Why Is the Left So Weak and the Right So Strong? (Final posting in a series on liberation theology)

Not long ago, when I was working with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I twice ran into a question that frequently surfaces among liberals.  The question was first posed at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting after a paper by an American political scientist. It was a pre- July 4th presentation entitled, “Democracy Matters.”  A week later, the question came up following a talk by a Mexican activist on his country’s current political context. In both cases someone asked, “Why is the political left so weak and the right so strong?”

The Mexican activist sharpened the question by observing that the political left is not weak everywhere. Yes, it is feeble in the United States, he remarked. However such weakness is not true of Latin America. The left and its solidarity movements are actually waxing there. And they really have been over the last half-century at least. Recall, he reminded us, that Cuba’s revolution in 1959 ignited a “Latin American Spring” everywhere south of the U.S. border. Only the U.S. sponsored installation of military regimes throughout the region – everywhere but Mexico and Costa Rica – prevented the complete triumph of progressive forces in that part of the world. And those forces are coalescing once again today. They’re electing progressive governments across the region. It’s a mistake, he said, to universalize U.S. experience.

The activist was perceptive in his distinction. As a theologian, I would add that the difference between the Latin American left and the U.S. left is the difference between Latin America in general and the United States. And it’s all connected with religion. Like Americans north of the border, most Latin Americans claim to be Christians. However, the left in Latin America has learned to use that fact in the service of social justice and profound political change. (Here I’m referring to liberation theology.)

In the United States, that has not been the case. There, religion has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the conservative right. This is because intellectuals on the U.S. left have surrendered to the right the religious language, symbols and metaphors that actually motivate ordinary people. Put otherwise, the U.S. intelligentsia tends either to ignore religion or to treat it with disdain – as fanatical, pre-scientific and therefore not worthy of serious analysis, much less of scholarly appropriation. Such attitude, I have implied in this series, is entirely counterproductive. It can be remedied by appropriating the roots of the critical thought essential for those concerned with social justice, and indispensable for mobilizing the grassroots majority. Those roots are to be found within the Christian tradition itself as identified by liberation theologians.

Put otherwise, we on the left have allowed the divinities Marx called the “gods of heaven” to prevail. We’re victims of the (highly understandable) aversion to religion so prominent among the left’s intellectual elite. We imagine ourselves living in what even theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “a world come of age” – a highly secularized context. But as indicated earlier, the 21st century context is far from secularized, not only for the less highly educated, but for the imperial leadership responsible for the creation and defense of the given order. As a result, everyone but the left’s intellectual elite is manipulating the powerful field of myth – not just the religious right, but their political and economic counterparts as well. As a result when people in the U.S. think “Christianity,” “moral principle,” “strength of character,” they automatically identify it with the far right and its agenda. When they think “morals,” they think “abortion” and “sex” – almost never “social justice.” That’s why the left appears weak – no moral principle, no connection with God. 

The suggestion here has been that the left must engage its opponents precisely upon the field of myth and story. And liberation theology makes available even for would-be secularists a set of understandings that empower them to do so, and thus to communicate with our lost audience which overwhelmingly interprets the world in mythological, if not in theological terms. LT is critical theology. As argued earlier in this series, it represents the tap-root of critical thinking in its most comprehensive form. In a sense it is an anti-theology set against both the “gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth” beyond which it is difficult for the secular left to see.

None of this implies that entering the arena of myth is a job merely for theologians or “believers.”  Marx himself saw that. He was no believer. Yet he said famously in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “. . . the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

However in contrast to Marx’s time and thanks to liberation theology, the left’s critique doesn’t have to involve throwing the baby of the “faith of Jesus” out with the bath water of “faith in Jesus.” Again, taking cue from liberation theologians, the left doesn’t have to alienate believers by ridiculing faith or religious people. All of that has been counter-productive and fatal for those committed to social justice.

No, the left can reclaim its place in the crucial arena of mythology. It can appreciate the person of Jesus and his call for social justice without subscribing to antiquated notions of a God “up there” manipulating the world like a vast chessboard. Liberation theology finds God not “up there,” but in horizontal relationships with the poor whom Jesus reveals as the primary repository of God’s presence and preferential choice. And backed by the work of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars the left can do so with scholarly integrity.

What has been suggested here is that to be strong and to be effective in solidarity movements, all of us have to become liberation (anti-) theologians.