Book Review: ‘American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country’ by Jack Jenkins

Review by Daniel Silliman, who is news editor for Christianity Today.

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 here about religious activists advocating for progressive causes, from Obamacare to the Green New Deal.

If the argument of the book is just that faith-based progressives exist, then Jenkins more than makes his case. He offers a strong corrective to anyone who thinks the American Left is uniformly atheist and militantly secular, or that when religion and politics mix in the US it always looks like Robert Jeffress and the First Baptist Church in Dallas making a hymn out of Donald Trump’s 2016 slogan, “Make America Great Again.” In the pages of American Prophets, we meet liberal and left-wing Christians, including black Protestants, white Protestants, and Catholics, as well as religious Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims, all motivated by their experiences of God to work for change on earth.

In fact, anyone paying close attention to the Left in recent history will notice the religious actors who don’t make it into Jenkins’s book. The Catholics who ritualistically desecrate nuclear submarines, the peace churches that help soldiers go AWOL, and the witches who hexed the president are not here. But their absence only strengthens the book’s argument that the Religious Left exists.

American Prophets promises something more, though. The subtitle, first of all, asserts a claim about progressivism’s “religious roots.” There’s certainly a case to be made that modern progressivism has a religious history, even if one only goes back to Jimmy Carter’s ideas about a spiritual crisis, Jesse Jackson’s belief in the power of a “rainbow coalition,” or Stacey Abrams’s childhood in one of the first Methodist churches to affirm LGBT people.

But Jenkins quickly tells the reader he is not interested in writing history. “My aim is to home in on the iterations that are having the greatest impacts on modern politics,” he writes, later adding, “this is a larger-than-average journalistic work.” Fair enough.

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Source: Christianity Today