US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

After a brief visit to Cuba, Pope Francis arrives in the United States today. The current pope has sky-high approval ratings, driven by his popularity among an unlikely group: American liberals. Not known for their religiosity, liberals have flocked to the new pope, whose comments on poverty, climate change and gay rights have raised hopes for a more progressive Church.

Francis's visit is only the latest in a series of signs that a liberal religious revival is underway in America — a revival that has the potential to reshape the country's politics and culture.

More telling even than the papal visit are the recent thoughtful remarks about faith by two of liberals' most popular pop culture icons: Stephen Colbert and Vice President Joe Biden. Appearing on Colbert's new late-night show, Biden talked about the centrality of his Catholic faith to his life. "All the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion," he said.

Colbert dove even deeper into his own faith in an interview with Father Thomas Rosica, director of Salt + Light Television. Riffing on C.S. Lewis and Thomas Aquinas, parrying in Latin and Italian, expressing reverence for the sacraments and the Holy Spirit, Colbert emerged from the interview as one of the most erudite and religiously conversant figures in pop culture today. He argued that in modern religion, joy, faith and intellect were mutually compatible. "This is I hope the right relationship to have with your faith, which is to love it, but not to exclude it from your intellect," he said.

The return of religious liberals to public life offers an alternative to the long dominance of the religious right, and a return to the religious politics that had long been the norm in the United States. The religious right has dominated the story of religion in politics since the late 1970s, when well-organized groups like Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority played a pivotal role in the rise of Ronald Reagan.

As the religious right surged forward, the religious left beat a hasty retreat. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, seemed to be the last of a liberal evangelicalism that had flourished in the 1970s. Groups like the Christian World Liberation Front and Evangelicals for Social Action fused born-again fervor with social justice politics. As historian David Swartz notes in his book "Moral Minority," when the Washington Post wrote about "a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America" in 1973, they were talking about the emergence of the religious left, not the religious right.

Nor was this left-wing religion solely a product of the 1970s. In the 1930s, Catholics like Dorothy Day labored tirelessly on behalf of workers and the poor. The Catholic Worker movement she co-founded in 1933 sought to prevent war and to address the global inequality in wealth. Likewise, black civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s put their religion front-and-center in their political identities. (Martin Luther King Jr. was Reverend King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)

While liberal African-American leaders continued to blend religion with politics — think Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson — for white liberals, religion grew less central to their political identities. Declining religious affiliation was partly responsible; so, too, was the public association of religion with conservatism. The left increasingly understood religion-based politics as a tool of exclusion and intolerance, and therefore incompatible with the progressive agenda.

Perhaps because it has become less normative, though, liberals are beginning to become more comfortable discussing faith in the public sphere. Hillary Clinton, who doesn't talk much about faith on the campaign trail, spoke at the Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. two weeks ago. There, she laid out the way her faith had shaped her life since childhood. "In place after place after place, the Methodist church and my fellow Methodists have been a source of support, honest reflection and candid critique." Together, Clinton, Biden and Colbert are demonstrating that no political ideology as a monopoly on faith, and that religion can advance progressive causes as well as conservative ones.

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