatives have long believed. The types of liberals who associate with the Center for American Progress view traditionalist Catholics and Protestants with barely veiled contempt and disdain. Halpin sees them as bastardizing the faith, clinging to “severely backwards gender relations,” and willingly subjecting themselves to a “middle ages dictatorship.”

It’s clear that Podesta and others who have tried to force a “Catholic spring” have nakedly political motives. They’re frustrated by those Catholics who follow their church’s teachings on contraception and abortion and who have objected to some policies of the Obama administration, including Obamacare. One major goal of both Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United has been to weaken Catholic bishops’ ability to object to elements of Obamacare by working to divide and conquer the faithful.

Yet there’s something more than simple power politics evident in these emails. They reveal a view about the role religion should play in society that owes a great deal to early progressive reformers.

A Founding Mother of Progressivism

One of the founding mothers of the Progressive movement—a broad, diverse reform movement that arose at the turn of the twentieth century as an attempt to curb industrial society’s injustices—was Jane Addams. With good reason, many progressives today see her as an intellectual inspiration. She appears on the Nation’s list of the fifty most important progressives of the twentieth century. Hillary Clinton is among her many admirers and “has cited the work of Jane Addams on behalf of immigrant children as the type of service that has inspired her.”

Addams is an important historical figure in many ways. She was one of the first women in America to earn a college degree. Afterward, she struggled to find an outlet for her energies and abilities, but after visiting a settlement house in London, she found her life’s calling. With her close friend Ellen Starr, Addams established a settlement house in Chicago—Hull House—which opened its doors in 1889. Addams and Starr set up Hull House to provide services to poor immigrants, to reduce poverty, and to serve as a laboratory for political and economic reform.

Like other progressive reformers of her time, Addams was concerned about differences—whether of race, ethnicity, class, or religion. Indeed, she saw differences and divisions as profound problems. For her, the challenges of industrial-era cities made greater organization a necessity and continued disorganization a social sin. Her 1910 memoir Twenty Years at Hull House, which soon became a classic, reveals this. In it, she frequently criticizes members of Chicago’s many ethnic groups for being too parochial and trying to separate themselves from the broader society. Addams preached that they were inextricably linked to other city-dwellers. If they hoped to thrive, they had to work together toward a common good. In all areas—including sanitation, labor, education, politics, and religion—Addams saw the necessity of large-scale coordination and cooperation.

As a progressive, Addams believed that religion’s highest good was to serve community needs. In one section, she writes about being invited by a Jewish family in her neighborhood to attend their Passover Seder. Addams seems to appreciate the invitation and her hosts’ hospitality. But she also makes clear that she’s not very interested in the particular religious aspects of the ceremony. She explains, “Aside from the grave religious significance in the ceremony, my mind was filled with shifting pictures of woman’s labor with which travel makes one familiar,” recalling past visits to India, Tangiers, and southern Italy.

Addams wasn’t much interested in her Jewish neighbors’ observance of Passover in and of itself. But she was interested in the ways in which this Jewish ritual and culture might connect to and benefit the whole, the ways in which it might be a part of a larger community-building exercise. While her Jewish hosts were remembering a most concrete, particular event—their forebears’ houses, marked by the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, being passed by when God struck down the firstborn in Egypt—Jane Addams was thinking about comparative food preparation practices. This type of abstracting of religion and the capacities of religion for broad public purposes became one of the hallmarks of progressivism, beginning in the early twentieth century and extending to the present.

To be fair to Addams, she bore no ill will toward Jews or any of the other racial, ethnic, or religious minorities who lived in her Chicago neighborhood. But she wasn’t satisfied with their choice to live in their own separate subcultures either. She wanted them all to serve broader progressive goals, to help build bridges across different subcultures, and to work toward her vision of the common good. As a result, many historians have come to interpret Addams and like-minded progressive reformers as social engineers. In their work with ethnic and religious groups, Addams and others like her insisted that they must play their needed role in transforming American society along progressive lines.

Religion: Progressive or Particular?

The parallels to our time are striking. Whether looking at the WikiLeaks emails about religion by Podesta, Halpin, and Palmieri or the work of contemporary progressive groups more broadly, their interest is usually not in what religion is, but rather what religion might do—the purposes it might serve in society. Today’s progressives are often simultaneously amazed and frustrated by the energies and resources that religious people devote to the pursuit of their faith. Like their forebears, they instinctively try to redirect those energies and resources away from what they view as particular, narrow, and parochial issues toward more important public purposes, toward a redefined vision of the “common good.”

Like Addams, they’re frustrated at the narrow range of vision of many religious believers. Addams appreciated the love, kindness, and charity she saw among her neighbors, but she always wanted them to be framed in more public terms. Addams’s frustration in this area was one of the things that kept her from joining the Social Gospel movement that attracted many reform-oriented Christians in the early twentieth century. (Some studies of Addams have tried to place her in this camp, but the most convincing studies have shown that Addams didn’t consider herself to be a Social Gospeller.)

The problem with traditional Christianity, Addams thought, was that it was too individually focused and wasn’t used enough for communal public purposes. As a girl at school, Addams summed up feelings about her pious headmistress and all she represented this way: “She does everything for people merely from love of God alone, and that I do not like.”

Progressivism as Religion

Progressives today are inclined to see religion only as an abstract category or resource, ready to advance some global humanitarian cause. Particular causes and attachments, in their view, just get in the way of these broader goals.

This diminution of particulars and the exaltation of common public purposes have made progressivism into a religion for some of its adherents. Already in 1906, Addams’s fans touted her as “the only saint America has produced,” quoting a description of her by Current Literature. Porter R. Lee, one of the first professional social workers and a close friend and colleague of Addams’s, wrote appreciatively of how she had helped “translate the ideals of democracy and righteousness into the routine of life.”

Many progressives in our time continue trying to abstract religion and religious beliefs, increasingly for partisan political purposes. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United, now revealed as Democratic Party front groups, are concerned with an abstract and politicized idea of the common good rather than with Catholicism. Clicking on the “religion and values” button at the Center for American Progress webpage brings you to stories almost entirely about defending abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Although some elements of contemporary progressivism are clearly rooted in the movement’s beginnings, in other ways it has left those roots far behind. The American Progressive movement originally focused on issues such as poverty, workers’ rights, and political corruption. I suspect that progressives such as Jane Addams, “Fighting” Bob LaFollette, Florence Kelly, and Sidney Hillman would find large parts of today’s American left unrecognizable, particularly their focus on sexual liberation and identity politics.

Today’s progressives also tend to be more ignorant of religion and philosophy than their forebears, reflecting broader changes across American society. Sadly, when the phrase “common good” is used today, it’s often in a partisan political or purely rhetorical way. But the truest understanding of the common good should go beyond political victories or mere efforts to get along. Its roots are in philosophy and theology, relating to the very nature of the human person and human freedom. This makes John Halpin’s proud ignorance of Thomistic thought (“no one knows what the hell they’re talking about”) deeply ironic.

There certainly have  been plenty of genuine religious progressives. Dorothy Day, for example, retained the concrete particulars of her religious belief while pursuing progressive political and economic goals. But the WikiLeaks emails remind us that the most rich and powerful leftist groups today reduce religious belief and expression to the lowest common denominator, toward a new narrow and politicized vision of the “common good.”

The answer many progressives give to the question, “What’s religion good for?” is troubling in at least two ways. Not only does it conflict with traditional understandings of religious freedom, it also does harm to the integrity of religion itself. Religion—whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu—is a real, vibrant, particular human experience that makes concrete truth claims about the nature of reality. It shouldn’t be abstracted, generalized, and emptied of its content simply to serve communal or political purposes.

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