Repairing Christianity’s Damaged Brand

After four decades, the Religious Right is losing its grip, and a generous, justice-minded Christianity is gaining public attention and support.

Part of a Series
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, waves as she steps off the bus during a stop on the first day of a nine-state Nuns on the Bus tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, waves as she steps off the bus during a stop on the first day of a nine-state Nuns on the Bus tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

One of the saddest and most damaging consequences of the Religious Right’s grip on partisan power over the past three decades has been the tarnishing of Christianity.

Since the 1980s, the Religious Right—an organized political force consisting of extremely conservative Christians—has inserted its theological views into federal and state laws and attempted to impose its doctrines on a diverse, pluralistic nation. Leaders in the Religious Right have partnered with conservatives in the Republican Party to oppose LGBT equality, women’s reproductive health and rights, the teaching of evolution in schools, government safety net programs for the poor, and more.

In the process, the Religious Right has grabbed the media microphone and claimed Christianity all for itself. As a result, many people, especially those who are younger, now equate Christianity with intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, exclusion, rigidity, stinginess, lack of compassion—you get the picture.

In fact, one of my colleagues recently confessed that he is wary of “outing” himself as a Christian to new people he meets, worried that those unappealing attributes will instantly latch onto him. He said that when he does reveal his religious identity, he explains, “I’m a Christian, but…” and goes on to describe his support for LGBT equality, women’s reproductive rights, economic equality, and government programs that support the poor. He is eager for the day when he can say, “I’m a Christian, and…”

Fortunately, that day may not be so far away.

A more inclusive and generous brand of Christianity is increasingly making itself known—a Christianity that goes back to Jesus and threads its way through history. This prophetic, justice-minded Christianity has a proud tradition of standing up for abolition, civil rights, the poor and vulnerable, peace, and equality. It is invitational rather than exclusive, communal rather than individualistic, and compassionate rather than harsh.

The inward nature of this Christianity is fueled by spiritual discipline. It is embodied in community and in striving to live out gospel messages of love and reconciliation so that God’s beloved community can become a reality on this earth.

The outward nature of this Christianity is embodied in efforts that tackle the root causes of injustice, as well as its symptoms, and that speak out for those who are marginalized and lack worldly power and clout. Those who follow this type of Christianity are dedicating their lives to a wide range of justice issues, including immigration reform, gun violence prevention, economic equality, poverty reduction, health care justice, LGBT equality, women’s reproductive health, and more. For example:

  • Over the past several weeks, faith leaders from across the country have joined with immigration activists to “Fast for Families” on the National Mall, bringing attention to the suffering of undocumented immigrants and the urgent need to pass immigration reform legislation. These faith leaders reflect justice-minded, compassionate Christianity as they give a voice to torn-apart families, undocumented children, and the millions of immigrants living in the shadows.
  • Faith leaders are exerting a strong moral voice to reduce the scourge of gun violence in our nation. Through groups such as Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and Lifelines to Healing, they are speaking out against the tragedy of urban violence and advocating for common-sense, widely supported measures to reduce gun violence in our nation.
  • From Nuns on the Bus to Moral Monday protests, faith leaders are fighting for those Americans who are finding it hard to survive. Slashed funding for nutrition assistance and other essential programs has reduced or eliminated needed programs for millions of our children, as well low-wage workers, the elderly, and the disabled. As they call for just budgets, faith leaders are urging America to live up to its calling and core identity.

Faith groups across the country are fighting for a living wage so that workers are not forced to live in poverty. They are fighting for Medicaid expansion so that lower-income Americans are not shut out of health care and for LGBT equality so that all of God’s children receive dignity and respect. Finally, they are fighting for reproductive justice to improve access to women’s health care and respect women’s moral decision making around their own health and well-being.

Many of the faith leaders working on these issues say that they sense new energy around their efforts, as the Religious Right is losing its grip on the public imagination and conscience. And no wonder. Its harsh brand of Christianity, with its devil’s pact with free-market fundamentalism, has ruined lives and shattered livelihoods. What’s more, its judgmental rhetoric starves the soul.

Generous, justice-minded Christians say that they are finding among the people they work with a hunger for authentic spiritual witness and a seeking of renewal and hope. Despite the fact that many men and women have become cynical and jaded, they have not given up.

Change happens when there is a shift in the wind—when collective urges and values find public expression and action. Pope Francis is one of the expressions of this change. In office less than a year, he has urged the church to be more compassionate and welcoming. He has cautioned against exclusion and judgment, against obsession with narrow culture-war issues that divide rather than unite. The pope has called for humility and connection with the people—for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

To me, and I’m sure to many others, those words are nourishment for a hungry soul.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Explore The Series

Fatima Nevic kisses her baby boy after a seven-hour labor in a Sarajevo hospital. (AP/Sava Radovanovic)