Aaron Ross: Welcome to Everyday Theology, where we don’t tell you what to believe, or why to believe it, but rather explore our Christian beliefs and why they matter for us in relation to God, to creation and to others. My name is Aaron Ross. Well, with me today on Everyday Theology, I have the privilege of having Jack Jenkins, who is a reporter with Religion News Service, he recently wrote a new book, American Prophets that’s out now everywhere as of even this recording, and we’re gonna get into that, but just a little bit about Jack he I feel very unprepared. Again, talking to someone much smarter than I because he’s got his Master’s of Divinity from Harvard. I do not. But he also plays harmonica and ukulele. JACK, thanks so much for being with me, man.
Jack Jenkins: Thanks so much for having me. And I’ll dissuade anyone from the misconception that if someone goes to Harvard, they’re necessarily smart that it’s not. When you learn when you get there, that it’s not necessarily the case.
Aaron Ross: We found that we had in our conversation before, we had a fun connection of both of us in our own kind of time in places serving Dr. Harvey Cox. Which is a fun thing, though, you admittedly did it much longer than I did. And by serving I mean, as a driver while he was at my university for a couple weeks.
Jack Jenkins: Yeah, and and when I took his class, my work study at HBS was that I was an AV person. And so well, during his class, I had to run his slides and his like presentations. So I would both get fussed at for like messing up the slides, but then also have to raise my hand ask a question about the slides all at the same time, which was a unique classroom experience.
Aaron Ross: I didn’t have to deal with that. I actually got the fun part where I just was able to drive him around and ask him questions. And learn. I didn’t have the pressures. Yeah, of PowerPoints. But Jack, I’m, you know, I was kind of doing a deep dive on Twitter, and was getting in some conversations, and I ran across your profile and your book, as well as some of your writings for Religious News Service, and was fascinated by the topic of the book. So two things I want to do first, if you just let our listeners know a little bit about you, and then we’re gonna dive into what is this book that you’ve written? And why did you feel the need to write it?
Jack Jenkins: Sure. Um, so for me, you know, I, I came by my interest in faith in general, you know, in many ways, because my upbringing I was reared in South Carolina, grew up in a military family in a small town in South Carolina, you know, went to church every Sunday, whether you wanted to or not, and, and I, for college, attended Presbyterian College and tiny little liberal arts college affiliated with Presbyterian Church, USA, which was the denomination I was reared in, in Clinton, South Carolina. And so, you know, I was really kind of fascinated by faith when I was, you know, that’s why I went to a faith affiliated college and was, you know, one of the main things I studied when I was in college was religion, and theology. And then after college, I bounced around. And as I know, the introduction to my book briefly worked in politics before going to Divinity School. And when I was in Divinity School, again, I was very interested and the intersection of religion, politics, and then eventually media, and on a whim, accidentally stumbled into an internship with religion news service, and where I was fascinated to be able to kind of really cover this intersection of religion and politics. And then it was in divinity school as well while working for RNs. And I kind of note this in the introduction to the book that I kind of stumbled on the idea of religious progressives, religious liberals or the religious left, a term that often gets used, as you know, what we journalists often refer to as a beat. It’s, it’s the core thing that you cover are one of the core things you cover. And so I wrote a few stories as an intern and then on contract with RNs about that topic, and then went and did some other things and work for some other outlets for a few years before I came back to RNs. And to this day, a big lion chair, my beat is still covering the intersection of religion and politics, and that includes conservative brands, religious traditions, you know, religious traditions that defy title categories, and also the religious left. And so for me, this has always remained a really interesting topic of journalistic inquiry because I always kind of felt like religious progressives were this kind of under covered community in a very diverse and interesting community. That I have found to be both fascinating, but also just actually profoundly influential in ways that I have gone uncovered for me to hear. So that’s kind of how me personally, how I kind of landed in that beat.
Aaron Ross: I can be a really bad podcast host when I want to ask like six questions at once often everything that you said, instead of just asking and focusing on one, because there’s two things out of what you just said, that I think, are really kind of important elements to explore. The first one is I want to hear some of those stories, these these ideas these times where, you know, kind of progressive Christianity has been underground, but making big changes, right, and politics. But then the other question which will come out of that is, but for so many Christians, they might ask the question, can you be a progressive Christian? Like, is that an oxymoron itself? And so I think, you know, you engaging with this, as a reporter has really an inside line to what a lot of people who are in a maybe more conservative tradition of Christianity never actually see. So let’s start with the book, though. And, and I would love to what, when you were writing this, what were some of the most surprising things that you found about the way that kind of progressive Christianity had such influence that maybe we didn’t even know?
Jack Jenkins: Yeah, um, and I think there are several instances, I should note upfront that that the book is about the religious left, which is about not only their most of the stories, because of demographics in this country tend to fall into the buckets of Christianity, but we also cover right a variety of other religious traditions that I can get into later about how they make up a key component of the religious left. But Christianity in particular, does often play a pretty profoundly influential role in in, you know, democratic politics in variety of ways. Um, one of the stories that kind of surprised me that I found while doing kind of research on something else, was the impact that progressive Christians and progressive people of faith had on the passage of the Affordable Care Act, right, like this landmark peak on piece of liberal legislation. That was kind of one of the hallmarks of Barak Obama’s presidency. And one of the reasons I stumbled upon that was that, you know, when at the signing ceremony of the Affordable Care Act, you know, Obama used all of these different pins that, you know, to sign his name, but he could distribute those out to different dignitaries, and some of them were senators like Ted Kennedy, etc, etc. But he kept one for a Catholic nun named Sister, sister, Carol Keehan. And she, she wasn’t there that day, because she was at the Vatican, at the time, where she had been, you know, when the vote for the Affordable Care Act had occurred, she had been calling Democratic lawmakers encouraging them to support the bill, in particularly Catholic Democratic lawmakers. And this, the backstory that I kind of get into in the first chapter of the book there is that Catholic nuns in particular ended up playing an outsized role in getting the ACA passed. Sister Carol key, and in particular, was, was the head of the Catholic Health Association at the time, which is, you know, this fit that works with any number of Catholic hospitals, and she has a, you know, profound medical acumen. And she actually ended up she wasn’t very, I talked about this, she wasn’t particularly impressed with obama’s health care proposals early on in the primary, but later on, as he got into the general election and then became president, she actually was in the room quite frequently help helping craft what became the Affordable Care Act. And then when they got close to whether or not there was going to be a vote on this piece of legislation, it turned out that, you know, the Catholic Bishops that kind of come out against the bill. But one thing people forget, is that while Catholic Bishops certainly occupy a profoundly influential space in the Catholic hierarchy, Catholic nuns poll better in the United States. They’re, they’re significantly more popular than Catholic bishops and priests, at least, you know.
And so they in an American political context, they arguably can exert more political influence than people think, or sometimes more than the bishops. And so, Carol Keehan had no interest in making a huge impact. She just, you know, kind of wrote into her Catholic Health Association publication, which you know, very few people read, according to her, that she, you know, despite the bishops was going to endorse the Affordable Care Act. And what ended up happening is a group of Catholic nuns, very influential Catholic nuns representing any number of orders that are often referred to as women religious here in the United States, then endorsed with her it basically in spite of the Catholic bishops, and that is credited with giving the traction and giving cover to a lot of Democratic Catholic politics.
Who were concerned that, you know, voting for this bill would would stoke the ire of the bishops who were concerned about, you know, contraception access and abortion, etc, etc. And so the nuns gave them cover, and they, they ended up passing the bill. And that’s not just me saying that Barack Obama himself literally said in front of a group of Catholics that the ACA would not have passed, had it not been for the influence of Catholic nuns. And this, and I kind of found that story by accident. And this story is actually particularly well known among prominent Democrats, irrespective of their faith tradition in Washington. It just wasn’t one that got told very widely, because people again, often miss these moments of impact and influence of the religious left.
Aaron Ross: Yeah. And that’s, I mean, just the fact that you would kind of mention this idea that nuns are more influential than bishops. I mean, how did you kind of come across that? And why do you think that is?
Jack Jenkins: Well, I think one of the things that’s interesting about the American system, right, is that we live in a democracy. So it matters how people vote, and public opinion matters significantly. Religious traditions aren’t always structured that way, right? We have different quality, whether that’s, you know, Episcopal polity, which Catholics, Episcopalians and others use where power is invested in bishops, or Presbyterian polity, where it’s groups of people or congregationalist polity, where like, the church itself has the most power. And so all of these religious traditions exist, you know, have their own methods of power and policing of themselves and you know, how they structure themselves, but in American politics, who has the most influence as a faith leader can shift pretty quickly.
And, you know, for instance, people talk about how, with the new with the rise of Trump, you know, many of the more traditional leaders of the religious right, figures such as Russell Moore, you know, this, he heads up the political arm, the Southern Baptist Convention was actually ideally critical of Trump, and just, you know, urged his fellow evangelicals to not vote for him. And, and yet, you know, when Trump came to power, a group of faith leaders who were often associated with what’s called the prosperity gospel became key influential voices in the White House, and those people had been rarely politicized over the last 20 years, they actually rarely involve themselves in politics. So suddenly, these kind of really important voices in at the intersection of religion and conservative politics were sidelined in favor of prosperity gospel preachers who had not been involved in decades, if ever, and that happens so quickly in American politics. And so with Catholic, no Catholic world, I mean, you know, bishops continue to observe the obvious influence they have in the church, you know, that they’re part of the hierarchy. But in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal that broke in the early 2000s, that obviously continues to influence the church to this day, the clout and influence of Bishops waned significantly, whereas Catholic nuns continue to retain quite a bit of influence, which is probably why, and I’ll shut up after this. But, you know, when you watch the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, a few weeks ago, both of them had Catholic nuns either speaking or praying at their events in wild while there was a Catholic bishop that that delivered a prayer at the Republican National Convention, it was the nuns that people spend more of their time talking about, because culturally in the United States, they tend to exert more sway because again, all these different religious groups have their own structures and systems of influence. What what exerts broad influence over the American public can be very different from what the religious group wants it to be, if that makes any sense.
Aaron Ross: No, it does and what you said there about this may be a little off topic, but what you said there about kind of the prosperity gospel preachers who kind of gave way and kind of made possible I think, for a lot of people to vote for Trump is interesting for me as someone who grew up in a Pentecostal tradition that often recognized the, the way the Pentecostalism kind of created a fruitful ground for prosperity gospel to grow up. And at the same time, most main, I say mainline, but most kind of predominant Pentecostal groups push back against prosperity gospel. But when that switch happened, it seemed as if we, in the kind of predominant Pentecostal traditions started looking to those people as authority figures on politics when they jumped into the political ring, which was very strange shift. Yeah, that I don’t think I was prepared for.
Jack Jenkins: Right and I talked about this in the book, there’s a chapter that kind of talks about this reshuffling of what is often
called the religious right. And I know I’ve done a little bit of reporting and kind of the Pentecostal tradition and how it’s kind of become more politicized in, you know, in Trump’s rise. And as you know, I mean, some of the key political voices, for instance, Paul White, who is often described as a prosperity gospel preacher, which she, you know, at different times has rejected as a moniker for herself, you know, she’s very clearly influenced by the Pentecostal tradition. And, you know, and if you know, anybody who’s watched her worship services would see evidence of that. And you’ve seen a lot of Pentecostals become involved, you know, people who are close to the president in the White House, which I defer to you, but that that has not historically been the case. I mean, that’s a relatively new shift in that tradition in terms of both externally showing up in these prominent political moments. And now it sounds like you’re telling me internally, just people seeing them as political figures, is that is that that I hear you? Right?
Aaron Ross: I mean, it would be anecdotal at best. Right? And I don’t have the data to show you that per se. But in the circles, where, where I find myself, it seems as if, and I don’t know what came first the chicken or the egg? And that’s really the question, whether it was those prosperity gospel kind of preachers who really again, started supporting Trump and started being very vocal about it. Whether they pulled people from the Pentecostal tradition that way, or if it was vice versa, in terms of the, the the Pentecostal tradition that I’m a part of, they were already being pulled towards Trump. And then once the prosperity gospel preachers, and these people like Paula White, started coming out in support in favor of Trump, there was a much more congenial attitude towards those people. And I don’t know which one came first. But it’s almost as if, as if, hey, if you’re a friend of Trump, here, a friend of us were, theologically, it would have been, hey, actually, that prosperity gospel is wrong, and we don’t like to do anything, you wouldn’t really have anything to do with it. Right? That makes sense? Yeah. So that’s where it’s a little blurry. I don’t know which one came first, they seem to kind of coincide nearly at the same time.
But, again, that’s more anecdotal. And the circles that I’ve found myself in historically, but now, you said that you have other kind of stories on the religious left that weren’t just Christian? Yeah, if you can kind of give my audience you know, one of those stories to kind of show how this is really a broad religious category, not just a Christian one.
Jack Jenkins: Right. And I should know, I, I do want to answer your other question real quick, which is this idea that, you know, the religious left in general, but the Christian left in particular, the idea that these people aren’t legitimately Christian? I mean, you know, any scholar of Christian history will tell you, that’s not a new story, the idea of different groups, you know, decrying each other as heretics or apostates, is not particularly new. And yet all of those traditions continue to exist. I mean, arguably, it’s interesting that the religious right has ended up in this alliance of, you know, say, um, Catholics and conservative evangelical Protestants, whereas those groups like literally tried to kill each other at different points in history, you know, these, these alliances have reformed across theological lines, and the the main, red lines in the sand that people would not cross have tended to shifted, pretending depending on culture, or politics or history. And so I bring that up to say that, you know, these are people who if you go, one of the criticisms that has been lobbed at liberal Christians, really, since the turn of the early 20th century, is that they are inadequately Christian, right? And this goes back to the, you know, the so called modernist fundamentalist debate, where of the early 20th century where you had liberal Christians, who were using the historical critical method in their biblical analysis, as well as embracing the process and the non prosperity gospel, the argument, the opposite of that, which is the social gospel, which is the idea that there’s corporate sin, and that systems can be sinful, and you know, out of concern for laborers and child laborers, etc, etc. And you kind of saw this break, that kind of really created large fissures in many denominations. And I think it’s worth noting that because what ended up happening is liberal Christianity for the first half of the 20th century, really kind of won politically in a major way. And they were the big influence on the New Deal. I mean, the you know, many of the key architects of the New Deal, were overt social gospels, right, influenced by this theology, and in many ways, the religious right as we know it, and the development of fundamentalists who then later rebranded themselves as evangelicals was a reaction to that they pulled themselves out of it, in some respect, some respects and then created their own schools, their own newspaper Their own publications and magazines, radio shows, eventually television networks that when you know, the religious right kind of came back into power in a big way, in the 80s and 90s, they had an entire media apparatus unto themselves that, you know, the religious left had, you know, many ways just been using more secular outlets, because they had direct access to that, because in many ways, they were in power. And I point that out to say that people then were on the fundamentalists were dismissive of these liberal Christians as quote, unquote, influencing, you know, being influenced by society or by secular society or inadequately Christian, whereas the liberal Christians themselves, we’re like, we’re influencing set, we’re creating secular society, as it were. And so right, that setting to come back, you know, in 19, you know, that was back in like, 1920, to come back in 2020. In here, this debate between a liberal and progressive Christians and more conservative Christians, in many ways fall into that similar camp where they where people will say that many of these Christians that I’ve profiled in the book, you know, they can’t possibly be Christian because they rebuke, you know, this theological position or this theological position. And the reality is that over the course of Christian history, you know, I should also note that there are religious left advocates and activists that I that I beat profile in the book, who also think many conservative Christians are heretics and apostates. Like that, and sometimes, in some instances, the feeling’s mutual but, but I bring out a sale that because there’s this there’s this element of which you know, somebody within a religious tradition, my brand, someone else’s inadequately Christian, but as a journalist, or as a scholar of religion, you know, you know, what, you the rubrics that we use are in flux, there isn’t even a fully unified definition of religion among scholars, much less one, right, each individual religious tradition. So all that is to say, I have heard some for some time, this debate over whether or not the religious left or the Christian left is adequately Christian. What’s interesting is that for a long time, you know, conservative Christian simply ignored, um, liberal Christians, and, you know, they would dismiss them as anemic and, you know, not inconsequential. Whereas in the last few years, you’ve started to see like this rhetoric ratchet up against, you know, saying once again, that they’re not fully Christian, which probably says a lot about the influence of their, of, you know, their influence over society and over politics. Which brings me to your question about other religious traditions, because even if you don’t think they’re Christian, they’re definitely religious. And, but, but even outside of the Christian tradition, you know, one of the things I profiled in the book is the indigenous rights movement, particularly Standing Rock. You know, this, this moment on which Native Americans were protesting the construction of a pipeline. And one of the things that didn’t get covered very widely at all, during that those demonstrations in 2015, and 2016, was that those demonstrators, those indigenous and Native American demonstrators were unapologetically religious and spiritual. In their demonstration, they call it the protest camp, a prayer camp, they would begin every day with ceremonial prayers, they, you know, one of the early things that they did to found the camp was they would hold these spiritual ceremonies, and for many of them, pushing back against the pipeline was actually a religious impetus, because they saw it as the coming of a black snake, which was this prophecy that it existed in one of the Native American spiritual traditions. And I mean, all of this was deeply prevalent in this movement, but it wasn’t necessarily covered as a religious movement. And what I note as the book is that these activists have actually started showing up, these indigenous activists have started showing up to each other’s demonstrations. So you know, around the same time, there’s also a series of demonstrations in Hawaii, where, you know, Hawaiians or Native Hawaiians are protesting the construction of a telescope on top of Mount of Chaos, this volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, because they believe that that mountain is sacred or in for some, literally a god. And, and that, you know, for them, I went to Hawaii to like, you know, look at this demonstration, this camp that have been set across, set up across the road that the only access road up to the top of the mountain by these Hawaiian demonstrators, and they would begin every day with a prayer and then halfway through the day, they would have another prayer sown ceremony, and then later in the day, there’d be another prayer ceremony. What’s interesting about this is that it’s rarely covered that way, because Native American and indigenous religious beliefs in spirituality often aren’t seen with the same credibility or the same or in the same light, as say, Protestant Christianity here in the United States, even though you know, anyone who attends any of these sorts of demonstrations or camps would see deep and profound evidence of religious activity and spiritual activity. And so, you know, I remember even talking to one of the core Standing Rock demonstrators, the woman who actually had the demonstration set up in her backyard is what became one of the first major prayer camps. She talked about how that movement, the Standing Rock movement has become a really big part of the environmentalist movement in general in combating climate change and environmental destruction. And how she would she said, you know, she would have these conversations with more mainstream secular environmental activists, and there would be this chasm of misunderstanding between, you know, they might be operating out of a more secular mindset for why they’re environmentalist, and they just don’t fully grasp the indigenous spiritual traditions or spiritual motivations that were undergirding this major movement. And I should note that, that Standing Rock, there was this bartender from New York, who went down there, around that time, and was participated in demonstrations. And then after the fact had what they described as a spiritual experience, and came back, motivated to run for office as a result of that. And then they ran for Congress. And that bartender was Alexandria, Ocasio Cortez, who again, cites the Standing Rock demonstrations as a spiritual moment that inspired her to become a politician. But yeah, it’s, again, a spiritual moment that doesn’t get covered.
Aaron Ross: Which for many Christians on, and it’s really hard to have this conversation to kind of like, always have to segment out your population, right. But like, the Christians who are farther, maybe more conservative, or come from more conservative traditions, you know, in my own head, I can hear it, you know, well, that’s not a true religious experience. Right? We’ll throw that out there. That’s not true. That’s not that wasn’t real. Or especially my tradition might say something more like, well, that’s a religious experience that wasn’t of God, if it was religious, it wasn’t of God. Right? Like it this kind of way of, I don’t want to say demonizing it is, I guess, the proper word there, right? Like this kind of way of being able to say, I don’t have to pay attention to it, because it doesn’t line up with my theological system.
Jack Jenkins: Right? I always find that. And I want to honor the fact that that’s pretty consistent in religious traditions in general, I mean, religious traditions throughout human history are pretty dismissive of the others. But like, you know, that’s that’s that any number of wars, conflicts or disagreements have been sparked by people saying, that’s, you know, what you’re believing it isn’t real isn’t true, etc, etc. But from the perspective of religious, I’m from a scholar of religion or religion reporter. I mean, it doesn’t make it any less religious to that individual. Right. So, you know, people were often quick, you know, you’ll hear in secular voices, people dismiss the faith of conservative Christians, for instance, in fact, a number of secular or or liberal, liberal religious people over the last three years have been very dismissive of the faith of evangelical Protestants pointing out, you know, what they see as hypocracy and their stated beliefs on Sunday, and what they’re willing to vote for on Tuesday. And and they’ll, you know, they would point that, but and again, the evangelical Protestants might say, No, like, you don’t adequately understand my faith, but it’s, for me, it’s, it’s pretty, it’s pretty common to hear the criticism of people say, No, that is not of my faith. What I would challenge is to say whether or not it’s religious, like whether or not you believe that it’s something that matches with your own personal faith, doesn’t mean that it’s not a religious experience for that individual. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a bait. for them. And again, again, you know, I’m a reporter, I cover lots of people, but I disagree with both politically and theologically on a regular basis. And we reporters are asked our charges to extend ourselves beyond our biases on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean that those experiences of those people aren’t fully and passionately religious for them. So theological disagreement, that’s an old story, but being willing to dismiss people as simply not religious. That seems to me just, you know, one of those instances where people are having difficulty really recognizing the experience of another.
Aaron Ross: Yeah, and I’m with you there. And I think that becomes part of the rub. For so many people is religion gets kind of narrowly defined as whatever it is that I follow. Right? Right. Like that word religion is it is it’s my thing, it’s not your thing. And it allows kind of the dismissiveness of the conversation. Even if there’s a disagreement, theologically, which I’m with you. I want to go back a little bit cuz there’s something that you said that I thought was pretty important when you were talking about kind of the history of this kind of political, politicalization, maybe or of religion a bit how we’re using our religion as it relates to politics. And you mentioned This, this, you know, the the social gospel movement as kind of how I would call it kind of won the day in the early 20th century. Right, it kind of made the changes, I think of someone like Reinhold Nyberg, the Theologian who, who made the changes in the 40s and 50s, and into the 60s as a political theologian. But then I think of his brother, Richard, who, you know, people who have done any kind of theological study have to have studied, you know, his kind of sociological study on the different types of churches. And, you know, while they’re kind of wide ranging, you know, he kind of categorizes these kind of different sociological groupings of churches as those who kind of exist within a Christ against culture of Christ over culture, or a Christ, who’s the transformer of culture kind of metaphor. And it seems from what you said, what you’re finding is much more, especially as it relates to kind of political ization, is that it’s much more a Christ transforming culture mindset of those people that say, taking this religion and trying to transform the way in which the world exists, by any means necessary. Well, maybe not any means. That’s where we got wars, right, by politics. Is that the kind of attitude that you kind of see in these stories? And in your conversations?
Jack Jenkins: Yeah, so one of the things that you know, upfront about the work that I do is there’s there’s there’s this idea of separation of church and state, and that is a very specific legal idea of not enshrining one religious tradition, over another, in in the political sphere. And also, you know, not having a religious test for people who want to get elected into office, those sorts of like, you know, divisions between, you know, really kind of privileging one faith tradition, or faith itself over another or that I have no faith. But then the question of whether or not faith influences politics is a very different question. Which is this idea that like, of course, it does constantly every day. And what I think is interesting in my coverage of the religious left, is that, whereas within, for many conservative Christians, at this point in American history, they’ll be pretty overt about why they are doing what they’re doing, saying, My faith compels me to show up to this demonstration to you know, oppose abortion, for instance. And, you know, this is this is explicitly why I’m doing it. Many religious left, activists will do the same saying, you know, my faith compels me to, you know, call for immigrant rights, etc, etc. But then you’ll have moments where like, the faith element might be what got someone to do something, but it isn’t what people talk or remember, in terms of how they about an activist moment. So for instance, in the Republican National Convention, a line that got a lot of play was this idea that we should stand for our flag and kneel for our God. What that kind of ignores is that many, many of the people who both athletes and artists who have knelt during the American flag over the last few years have actually cited their faith as why they are doing that, and inspiring their protest against police brutality and racism, which is, you know, why they argue that’s why they are kneeling during the national anthem. And I mean, over and over and over again, if you dig through these accounts, they’ll like people will have written on their arms as they do it scripture references, but that gets obscured because what gets remembered is the demonstration, this idea of demonstrating against police brutality and racism, or for many people, they see that as disrespectful to the flag, etc, etc. Right, the faith element gets obscured. And so and so it doesn’t get discussed in popular discourse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that people’s faith isn’t compelling them to do political things on a regular basis, whether those are demonstrations, or votes in the US House of Representatives, or executive orders in the White House. And I think what, you know, faith is supposed to influence for many for most mostly faith that I’ve run into, it’s supposed to influence your everyday life, and extricating politics and this idea of how we live together from a faith that compels you to think about how we live together seems like a fool’s errand. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to fully remove those things from each other. And that is true, both of conservative Christians and liberal people of faith. And I don’t see that, as you know, and I do think that was just to get a finer point on this. While there are absolutely secular activists and advocates who are advocating for a version of secular society that you know, kind of removes as much faith as possible from the public sphere, public sphere. It’s worth noting that our concept of secular society, you know, what we what we understand about As this place in which religion can show up and not dictate was in many ways formed by a menagerie of faith communities, right? Like there are at the echoes of various different faith traditions and faith values in what we call a secular society that doesn’t make secular society, a theocracy, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a negotiated space. But it does, you know, kind of acknowledge the influence that these fates might have had, you know, in concert with other groups. That’s what makes it a democracy as opposed to a theocracy. So I say, you know, that basically, for me, it’s hard for me to look at the way we live together in 2020. And not see the influence of any number of religious groups with different religious agendas and competing religious agenda is one of the things I talked about the religious left is that like, you know, the religious left functions as a coalition of Coalition’s that don’t always agree with each other or work together. But in moments of, you know, unified cause can come together to have an impact. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t, you know, they don’t have different visions for how America should look or act. And, you know, they are influenced by how they pray. I’m earlier in the week in terms of what vision they have for society.
Aaron Ross: Now, I’m gonna ask maybe to take off the reporter hat for a second, and put on a kind of like forward looking hat classes, I don’t have mixed metaphors, they don’t work, right. But through all this kind of in your book, and kind of looking at it historically, even up to the present day, where do you see religion? And kind of this political world that we live in? in America? Where do you see it moving towards? If you have to say like, I think it’s going to look like this in 20 years? You know, do you have an idea of what you think it looks like to that trajectory? Or is it just, you know, we’ll see.
Jack Jenkins: Well, it I appreciate this question. The last chapter of my book is called the Future of Faith. I will note, one thing that needs to be acknowledged is that there is a steady rise of what’s called the religiously unaffiliated people, right, they are people who often called n o n e. s, nuns because when asked the question of what is your religious affiliation, they will say, none. And that, you know, within the Democratic Party is not the majority, but is the largest single subgroup of Democrats most. Most democrats still claim a religious tradition, but there are these religiously unaffiliated groups. Now, what’s interesting about that group is that’s growing across the board within American society, not just among Democrats, is that while there are atheists and agnostics within that group, while that is part of that, that’s actually not most of the people who are religious, the unaffiliated, many people in that group actually pray regularly or attend religious services. Yeah, they just don’t delete themselves with it. Or they actually do believe like, they will say, I have claim no faith tradition, but I absolutely believe in God or gods. And, and I think what’s interesting about that is that you’ve seen this sort of Spiritual Renaissance actually occur in many of these religiously unaffiliated communities that looks very different from necessarily where we’ve come these other more rank and file religious traditions that we’ve come to know over the course of American history. And you have a colleague of Religion News Service, Tara Isabella Burton, who has actually written a book on this Sacred Rites, and we’ve we’ve kind of talked about how our books kind of bounce off of each other and this way, because these faith traditions tend to skew liberal if you could call them that, because people weren’t necessarily affiliating with a faith tradition when they do that. But they’re, I would guess, that it seems to be interesting to me as well, again, definitely atheists and agnostics are a growing sub set of this group. But there seems to actually be this interesting spiritual hunger that’s occurring in these communities. And sometimes that means that people end up in the back of Episcopal churches or, you know, a synagogue. But sometimes that means that they’re kind of creating something new, and they don’t have an idea for what to call it yet. And so my expectation is that that experimental kind of, you know, Home Brewed religious fervor will continue to percolate between now and the next 50 years. And I think there’s gonna be a lot of interesting things that develop and that space. Meanwhile, you have any number of, you know, liberal faith traditions that I think are growing more overtly political in ways that they haven’t in the past. Now, historically, black Protestants have been pretty overtly political for quite some time and you know, ways to kind of like Welcome to the party white liberal Christians. Um, but like, but but but, you know, more liberal leaning white Christians, whether they’re mainline denominations like Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran etc. Even progressive evangelicals are starting to get more involved. And faith is articulated often through these sort of more political acts or political proclamations in a way that the religious right is actually deeply comfortable with. But the, you know, these liberal white Christians actually had gotten uncomfortable with over the last 30, 40 years. And so I think you’re going to see, you know, a more overtly politicized faith. And I think that often comes from the fact that, you know, our population in general is growing more diverse, and as it grows more diverse, so to will, these various different religious traditions be more represented, you know, that Muslim populations are growing Hindu populations are growing Buddhist populations are growing, and as they continue to grow, they will inevitably exert some form of political influence whether that’s overt in the way that the religious right often expresses it, or the religious left, in many ways, or more kind of what we were talking about earlier, facto, these are the values that we hold dear. And we would want to exert as much as we can, in public society. And so I think you’re going to see like, it won’t, you know, we’ve talked about a lot the, there’s this conversation about the end of white Christian America, right, this idea of that one, which is for the record, side note, kind of a fool’s errand, because the reality is that all these different religions from these Christian groups, when we first You know, when they all kind of immigrated here, back in the 1700s, they all fought with each other all the time, and were like, really at each other’s throats. This like alliance between white Christians is a very new thing. It’s kind of like, you know, white Protestants were burning crosses, and Catholics yards, like less than 100 years ago, but like, and so in many ways, this it’s a, it’s a construction of a vision of white Christian America. But that that’s going to be that that will likely says I’m kind of received from American, at least those are the trends that we journalists are looking at, it will receive from American hedge emoni, and the replacement will be a much more diverse space. And that requires a lot of what I’m already seeing on the religious left, which is a lot of negotiation between different faith groups that might not match up on a lot of things, but have enough in common to be able to, you know, either work together around political things, or even just cultural things. I mean, one of the things I talked about in the book is that for the religious left, you know, a lot of these alliances between different communities got formed in in small, little local ways, you know, this synagogue and this mosque, he had to solve a problem. So they work together, and then those communities were able to, you know, work with the immigrant church down the street, and then the Buddhist Center also showed up to hang out with them on on, you know, some some potluck dinner, right. And then those communities became something that could march together to say, you know, pass a local ordinance. And I think you’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. And not a lot of what I think the religious right has been sometimes fighting for just kind of this harkening back to an older a form of Christian hydrocodone, that, you know, that that definitely exerted broad influence throughout the 20th century, but just doesn’t see, I would be surprised if it continues to do so 50 years from now, but I’ll just close on this, which is to say, I also don’t think conservative religious communities are going to evaporate, I don’t think that they’re going to go away. If anything, I think they’re going to be become very strong crystallized. But I think, you know, their, their role in society will look different than it does in 2020. If that’s again, just looking at the trends that I’ve been seeing for the past week,
Aaron Ross: And again to be anecdotal, I think what you said about the nuns, the n o n ‘s, those nuns is something that in my space in my positions in the past, I’ve seen a rise of nuns, especially as it relates to kind of like millennials and Gen Z, who do identify as Christian broadly, but don’t identify with the church. Hmm. And and there’s a large group of Christians that I find that say I, again, anecdotally circles that I find myself in that just kind of like backup, what you’re saying there this reality of, I’m not comfortable being in a church, because a lot of times politically, the church has kind of been one hands. two sided, I guess, right? Like to say, like, Hey, we’re gonna vote for people who do the exact things opposite of the way that we’re told to do things. And as as kind of the nuns as the millennials and Gen Z become more kind of political. They go this I can’t live in this duality any longer a church that does not fit and do what it says the words of Jesus say to do and so I’m just going to just follow Jesus. But if someone asked me who I’m affiliated with, I’m just gonna tell him what I affiliated with anyone. Because it’s easier to actually say I’m not affiliated with anyone and do that work. like think about things as a Christian, then sometimes It is the same affiliated with that group. And I’m still trying to do this work. So, one last one last question here for you, before we end, any any other kind of most surprising thing you found in your research for American profits that you can kind of tease for our listeners, so I can tell them to go buy the book.
Jack Jenkins: So um, you know, one of the interesting things that I found is, and this becomes clear over the course of the book, there are certain movements in on the left that the religious left has been pivotal in has been crucial in helping guide and and in leading, there have been others in which the religious left has had to kind of re earn credibility, you know, even among other activists where, you know, the church might have lost standing or lost credibility because of, you know, what they describe as past failures. You know, one of the things I talked about is, what happened in Ferguson, and then in Charlottesville, and among progressive religious communities where some of the earliest activists in Ferguson weren’t led by people of faith. What happened instead, is that people of faith ended up coming alongside those demonstrators. And those activists, you know, kind of saying, How can we help, which was a bit of a role reversal in racial justice movements that have often been led by people of faith, particularly, historically, Protestants. But what that has led to is this curious and fascinating moment in which the religious left and progressive people of faith are marching alongside or protecting demonstrators. You know, one thing we noticed in Ferguson, is that some a lot of times pastors would literally put themselves in between police and demonstrators as a way of de escalating tensions. Sometimes they were shot with rubber bullets. And like, and then when the George boy demonstrations cropped up again, this year, we actually saw that pattern repeat where you saw, you know, churches in Minneapolis and open up and to offer themselves as a respite for demonstrators is a medical space. While they weren’t necessarily the ones on the streets, although many of them were they were trying to offer aid to those that they could. And I think, you know, for me, what’s telling is that, when you know, those demonstrators were cleared from Lafayette Square right outside of the White House. You know, in June 1, right before the president walked across that park and stood in front of St. John’s Church, to hold up a Bible for a photo op. Among those demonstrators were clergy who were putting themselves again in between the demonstrators and police, as well as Episcopal at least one Episcopal priest in a seminarian who were at St. John’s who were forcibly cleared from that church, by police with batons and gas. Be you know, right before the president walked over there, because and who were aiding those demonstrators. And you know, that story often gets obscured. But you know, there’s a reason that the Episcopal Diocese of Washington was so furious about that act by President is because he literally their own priests were cleared from the church, or the person that got ran. But I think one thing I really thought was interesting is in this this is these are different groups who are trying to a the racial justice movement in different ways. But that, you know, Ray of Reverend Tracy Blackman is the story I kind of really Chronicle in my chapter that looks at the racial justice, modern racial justice movement. You know, she talked about how in Ferguson, many of the demonstrators were so grateful that she was there. But they came to her and kind of had these stories of how they felt abandoned by the church, at some point in their past for any number of reasons. And so early on in her activism in Ferguson, she would basically hold the sort of atonement services or mia culpa services as part of her demonstrations of, you know, trying to lamenting the failures of the church to not be there for so many of these activists and their youth. And yeah, and you know, that was, so that was a credibility, they had to reearn. And, and for me, that was such an interesting story of faith where, you know, the correct move wasn’t to assume, from the perspective of these advocates, the correct move wasn’t to assume that you should be in charge. It was this very sacrificial approach to faith where it said, you know, if we’re going to be able to participate in this, we have to be, we have to sacrifice and show up and earn the credibility that we may have lost. And I think that says a lot about, you know, where, you know, that the complicated nature of the religious left, where there are moments in which they are the ones leading whole sections and movements within the left, and there are other moments in which they’re trying, you know, they’re trying to come alongside because of, you know, according to them, missteps by both, you know, the Christian church and faith communities in general for the last, you know, however many decades.
Aaron Ross: What I love about your work and even this conversation for a lot of people they might go it’s a little bit different from a normal podcast that we do. But this is probably the most, I don’t want to say the most, but it’s becoming one of the most like everyday topics of Christians is how do we engage with our political world? And it’s one that often I find that people become so isolated and insulated in their own kind of bubbles and worlds that they forget how religion in general but Christianity, especially like exist in different kind of frames of mind and working that in order for us to best kind of ask how do we do this? How do we do this Christianity thing and everyday sense in relation to politics, we have to be willing to have these conversations and hear what other people are doing and why they’re doing it. Or we’re going to be back to unfortunately, I think the burning crosses in people’s yards reality that the more that we push that away, I think the more we’re kind of getting towards that reality, as we kind of, you know, see here and there with different Christian groups yelling and screaming at each other and it doesn’t know any good, right? Right. Right, jack, I appreciate so much for taking the time to do this with me. I want to encourage everyone to go get your new book American profits. I think it’s everywhere books are sold I assume right?
Jack Jenkins: Yes. You can find it you know at your local bookstore is really struggling right now because of the Coronavirus. You can find it online in any number of places. But you know, I I am because I’m I love local bookstores, that’s where I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time. So I give them a shout out when I can if you can get it there. Try otherwise Yes, it’s available on Amazon Barnes and Noble. And wherever bookstores and wherever books are sold. There’s also an audio book if you prefer to listen to it as well.
Aaron Ross: Did you read the audiobook?
Jack Jenkins: I did not I found a guy better voice than me.
Aaron Ross: Wonderful well last thing is there any way people can connect with you social media anything if they want to follow along with your work?
Jack Jenkins: Sure. Again I write for Religion News Service which we’re a wire so sometimes we’ll our stories will just show up and you know your your whether you’re reading Christianity Today or the National Catholic Reporter on the Washington Post, but if you want to directly to us Our website is religionnews.com. If you want to follow me on Twitter is where a lot of us journalists unfortunately spend our time. And you know, and I again if you get a chance to look at my book, I’d much appreciate it.