The Beating Heart of Progressive Politics Is in the Street, Not in the Pew

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Religious people aren’t bit players in this movement. But they aren’t necessarily central figures either.

Traci Blackmon organized ministers to pray outside police headquarters in Ferguson, Missouri, the day after a young black man named Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in 2014. When the clergy got to the police station, though, a protest was already happening.

Hundreds of young people had been there all night—the nascent Black Lives Matter movement—chanting, shouting, and opposing white supremacy with their physical presence. The protestors welcomed the clergy and their prayers, but then quickly lost patience. “That’s enough praying,” one activist shouted. “What are we going to do?”

Some of the ministers tried to tell the young people what to do, instructing them on the proper boundaries of protest and warning of the dangers of being too provocative. But the clergy were, as activist DeRay Mckesson told journalist Jack Jenkins, “roundly ignored.”

The scene from Ferguson undercuts the most significant claim of Jenkins’s new book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. As Jenkins writes in his introduction, not only is the Religious Left alive and well in contemporary America—it is the “beating heart of modern progressivism.” In the story he tells about Ferguson, though, and in many other stories from the book, religious activists aren’t central. They’re more like an awkward extra appendage to progressivism than its beating heart.

A Strong Corrective

Jenkins is an outstanding journalist. His coverage of politics for the Religion News Service is the gold standard among religion reporters. Those skills are evident in the 12 mostly disconnected stories he tells …

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