A (More) Perfect Union? Religion, Politics, and Competing Stories of America

A (More) Perfect Union? Religion, Politics, and Competing Stories of America Abstract Donald Trump’s calls to “Make America great again” loosely unified a Republican coalition divided over policy, priorities, and style. In contrast, Democrats in 2016 were divided between two stories about America. Progressives today seek a new narrative that can unite their ideologically and socially diverse coalition while also providing a compelling alternative to Trump’s account of national decline. This article argues that one such narrative already exists. It is most closely associated today with a diverse set of progressive religious leaders including Rev. William J. Barber II. This narrative differs from Trump’s in terms of its portrayal of the country’s historical trajectory, American identity and belonging, and citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. Presidential elections are as much about disagreements over the American story as they are about policy differences. Attention to these competing stories offers new insights into the 2016 election and the role that progressive religious leaders are playing in the resistance movement that has emerged in its aftermath. INTRODUCTION Donald J. Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States was the culmination of a concerted campaign to convince Americans that they had become the world’s “losers.” Trump used his inaugural address to paint a chilling picture of America today—as crime-ridden, crumbling, poor, and weak. “American carnage,” he called it.1 But, in his account, it had not always been this way: he intimated throughout his campaign that there was a time “before,” when America was strong, wealth was celebrated, and men were allowed to be men; before immigration, globalization, political corruption, and political correctness had snuffed out America’s greatness. It was only by putting “America first” and listening to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” he argued, that we would “make America great again.” The story he told about America linked a historical narrative of a once-dominant country in decline with many Americans’ lived experiences of declining fortunes and status, and it resonated with large numbers of voters during the 2016 election, including some who had previously supported Democrats (Cohn 2017; McQuarrie 2017). Although Trump’s success as a carrier of this narrative shocked many, it should not be terribly surprising that the narrative itself appealed to many voters. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, the view that “America’s best days are behind us” had grown increasingly prevalent in the run up to the 2016 election: whereas only 38% of Americans held this view in 2012, this figure reached 49% by 2015, including majorities of Republicans, Tea Party movement members, white Protestants, white working-class Americans, and white respondents in general (Jones et al. 2015). Whether or not this depiction of America’s trajectory is factually accurate does not matter; what matters is that it felt true to large numbers of Americans (Hochschild 2016). Meanwhile, half of Americans hold the opposite view, in which the country’s “best days are ahead of us.” This view is embraced by majorities of Democrats, white college-educated Americans, and Americans who are not white or Protestant. For example, majorities of black and Hispanic respondents agree that the country’s best days are ahead. This was also the perspective of majorities of non-Christians, Catholics, black Protestants, and religiously unaffiliated Americans. Responses to a similar question, regarding whether “American culture and way of life” has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s mirrored this pattern (Jones et al. 2015). These trends suggest that diverse members of the Democratic coalition share a critical yet hopeful vision of the country’s potential for progress. Yet observers of the 2016 election lamented that Democrats nonetheless failed to unify their base around a shared story of America that harnessed this vision of the country (e.g., Brooks 2017a, 2017c; Smith 2017). Of course, this is not the only or even the most significant reason why the Democrats lost in 2016. We should not lose sight of the fact that the odds were always against the Democrats winning a third term in the White House, regardless of who the Republican nominee was. Democrats also suffered from a number of tactical blunders, unintentional missteps and unlucky occurrences that have by now been well documented. Finally, much of the post-election focus has rightfully been on the Rust Belt districts that “revolted” against the Democratic Party in 2016 (McQuarrie 2017). But amid disagreements about whether it is necessary to win back the white working-class, it is worth remembering that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, even with a lower than expected turnout among black voters (Krogstad and Lopez 2017). This suggests that the Democratic Party does not necessarily need to attract more people to its coalition so much as it needs to unify and energize its existing members. But the election revealed a longstanding cultural impediment to this goal that will continue to plague the party unless it is confronted. Namely, the Democratic coalition is far more socially and ideologically diverse than the Republican one, necessitating a message that appeals to citizens with widely varied values, interests, and experiences. While members of diverse coalitions may never agree on a single political agenda, they can sustain solidarity by mobilizing narratives that help them to imagine themselves as part of a shared project that transcends their differences. Democrats in 2016 struggled to coalesce around such a narrative. Rather, the party was split between two competing stories about America: one of multiculturalist progress and another of revolutionary change.2 Clinton’s various messages—that she wanted to create “an economy that works for everyone” and that she was a “champion for everyday people”—resembled titles more than stories. But in an effort to respond more directly to Trump’s “Make America great again” narrative, Clinton and her fellow Democrats advanced the message that “America is already great” (Hensch 2015). In so doing, they tapped into a multiculturalist progress narrative that celebrates the expansion of the boundaries of national belonging and the extension of rights to more groups throughout American history. This narrative has gained significant ground in recent decades,3 but amid its celebration of the country’s demonstrable gains, it struggles to account for the fact that these gains have been felt unevenly, or the perception that the country has veered off course or is moving backward after a period of hopeful progress. As such, it may have rung hollow and out of touch to many Americans (including liberal and left-leaning voters) who have not enjoyed the gains others have, are fearful about the future, or are cynical about elites’ interest in responding to this reality. Meanwhile, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s primary rival for the Democratic nomination, told a story about America that differed significantly from Clinton’s. Whereas Clinton’s story portrayed the country on a path toward greater multicultural inclusion, Sanders spoke critically of a country whose institutions were fatally flawed from the outset. Drawing from radical narratives of revolutionary change that are typically associated with Marxism and the secular left, his vision of “political revolution” involved a rupture with the past followed by the establishment of a fundamentally different kind of social and political system. This narrative has not frequently been heard on the national political stage in the United States, in part because socialism has suffered from a reputation as fundamentally un-American. Yet it fared surprisingly well in 2016, especially among young voters, suggesting an appetite for the strong populist critique and vision of radical change it offered. Still, its cynical view of American ideals and its inability to account for the progress that has already been made may have ultimately limited its appeal. Despite their differences, the multiculturalist progress and revolutionary change narratives are both ultimately narratives of progress, which frame the country’s best days as ahead rather than in the past. Yet their differences nonetheless exacerbated a widening split within the progressive coalition that weakened its capacity to face off against conservatives. Moreover, neither of these narratives alone resonated to the extent that Trump’s did, in terms of their reach or capacity to energize voters. Indeed, while each may have connected with a subset of Democratic voters, neither was able to speak to the wide range of interests and experiences found within this diverse coalition. And while Sanders’ narrative inspired strong commitment among his supporters, this same level of energy never suffused the broader coalition, nor did it translate into enthusiasm for a broader progressive project that transcended Sanders himself. Today, as Democrats work to mend this rift within their coalition, the Trump administration has fanned the flames of a resistance movement that has unified those who oppose his vision of the country. This may, in the short term, seem like the answer to the Democrats’ problem. But the unity forged by resistance to Trump will be difficult to sustain and will not likely translate into support for the Democratic Party agenda without a positive vision of the country around which this diverse progressive coalition can rally. Although it was not visible on the national political stage in 2016, one possible version of such a narrative already exists, the moral perfection narrative. While the moral perfection narrative is surely not the only narrative that could serve this purpose, and may not ultimately be the most viable one, it is striking that it has not been widely discussed as an alternative to Trump’s decline narrative. This article explores why this is the case, and why it matters. It does so, first, by discussing the roles these kinds of narratives play in American political life, as well as their religious roots, resonances, and carriers. Second, it introduces the moral perfection narrative and, through the words of two of its most prominent contemporary carriers, former president Barack Obama and the progressive religious activist Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, demonstrates how it differs from yet incorporates key aspects of other progress narratives. Third, it then demonstrates how the moral perfection narrative offers an alternative to Trump’s decline narrative in terms of its portrayal of (1) the country’s historical trajectory, (2) American identity and belonging, and (3) citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. It concludes by observing that although progressive religious leaders like Barber tend to be overlooked and undervalued due to an emphasis on their limited electoral impact, these leaders carry a story about America that has the potential to resonate widely with the diverse audiences that comprise the Democratic base and the Trump resistance movement. By shifting our attention to this capacity to serve as carriers of cultural resources that benefit broader political coalitions, we gain new insight into the role progressive religious voices have played historically in American political life and could continue to play today. RELIGION AND COMPETING STORIES OF AMERICA Narratives of National Identity and Belonging Many aspects of politics involve storytelling (Polletta et al. 2011). Stories of various sorts are marshaled by politicians and social movements alike to mobilize people to action (Polletta 2006) and to exemplify the impact of policies on real people’s lives (Braunstein 2017c; Stone 2002). Among these are what Smith (2003) calls “stories of peoplehood,” accounts of the nation’s history, character, and destiny. Attention to this kind of story reveals much about how people imagine the nation and their place within it and illuminates a key mechanism through which people come to understand themselves as members of political communities. When we talk about national identity and belonging, we often focus on how people draw symbolic boundaries around who “we” are (Bail 2008; Brubaker 2009; Theiss-Morse 2009). This is an extremely important dimension of national belonging, especially when considering intense ongoing debates about the status of groups whose membership in the nation is contested or contingent—like African Americans or Muslims in America today (Bail 2012; Braunstein 2017a)—and who feel they could be “made foreign” (Parker 2015), or pushed from inside to outside these boundaries, at any moment. It also goes without saying that these symbolic boundaries matter because they are intertwined with social boundaries, like citizenship laws and access to social rights, as well as physical borders (Alexander 2006; Lamont and Molnar 2002). But a focus on the symbolic boundaries of national belonging alone is incomplete, a bit too static and one-dimensional. In contrast, stories of peoplehood put these static accounts of the nation in motion—like moving from stop-motion photography to animation (Lichterman and Cefai 2006). These kinds of stories not only offer an account of “who we are” as a nation, but also link a vision of a nation’s past (“where we have been”) to a vision of its future (“where we are going”) (Smith 2003). They work “as persuasive historical stories that prompt people to embrace the valorized identities, play the stirring roles, and have the fulfilling experiences that political leaders strive to evoke for them” (Smith 2003:45). They often do so by embedding each citizen’s personal story of struggle and triumph within a larger, transcendent, narrative of national destiny (Bellah 1967). In sociological terms, we can think of stories of peoplehood as linking what Somers (1994) calls a “public narrative” (e.g., a telling of American history with which many people are familiar) with individuals’ “ontological narratives” (“the stories that social actors use to make sense of—indeed, to act in—their lives”) (618). While public narratives are rooted in historical time, ontological narratives are rooted in biographical time. So an effective story of peoplehood embeds “biography within history” (Mills 2000). It also, importantly, encourages citizens to imagine where the country is (or should be) heading in the future, and their role in protecting it from (or pressing it toward) that destiny. A story of peoplehood is most likely to resonate with a group when it connects to what Hochschild (2016:16) calls their “deep story,” “a story that feels as if it were true.” To be clear, one’s deep story need not be based on one’s actual experiences or material conditions, but rather on one’s perceptions of these. And these perceptions—for example, that one is marginalized and scorned by society—can be strongly influenced by political and media elites, even in the absence of interpersonal experiences of marginalization and scorn (Polletta and Callahan 2017). The most powerful stories of peoplehood likely resonate with multiple groups’ deep stories. The ritual retelling of such stories during political campaigns serves as a kind of “bridging cultural practice” (Braunstein et al. 2014) that encourages socially and ideologically diverse groups to develop a shared “self-understanding”—not only a sense of who “we” are, but also a shared vision of where “we” are headed together (Brubaker 2004:44). This is one way through which these kinds of stories facilitate and support diverse political coalitions. Thus, they have the potential to shape, or reshape, the political field. They can also profoundly influence the ways in which individuals understand, act, and interact within the political world. Specifically, they can become scaffolding for the interpretive worlds in which groups of citizens embed themselves, and from within which they evaluate what is in their best interest, who their allies and enemies are, the credibility of authorities and information, the appropriateness of different kinds of political action, and the democratic virtue of other citizens (Braunstein 2017b; Lepore 2010; Reed 2017). As such, although stories of peoplehood have the capacity to bring political groups together and imbue their solidarity with sacred meaning, they can also create meaning barriers between groups that drive political polarization. This is particularly true in a diverse nation like the United States, where multiple versions of the national story circulate at any given time and are continually revised in light of new events (Smith 2017). Each version is partial, emphasizes different events, identifies different heroes and villains, and traces a different path between the past, present, and future (Dionne 2012; Lepore 2010). Not surprisingly, these stories are heavily contested. Presidential elections are as much about disagreements over the American story as they are about policy differences. Religious Roots, Resonances, and Carriers When politicians tell stories of peoplehood, they neither create new narratives “using completely raw wood” (Smith 2003:55), nor pluck fully-formed narratives like books from a shelf (Jasper 2006). Rather, they assemble various combinations of characters, events, and plot lines from a vast “cultural repertoire”—the set of culturally and historically available discourses, symbols, stories, and so on from which individuals and groups draw when engaging in public life (Williams 1995, 1999). A skilled storyteller brings these elements together in a manner that feels authentic and distinctive, yet also familiar and meaningful to large audiences of potential voters. While these narratives have attracted increasing attention from scholars and political observers in recent years, less recognized is the extent to which many of these narratives are composed of elements that have religious roots and resonances. This is true of narratives on both the political left and right, and narratives that are explicitly religious as well as those that are ostensibly secular. This is especially true in the United States, thanks to Americans’ high levels of religiosity and self-understanding as a “chosen people” (Smith 2004). It thus makes sense that many of the stories that resonate widely “interpret [Americans’] historical experience in the light of transcendent reality” (Bellah 1975:3). As Williams (1999:2) has argued, “In American politics, cultural resources drawn from religion are particularly potent even if religious groups as such are not prominent players within the movement. Our ideas about politics, even many of our supposedly secular ideas, are rooted in religion.” These “cultural resources drawn from religion” constitute an important element of Americans’ broader cultural repertoire. Seeing the subtle religious elements and roots of political narratives, and understanding why they matter, requires an approach that illuminates “how religious ideas undergird the cultural themes that inform how Americans think and talk about public politics,” whether or not these are also expressed explicitly in the “religious attitudes of individuals” or in the “organizational involvement of churches” (Williams 1999:2). But politicians also speak in terms that more explicitly “sacralize” the American story. In such cases, they are (consciously or not) drawing on a set of cultural resources associated with American “civil religion.” As Bellah first observed in a classic 1967 essay, American politicians commonly weave pivotal periods of American history—like the Revolution, slavery, and the Civil War—along with “biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth” into narratives that infuse the nation and the struggles of its people with sacred meaning. This American civil religion “has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations” (Bellah 1967). Versions of this narrative have historically resonated with Americans across the political divide, in part because of its symbolic flexibility (Williams 1995). Previous research finds that such narratives can be exclusionary or inclusive/integrative; particularlistic or universalistic; ethno-religious or civic; priestly or prophetic (Braunstein 2017b; Flores and Cossyleon 2016; Gorski 2017a; Reed et al. 2016; Smith 2003; Williams and Alexander 1994). Through the lens of these narratives, we can see how religion has supported calls for both restorationist nostalgia and prophetic resistance. To be clear, stories of American peoplehood need not draw explicitly on these kinds of religious elements, and in fact those that do can raise normative concerns (Smith 2003). Many Americans—especially liberals—are wary of blending religion and national mythology, fearing this could too easily veer into white Christian nationalism (Smith 2017). Yet in so doing, they pass up an opportunity to assert a progressive moral vision of what it means to be part of a national community. After all, nationalism is not intrinsically exclusionary; rather, when people imagine themselves as part of a diverse and inclusive national community, this can empower them to demand greater economic, political and social rights, not only for themselves but also for others within and beyond the nation (Anderson 2006; Calhoun 2007). In recent decades the American left has also more generally avoided morally “expansive” language, including religious language (Hart 2001). This choice reflects a substantive concern related to the appropriateness of inserting religion into politics, as well as a practical concern that religious language could alienate the secular (and secularist) members of their base or fuel division within the electorate. While these are reasonable concerns, the result is that liberals have effectively ceded the moral high-ground to conservatives on issues of public concern (Hart 2001), and overlooked the extent to which some religiously infused messages and practices can call diverse groups to participate in a shared moral project (Braunstein et al. 2014). But even assuming that it is possible to craft a sacred story of American peoplehood that inspires religious and secular progressives alike, progressive leaders would still struggle to mobilize this story at the national level. This is because there is a paucity of “carriers” (Williams 1995:127) of religiously infused cultural resources on the left, particularly within a national Democratic Party increasingly dominated by secular (and secularist) voices and concerns (Dionne 2008; Sager 2017; Sullivan 2008). For most Democratic candidates today, speaking in a prophetic religious register would not feel authentic or “appropriate” (Clemens 1993:758; see also Braunstein 2017b; Jasper 1997), and telling sacred stories of peoplehood would not likely be perceived as credible or persuasive.4 Still, there are exceptions. For example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconicity provides a prophetic script that is almost universally recognizable and positively valued among progressives. Obama, a black man steeped in both the Black Church and movements for social justice, was able to draw on this script to great performative effect (Alexander 2012). Of course, leaders of the Black Church must also take care not to cross the fine line between prophetic (good) and “angry, black man” (bad), as Rev. Jeremiah Wright did when he voiced criticisms of the United States during the 2008 election (Gorski 2008). More generally, religious leaders and those who are viewed as authentically religious tend to have high levels of moral storytelling authority (Braunstein 2012, 2017b), rooted in their status as the “carriers of the moral” in American society (Williams and Demerath 1991). This suggests that a wider array of Democratic candidates deeply rooted in their faith communities could bring this credibility into the political sphere. Yet this credibility appears to be limited to those representing faith traditions closely associated with “American-ness” at any given moment (Herberg 1955). Today, Muslims and other religio-racial minorities are often viewed with suspicion when voicing their religious or political views (Yukich 2017). Meanwhile, even religious candidates who would not face such prejudices may still not feel comfortable speaking publicly in a prophetic religious style. For example, white liberal Protestants (like Clinton) tend to prefer “quieter” expressions of their faith (Lichterman and Williams 2017; Wuthnow and Evans 2002). So long as there are not more diverse cultural templates for being both progressive and religious, Democrats will struggle to mobilize a religiously infused narrative of American peoplehood. Yet for all of the reasons outlined above, this kind of morally expansive narrative could help them to both unify and energize their diverse coalition, and to offer an alternative to Trump’s narrative of American decline. As such, those leaders who can comfortably and authentically carry such a narrative will be in a unique position to add value to the broader progressive project. THE MORAL PERFECTION NARRATIVE In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democrats and leaders of the Trump resistance movement are in search of a narrative that both resonates across their diverse constituencies and offers an alternative to Trump’s story of American decline. They should not overlook the fact that one possible narrative already exists. The moral perfection narrative has a long history, but it is most closely associated today with Barack Obama. The story of America he told during his 8 years in power could not have differed more sharply from the words offered by his successor. Four years before Trump’s swearing in, when giving his second inaugural address, Obama noted that “what binds this Nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”5 He went on to quote from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He then pivoted to the narrative theme that defined his presidency—the notion that America is a moral project that is not yet finished: “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.” Like Trump’s, Obama’s words acknowledged the depth of people’s enduring struggles, disappointments and fears for the future—in 2008 and 2012, as in 2016, these were substantial. Yet Trump and Obama embedded the suffering they observed in different stories about America’s past, present, and future, which offered Americans profoundly different paths forward. The kind of story that Obama offered was not found on the national political stage during the 2016 election, but a version of this narrative still circulates in American public life, carried primarily by the leaders of today’s growing yet diffuse progressive religious movement, sometimes dubbed the “Religious Left” or “religious resistance” movement (Braunstein et al. 2017; Goodstein 2017a). This movement includes national figures like Barber, Sister Simone Campbell, Rev. Traci Blackmon and Rev. Jim Wallis, as well as countless local leaders within faith-based community organizing networks like Faith in Action (previously PICO National Network)6 and beyond. Historically and today, this field includes faith leaders who position themselves as moderates representing “the moral center” as well as more radical voices who are deeply critical of American culture and political institutions and position themselves at the political margins (Goodstein 2017a; McKanan 2011). The field is also extraordinarily socially diverse in terms of its religious, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition, and organizations also typically work in coalition with both religious and secular partners (Goodstein 2017a; Wood and Fulton 2015). As such, it resembles in miniature the ideologically and socially diverse coalition of voters that comprises the Democratic Party’s base and the broader Trump resistance movement. Leaders within this field, many of them clergy as well as longtime activists and organizers, often tap into the moral perfection narrative when talking about their vision of the country. While their stories about America differ in the nature and targets of their critiques and their level of optimism about the country’s future, they tend to portray the American democratic experiment as a sacred project that is not yet finished; they emphasize the social movements, civic prophets, and ordinary men and women who have fought for recognition and inclusion in the American story, and in so doing have become “authors” of this story (Smith 2003:188); and they weave in religious archetypes, characters, and symbols that infuse this history with transcendent meaning and import (Braunstein 2017b). Of those faith leaders who carry this narrative today, Barber has emerged as a breakout star. In June 2017, his photograph accompanied an article on page A1 of the New York Times about how “faith leaders whose politics fall to the left of center are getting more involved in politics to fight against President Trump’s policies” (Goodstein 2017a). The photograph captured him from the waist up, his face drawn into a challenging stare, framed by a starched white collar and a thick gold chain holding a large cross. In the article, he is described as “a gifted preacher with a big-tent vision” and a strong “contender for King’s mantle.” He originally attracted national attention in 2013 as the leader of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina. In December 2017, he announced that he (along with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis) was relaunching the Poor People’s Campaign that King started fifty years earlier, shortly before his 1968 assassination (Goodstein 2017b). The first “Fundamental Principle” of this newly relaunched Poor People’s Campaign encapsulates two key aspects of Barber’s story about America: “We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.”7 As the first part of this principle suggests, Barber often reiterates that his political work is rooted in both religious and political values. As Goodstein (2017a) notes, he “cites the Constitution and the common good as freely as the Bible.” In his words, “We use the words that progressives have thrown away—morality, welfare, poor, faith—because those are soul words” (Goodstein 2017a). Moreover, as the second part of this “Fundamental Principle” shows, the Poor People’s Campaign is grounded in a story of a country in crisis, in which “moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.” So central is this theme to their work that they are calling the campaign “A National Call for a Moral Revival.” The critical nature of this analysis brings to mind Sanders’ insistence that anything short of a “political revolution” will be an insufficient cure for what ails the country. And indeed, this radical spirit is on display in the efforts of today’s Poor People’s Campaign, as it was in King’s original campaign. Yet in contrast to Sanders’ secular narrative of revolutionary change, Barber’s version of the moral perfection narrative seeks to fuel revival using tools intrinsic to the American democratic tradition itself. In this sense, it shares some of the optimism found in the multiculturalist progress narrative about the country’s capacity for moral progress, but it does so without being overly celebratory about what has already been achieved. Overall, while the moral perfection narrative is distinct from both of these other progress narratives, it incorporates key features of both—it is committed to expanding the boundaries of economic, social, and political inclusion, while also open to radical change to achieve this goal. COMPETING NARRATIVES OF NATIONAL BELONGING Turning now to a comparison of the moral perfection and conservative decline narratives, we can see how they supply citizens with alternative ways of imagining the nation, in terms of their portrayal of (1) the country’s historical trajectory, (2) American identity and belonging, and (3) citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. Historical Trajectory Although Trump delivered his lines with artful flair, the story of American decline that he peddled was not new. The varied constituencies that comprise today’s Republican coalition, including libertarians, corporate elites, religious conservatives, and groups defending white racial privilege, each embrace variants of this decline narrative. Consider, for example, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan’s claims that the nation’s “100 percent Americanism” was being contaminated by racial and religious minorities (McVeigh 2009); Ayn Rand’s dystopian melodramas of collectivism run amuck (Burns 2009); the Koch Brothers’ sober tales of the death of “free enterprise” (Mayer 2010); Jerry Falwell’s jeremiads against the nation’s moral decline (Harding 2000); and the Tea Party movement’s historical account of the country’s fall away from the vision of the Founding Fathers (Braunstein 2017b).8 While each apocalyptic tale of the country’s impending ruin involves a slightly different constellation of heroes, villains, and key events, they share a common plotline: they are all declension narratives—stories we tell about something declining or deteriorating continually over time.9 Yet many of these conservative declension narratives also point to a hopeful path forward. Tea Party participants, for example, believed they could stave off further collapse and restore the country’s greatness by calling the country back to original Constitutional principles (Braunstein 2017b). Trump echoed this optimism in his inaugural address, which he closed by pledging, “Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, together, we will make America great again.”10 Ronald Reagan, too, ran for president promising to “make America great again,” yet by his 1984 re-election campaign suggested Americans had emerged from the darkness by declaring, “It’s morning in America again” (Beschloss 2016). In each of these conservative narratives, the country’s historical trajectory takes the form of a circle—the path forward involves going back to a moment of earlier perfection: Eden (Gorski 2017a). While Americans who share this nostalgic vision do not consistently reference a specific moment in the past that reflected this ideal, Dionne (2016:1) observes that contemporary conservatism blends nostalgia for “the government and the economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s, and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s.” It was not a mistake that Reagan’s “It’s morning in America again” advertisement featured images that “would have fit almost seamlessly into the 1950s sitcoms ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It to Beaver’” (Beschloss 2016). As Gorski (2017a:108) argues, this circular conception of time can be contrasted to forms of “historical consciousness” that envision the “possibility of moral progress.” The moral perfection narrative represents one such progress narrative. The distinction between these two visions of the country’s trajectory is brought into focus through a closer look at Barber’s call for a moral revival. As discussed, this in some ways echoes Sanders’ calls for political revolution, but in others it resembles the calls for restoration that are found in Trump’s and other conservative declension narratives. Christian revivalists during the Second Great Awakening, for example, relied on declension narratives to underscore the necessity and urgency of revival.11 More recent Christian nationalists, too, have dramatized the country’s decline when calling upon Americans to mobilize—often behind a savior figure (Jerry Falwell, Glenn Beck, Donald Trump)—to restore the nation’s soul (Braunstein 2017b; Gorski 2017b; Harding 2000). Yet moral revival need not require the restoration of an earlier set of social arrangements, as the conservative decline narrative suggests; rather, it can involve a renewal of resolve to move toward a new set of social possibilities. By embedding the idea of moral revival within a broader narrative of moral progress, the moral perfection narrative offers progressives an alternative means of making sense of the feeling that the nation is backsliding—politically, economically, or morally—after a period of hopeful progress. At the same time, the idea of revival does convey that something is being recovered from the past. For Barber, it is an unrealized moral ideal that needs reviving, rather than a preexisting social reality. In his insistence upon reinterpreting and reviving core American ideals, his story of America bears much in common not only with Obama’s, but also with those told by earlier figures like King and Abraham Lincoln. As Beem (2018) argues, “King did not want to challenge, let alone replace, [America’s founding] ideals of freedom and equality. He wanted America to better embody them. He argued that the civil rights movement was just the latest in a long American tradition that was both grounded in those ideals and sought to make them more authentic.” Through this lens, Lincoln, too, can be viewed as an important carrier of the moral perfection narrative, by reasserting the place of the Declaration of Independence (even more so than the Constitution) as the “apple of gold” at the center of the American story—“a ‘maxim’ set up to be ‘constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated’ in ways that could augment ‘the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere’” (Smith 2017). These different versions of the moral perfection narrative share a common depiction of the country’s trajectory. They acknowledge that America’s founding was far from perfect, having arisen out of the sins of conquest, genocide and slavery, and that the country’s more recent history, too, has been marred by injustices and inequalities, particularly for people of color and recent immigrants. Still, they are hopeful about the future, tapping into an image of American democracy as a long-term moral and political project, a journey toward a more just and inclusive future. They ground this hope not only in a vision of humans’ capacity for progress, but also in the fact that although Americans may never have lived up to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” it is nonetheless, in King’s (1963) words, “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King (1956), paraphrasing the theologian Theodore Parker, famously equated history to a long arc that is slowly “bending toward justice.” But upon closer inspection, time in the moral perfection narrative really resembles a spiral, “widening upward and outward toward higher principles and greater inclusiveness” (Gorski 2017a:108). In contrast to narratives of linear progress, in which “each new stage fully superseded the old,” a spiral vision of time involves “the periodic return to sources,” and an effort to realize the aspirations of the past rather than fully replace them (108). It also, like the Exodus story, involves a lot of wandering and backsliding. A spiral-like trajectory can account for such setbacks and advances, and for changes both small and large, embedding these all within a vision of a chosen people’s “forward movement”—toward the Promised Land.12 Identity and Belonging Second, each story implies a different vision of American identity and belonging, or who “the people” are. One way of discerning this difference is through attention to the perspective from which each story is told. Trump’s story, like that of the Tea Party before him, is told from the perspective of those who were once at the metaphorical center of American society—what Sarah Palin once called “the real America” (Leibovich 2008) and what Trump called America’s “forgotten men and women,” essentially, white working- and middle-class Christians.13 It is “their country” that is declining. Such claims reflect these men and women’s perception (accurate or not) that their social, political, and economic status within the country is being devalued (McVeigh 2009). Making America great again thus involves creating the conditions under which their central position is restored. Yet American history can also be recounted from the perspective of those men and women who were once relegated to the social and political margins and have had to fight for recognition and inclusion—immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, and the poor. Members of these groups do not tend to look back at earlier periods in American history with nostalgic yearning and may still be deeply critical of the country. In the story told by Obama, Barber, and other progressive faith-based activists, it is “their country” that is at stake (Braunstein 2017b). Creating a “more perfect union” for this diverse people involves continuing on the country’s long and uneven journey to live up to its founding ideals. These stories also imply different ideal visions of what it means to be a political “people.” This difference can be expressed by reference to Allen’s (2004) distinction between oneness and wholeness. The metaphor of oneness (e.g., E pluribus unum, or “out of many, one”) is at the center of most Americans’ visions of national belonging. But, as Allen argues, it implies a mythologized homogeneity that is insufficient for knitting together “diverse and disagreeing citizens” (16). It is a metaphor that makes it uncomfortable to recognize our differences and difficult to acknowledge and redress historical wrongs against groups of Americans. While all usages of the oneness metaphor are not necessarily problematic, Trump takes this metaphor to its extreme—a point made clear by the extent to which he has reinvigorated groups on the alt-right who explicitly support white Christian nationalism. A metaphor of wholeness, on the other hand, emphasizes heterogeneity, not homogeneity; “integration, not assimilation,” and “can help a democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference” (Allen 2004:20). While Obama has occasionally referenced the idea of oneness—as in his famous statement that “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America”14—the overall story he tells about America is one defined by wholeness. He expressed this complex sentiment in his first inaugural address: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”15 For its part, the progressive religious movement seeks to model this wholeness-based vision of American belonging through an intentional focus on including minority and marginalized voices in their diverse coalition (Braunstein et al. 2017; Wood and Fulton 2015). Citizens’ Responsibilities Finally, the conservative decline and moral perfection narratives also point toward different visions of citizens’ responsibilities as a member of the political community. At the heart of this difference is whether one believes the story of America was “authored by God” and is thus fixed, or whether it is “primarily authored by the American people themselves, acting as agents in human history, and … responsible for defining our civic aims and identity” (Smith 2003:188). Many (although not all) conservative decline narratives conform to the former type.16 They imply that the nation’s founders achieved perfection (often aided by God) when they drafted the country’s founding documents and established its political institutions. The responsibility of citizens is thus to follow the sacred “map” they left—enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and to trust only those political leaders who hold this “originalist” view. This is how many Tea Partiers talked about the founding documents, and their role in relation to them (Braunstein 2017b). And it is telling that one of Trump’s first acts in office was to appoint someone who shared this philosophy to the Supreme Court. Likewise, it follows that failure to adhere to the nation’s sacred texts (like failure to follow the word of God) prompts decline and necessitates revival. As Gorski (2017a:107) writes, “In this form of historical consciousness, American history consists of a double movement: away from the plain meaning of sacred texts and then back again.” Some versions of this narrative prompt patriotic citizens to look inward at how their own moral failures have contributed to the nation’s backsliding. But most point outward at what are perceived as evil forces hell-bent (sometimes literally) on eroding the nation’s (white Christian capitalist) perfection—immigrants and multiculturalists; religious minorities and secular humanists; communists and champions of social justice (Braunstein 2017b; Burns 2009; Gorski 2017a). Making America great again involves protecting the country from these forces. Meanwhile, the moral perfection narrative points toward an alternative solution to the country’s current travails, in which citizens are not charged with protecting an already fully-formed America; they are called to perfect it. As Dionne and Reid (2017) note in their review of Obama’s speeches as president, “In Obama’s rhetoric, ‘perfect’ is as often a verb as it is an adjective describing some optimal state. The assumption is always that the United States has not yet reached its goal, but that it gets nearer to it by the decade.” Obama consistently reminded people that they were agents in this never-ending sacred struggle to forge a “more perfect union.” He drew explicitly on this idea during one of the most significant moments in his public life, his 2008 speech on race. This speech, delivered from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, was not only formally entitled, “A More Perfect Union,” but began by referencing the preamble of the Constitution, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” and observing, “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy…. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.”17 Obama returned to this theme during his 2015 speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”18 Standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where civil rights leaders were violently attacked by law enforcement 50 years earlier, he remarked: “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this Nation’s founding, our Union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.” Barber and his colleagues echo this sentiment, although they are less sanguine about the extent of progress thus far. For example, promoting the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber’s organization Repairers of the Breach tweeted the message, “We are dreaming of the nation we’ve yet to become, and are daring to see it through.”19 This idea is also captured in the title of a documentary series created in conjunction with the campaign, “America Will Be,” a reference to a segment of the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again”: O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!20 In this story about America, activists, organizers, and civic prophets—from the civil rights movement to today’s Poor People’s Campaign—have played a pivotal role in pressing the nation to live up to its founding ideals. These figures have pursued varied social change strategies, with some calling for incremental policy solutions and some for more radical changes to the social and political system as a whole. The moral perfection narrative provides a means of framing these varied efforts as part of a common moral project rather than at odds with one another. In so doing, figures like Obama, Barber, and many others call upon a diverse array of Americans to contribute to the project of perfecting the nation. In Obama’s words on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday: What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this? What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this Nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?21 CONCLUSION: RELIGION AND RESISTANCE IN THE AGE OF TRUMP In the wake of the Democrats’ defeat in the 2016 election and the subsequent emergence of the Trump resistance movement, Americans who reject the premise that the country’s best days are behind it have sought an alternative narrative around which to organize. Progressive religious leaders today are the carriers of one such narrative. Although the moral perfection narrative is not the only potential alternative to Trump’s decline narrative, it is striking that it has not been more widely recognized as a possibility. After all, it has at different points in history inspired majorities of citizens at the national level and currently provides meaning and direction to an ideologically and socially diverse movement with roots in communities around the country, suggesting that it has the potential to resonate with the Democratic Party coalition and beyond. It is unapologetically, sometimes even radically, progressive, but also grounds its account of progress in distinctively American values and myths. And while it is legible to secular citizens, it is recounted in the kind of prophetic religious language that has historically inspired diverse citizens to imagine themselves are part of a shared moral project. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it incorporates key elements of both the multiculturalist progress and revolutionary change narratives, offering a means of bridging some of the divides within the progressive coalition. Yet a number of factors currently prevent progressive religious leaders and the moral narratives they carry from being embraced by the broader Democratic coalition. First, they tend to be overlooked by the mainstream media. According to Williams (2017), this is in part because religious conservatives and religious progressives occupy different positions in relation to the Republican and Democratic parties: while the Religious Right has since the early 1980s been an institutionalized part of the GOP coalition, the Democratic Party has been characterized as somewhere between religiously tone deaf and hostile toward religion, rendering progressive religious voices and organizations an awkward fit within its coalition (Dionne 2008; Sager 2017; Sullivan 2008). In a media environment dominated by “horserace journalism” and an accompanying focus on party competition and elections, groups that fall outside of this two-sided story receive less attention (Williams 2017:350). Political scientists also generally overlook progressive religious voices due to the field’s tendency to view the political landscape in electoral terms. Through this lens, politics is a battle between two “sides”—the two major political parties—which are seen as aligning closely with religious conservatives and liberal secularists (Williams 2017). Even those who are attuned to the presence of religious progressives tend to underestimate their potential impact, due to a narrow focus on their potential to offset the electoral influence of the Religious Right. Cox (2017), for example, argued in a post at the widely read blog, FiveThirtyEight, that progressives should not “bet on the emergence of a ‘Religious Left’,” noting that religious liberals lack the numbers, youth, and technological prowess to exert meaningful electoral influence. This is not an unfair assessment, and this conclusion is consistent with research showing that this movement suffers from a significantly less developed collective consciousness than the Religious Right—for example, many individuals who hold progressive religious views do not identify strongly as “progressive religious activists,” and progressive religious organizations vary in their identification with a broader progressive religious movement (Olson 2017). Moreover, for many religious liberals, their religious identity is not their most politically salient identity (Lichterman and Williams 2017). And when these individuals do organize as “people of faith,” they tend to do so within coalitions that face a variety of cultural and strategic challenges arising from their religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and political diversity (Braunstein et al. 2014; Diaz-Edelman 2017; Geraty 2017; Wood and Fulton 2015). In light of these challenges, it is unlikely that an insurgent Religious Left will emerge as a serious electoral counterweight to the Religious Right in 2020. But a focus on progressive religious voters and organizations alone misses other significant ways in which progressive religious voices could impact the political scene. Indeed, the historical influence of progressive religious actors in the United States has not typically derived from their numbers, but from their morally expansive rhetorical style (Hart 2001) and unique cultural resources (Williams 1999). These have included moral languages of the public good and the good society (Bellah et al. 1985; Williams 1995); moral exemplars drawn from the Bible and American religious history (Braunstein 2017b; Fuist 2017; Raboteau 2016); and most relevant to our purposes, civil religious narratives that imbue progressive action—religious and secular alike—with moral weight (Bellah 1967; Braunstein 2017b; Gorski 2017a). As carriers of these cultural resources, progressive religious leaders have contributed substantially to broader progressive efforts for social change (McKanan 2011). This includes movements with widely recognized religious dimensions, like the abolitionist movement (Young 2006), the civil rights movement (Morris 1984), and the immigrant rights movement (Yukich 2013); as well as those typically viewed as secular, like the nineteenth-century populist movement (Williams and Alexander 1994), the labor movement (Carter 2015), the New Left (Gahr and Young 2017), and the Black Power movement (Cressler 2014). By shifting our attention to the capacity of religious groups to serve as carriers of cultural resources that can benefit broader political coalitions, this article sheds new light on the role progressive religious voices have played historically and could continue to play today. To be clear, I am not arguing that if Democrats had told a different story of America in 2016, they would be in the White House, or that embracing the moral perfection narrative (or any other narrative) now will guarantee success in 2020. Indeed, history suggests this would not be sufficient to gain and secure power (Smith 2003). But it is hard to imagine that Democrats or the Trump resistance movement will be able to unify and inspire their diverse base to mobilize and support a progressive agenda without offering a broadly resonant alternative to the decline narrative around which today’s conservative coalition has rallied. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Jack Delehanty, Rogers M. Smith, Melissa Wilde, and Rhys H. Williams; audiences at the Media Activism Research Collective workshop at the University of Pennsylvania and the American Sociological Association; and the three anonymous reviewers and Editor for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article. 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CrossRef Search ADS ———. 2017 . “ Conclusion: What Progressive Efforts Tell Us about Faith and Politics .” In Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories about Faith and Politics , edited by Ruth Braunstein , Todd Nicholas Fuist , and Rhys H. Williams , 348 – 64 . New York : NYU Press . Williams , Rhys H. , and Susan M. Alexander . 1994 . “ Religious Rhetoric in American Populism: Civil Religion as Movement Ideology .” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 : 1 – 15 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Williams , Rhys H. , and N. J. Demerath III . 1991 . “ Religion and Political Process in an American City .” American Sociological Review 56 : 417 – 31 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Wood , Richard L. , and Brad R. Fulton . 2015 . A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Wuthnow , Robert , and John Hyde Evans . 2002 . The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism . Berkeley, CA : University of California Press . Young , Michael P . 2006 . Bearing Witness against Sin: The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Yukich , Grace . 2013 . One Family under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America . New York, Oxford : Oxford University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS ———. 2017 . “ Progressive Activism Among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims in the U.S .” In Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories about Faith and Politics , edited by Ruth Braunstein , Todd Nicholas Fuist , and Rhys H. Williams , 225 – 45 . Footnotes 1 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=120000. 2 There are of course countless ways in which we could delineate the various narratives that have circulated historically in American political life, as well as globally (Smith 2003 offers the fullest available account of these varied “stories of peoplehood”). I am only arguing that these two narratives, along with the conservative decline narrative, were the dominant ones mobilized by major candidates in the 2016 election. But one could also offer a different account of these. For example, Brooks (2017b) identifies four competing stories in American life today that overlap with the narratives I have identified, but do not include the revolutionary change narrative. See also Smith (2017). 3 While “multiculturalism” has been embraced by more Americans in recent decades, it is a stretch to argue, as many conservatives have, that this ideology has become hegemonic to the extent that it now “dominates America’s classrooms” (Brooks 2017c). 4 Not everyone is equally adept or credible as carriers of narratives (Blommaert 2001; Polletta et al. 2011), including religious narratives (Braunstein 2012, 2017b). 5 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=102827. 6 This recently announced rebranding will go into effect on May 1, 2018. 7 The campaign’s Fundamental Principles can be found at: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/fundamental-principles/. 8 According to Jones et al. (2015): “No group expresses greater pessimism about America’s future than members of the Tea Party. Only one-third (33%) of Tea Party members say that the country’s best days lie ahead, while about two-thirds (65%) say they are in the past.” 9 To be clear, declension narratives also circulate on the political left: for example, among groups who lament the decline of organized labor (McCoy 2016) or of liberal arts education (Kimball 2014). 10 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=120000. 11 As the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (2014:9) observed, a “‘Revival of Religion’ presupposes a declension.” 12 While recognizing this general pattern, Walzer (1986:12) nonetheless refers to the Exodus story as a linear narrative, defined by a “strong forward movement,” in contrast to “cyclical understandings of political change.” 13 This is also evident in Trump’s description of the words, “Merry Christmas” as “our cherished and beautiful phrase” (emphasis added), a statement that only makes sense from the perspective of a Christian. This December 24, 2017 tweet by @realDonaldTrump can be found at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/945126026824298497. 14 The full text of Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=76988. 15 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=44. In 2016, Clinton also tapped into this metaphor when she explained, “America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again” (Gass 2016). 16 One clear exception is Ayn Rand, an ardent atheist whose ideal vision of society involved maximizing individual agency (Burns 2009). 17 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=76710. 18 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=109728&st=&st1=. 19 This October 10, 2017 tweet by @BRepairers can be found at: https://twitter.com/BRepairers/status/917675019769122816. 20 This poem is excerpted in a blog post by The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice promoting the first episode of the documentary series, found at: https://kairoscenter.org/july-4-2017-america-will-be/. 21 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=109728&st=&st1=. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Sociology of Religion Oxford University Press

A (More) Perfect Union? Religion, Politics, and Competing Stories of America

Sociology of Religion , Volume Advance Article (2) – Apr 12, 2018

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Abstract

Abstract Donald Trump’s calls to “Make America great again” loosely unified a Republican coalition divided over policy, priorities, and style. In contrast, Democrats in 2016 were divided between two stories about America. Progressives today seek a new narrative that can unite their ideologically and socially diverse coalition while also providing a compelling alternative to Trump’s account of national decline. This article argues that one such narrative already exists. It is most closely associated today with a diverse set of progressive religious leaders including Rev. William J. Barber II. This narrative differs from Trump’s in terms of its portrayal of the country’s historical trajectory, American identity and belonging, and citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. Presidential elections are as much about disagreements over the American story as they are about policy differences. Attention to these competing stories offers new insights into the 2016 election and the role that progressive religious leaders are playing in the resistance movement that has emerged in its aftermath. INTRODUCTION Donald J. Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States was the culmination of a concerted campaign to convince Americans that they had become the world’s “losers.” Trump used his inaugural address to paint a chilling picture of America today—as crime-ridden, crumbling, poor, and weak. “American carnage,” he called it.1 But, in his account, it had not always been this way: he intimated throughout his campaign that there was a time “before,” when America was strong, wealth was celebrated, and men were allowed to be men; before immigration, globalization, political corruption, and political correctness had snuffed out America’s greatness. It was only by putting “America first” and listening to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” he argued, that we would “make America great again.” The story he told about America linked a historical narrative of a once-dominant country in decline with many Americans’ lived experiences of declining fortunes and status, and it resonated with large numbers of voters during the 2016 election, including some who had previously supported Democrats (Cohn 2017; McQuarrie 2017). Although Trump’s success as a carrier of this narrative shocked many, it should not be terribly surprising that the narrative itself appealed to many voters. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, the view that “America’s best days are behind us” had grown increasingly prevalent in the run up to the 2016 election: whereas only 38% of Americans held this view in 2012, this figure reached 49% by 2015, including majorities of Republicans, Tea Party movement members, white Protestants, white working-class Americans, and white respondents in general (Jones et al. 2015). Whether or not this depiction of America’s trajectory is factually accurate does not matter; what matters is that it felt true to large numbers of Americans (Hochschild 2016). Meanwhile, half of Americans hold the opposite view, in which the country’s “best days are ahead of us.” This view is embraced by majorities of Democrats, white college-educated Americans, and Americans who are not white or Protestant. For example, majorities of black and Hispanic respondents agree that the country’s best days are ahead. This was also the perspective of majorities of non-Christians, Catholics, black Protestants, and religiously unaffiliated Americans. Responses to a similar question, regarding whether “American culture and way of life” has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s mirrored this pattern (Jones et al. 2015). These trends suggest that diverse members of the Democratic coalition share a critical yet hopeful vision of the country’s potential for progress. Yet observers of the 2016 election lamented that Democrats nonetheless failed to unify their base around a shared story of America that harnessed this vision of the country (e.g., Brooks 2017a, 2017c; Smith 2017). Of course, this is not the only or even the most significant reason why the Democrats lost in 2016. We should not lose sight of the fact that the odds were always against the Democrats winning a third term in the White House, regardless of who the Republican nominee was. Democrats also suffered from a number of tactical blunders, unintentional missteps and unlucky occurrences that have by now been well documented. Finally, much of the post-election focus has rightfully been on the Rust Belt districts that “revolted” against the Democratic Party in 2016 (McQuarrie 2017). But amid disagreements about whether it is necessary to win back the white working-class, it is worth remembering that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, even with a lower than expected turnout among black voters (Krogstad and Lopez 2017). This suggests that the Democratic Party does not necessarily need to attract more people to its coalition so much as it needs to unify and energize its existing members. But the election revealed a longstanding cultural impediment to this goal that will continue to plague the party unless it is confronted. Namely, the Democratic coalition is far more socially and ideologically diverse than the Republican one, necessitating a message that appeals to citizens with widely varied values, interests, and experiences. While members of diverse coalitions may never agree on a single political agenda, they can sustain solidarity by mobilizing narratives that help them to imagine themselves as part of a shared project that transcends their differences. Democrats in 2016 struggled to coalesce around such a narrative. Rather, the party was split between two competing stories about America: one of multiculturalist progress and another of revolutionary change.2 Clinton’s various messages—that she wanted to create “an economy that works for everyone” and that she was a “champion for everyday people”—resembled titles more than stories. But in an effort to respond more directly to Trump’s “Make America great again” narrative, Clinton and her fellow Democrats advanced the message that “America is already great” (Hensch 2015). In so doing, they tapped into a multiculturalist progress narrative that celebrates the expansion of the boundaries of national belonging and the extension of rights to more groups throughout American history. This narrative has gained significant ground in recent decades,3 but amid its celebration of the country’s demonstrable gains, it struggles to account for the fact that these gains have been felt unevenly, or the perception that the country has veered off course or is moving backward after a period of hopeful progress. As such, it may have rung hollow and out of touch to many Americans (including liberal and left-leaning voters) who have not enjoyed the gains others have, are fearful about the future, or are cynical about elites’ interest in responding to this reality. Meanwhile, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s primary rival for the Democratic nomination, told a story about America that differed significantly from Clinton’s. Whereas Clinton’s story portrayed the country on a path toward greater multicultural inclusion, Sanders spoke critically of a country whose institutions were fatally flawed from the outset. Drawing from radical narratives of revolutionary change that are typically associated with Marxism and the secular left, his vision of “political revolution” involved a rupture with the past followed by the establishment of a fundamentally different kind of social and political system. This narrative has not frequently been heard on the national political stage in the United States, in part because socialism has suffered from a reputation as fundamentally un-American. Yet it fared surprisingly well in 2016, especially among young voters, suggesting an appetite for the strong populist critique and vision of radical change it offered. Still, its cynical view of American ideals and its inability to account for the progress that has already been made may have ultimately limited its appeal. Despite their differences, the multiculturalist progress and revolutionary change narratives are both ultimately narratives of progress, which frame the country’s best days as ahead rather than in the past. Yet their differences nonetheless exacerbated a widening split within the progressive coalition that weakened its capacity to face off against conservatives. Moreover, neither of these narratives alone resonated to the extent that Trump’s did, in terms of their reach or capacity to energize voters. Indeed, while each may have connected with a subset of Democratic voters, neither was able to speak to the wide range of interests and experiences found within this diverse coalition. And while Sanders’ narrative inspired strong commitment among his supporters, this same level of energy never suffused the broader coalition, nor did it translate into enthusiasm for a broader progressive project that transcended Sanders himself. Today, as Democrats work to mend this rift within their coalition, the Trump administration has fanned the flames of a resistance movement that has unified those who oppose his vision of the country. This may, in the short term, seem like the answer to the Democrats’ problem. But the unity forged by resistance to Trump will be difficult to sustain and will not likely translate into support for the Democratic Party agenda without a positive vision of the country around which this diverse progressive coalition can rally. Although it was not visible on the national political stage in 2016, one possible version of such a narrative already exists, the moral perfection narrative. While the moral perfection narrative is surely not the only narrative that could serve this purpose, and may not ultimately be the most viable one, it is striking that it has not been widely discussed as an alternative to Trump’s decline narrative. This article explores why this is the case, and why it matters. It does so, first, by discussing the roles these kinds of narratives play in American political life, as well as their religious roots, resonances, and carriers. Second, it introduces the moral perfection narrative and, through the words of two of its most prominent contemporary carriers, former president Barack Obama and the progressive religious activist Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, demonstrates how it differs from yet incorporates key aspects of other progress narratives. Third, it then demonstrates how the moral perfection narrative offers an alternative to Trump’s decline narrative in terms of its portrayal of (1) the country’s historical trajectory, (2) American identity and belonging, and (3) citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. It concludes by observing that although progressive religious leaders like Barber tend to be overlooked and undervalued due to an emphasis on their limited electoral impact, these leaders carry a story about America that has the potential to resonate widely with the diverse audiences that comprise the Democratic base and the Trump resistance movement. By shifting our attention to this capacity to serve as carriers of cultural resources that benefit broader political coalitions, we gain new insight into the role progressive religious voices have played historically in American political life and could continue to play today. RELIGION AND COMPETING STORIES OF AMERICA Narratives of National Identity and Belonging Many aspects of politics involve storytelling (Polletta et al. 2011). Stories of various sorts are marshaled by politicians and social movements alike to mobilize people to action (Polletta 2006) and to exemplify the impact of policies on real people’s lives (Braunstein 2017c; Stone 2002). Among these are what Smith (2003) calls “stories of peoplehood,” accounts of the nation’s history, character, and destiny. Attention to this kind of story reveals much about how people imagine the nation and their place within it and illuminates a key mechanism through which people come to understand themselves as members of political communities. When we talk about national identity and belonging, we often focus on how people draw symbolic boundaries around who “we” are (Bail 2008; Brubaker 2009; Theiss-Morse 2009). This is an extremely important dimension of national belonging, especially when considering intense ongoing debates about the status of groups whose membership in the nation is contested or contingent—like African Americans or Muslims in America today (Bail 2012; Braunstein 2017a)—and who feel they could be “made foreign” (Parker 2015), or pushed from inside to outside these boundaries, at any moment. It also goes without saying that these symbolic boundaries matter because they are intertwined with social boundaries, like citizenship laws and access to social rights, as well as physical borders (Alexander 2006; Lamont and Molnar 2002). But a focus on the symbolic boundaries of national belonging alone is incomplete, a bit too static and one-dimensional. In contrast, stories of peoplehood put these static accounts of the nation in motion—like moving from stop-motion photography to animation (Lichterman and Cefai 2006). These kinds of stories not only offer an account of “who we are” as a nation, but also link a vision of a nation’s past (“where we have been”) to a vision of its future (“where we are going”) (Smith 2003). They work “as persuasive historical stories that prompt people to embrace the valorized identities, play the stirring roles, and have the fulfilling experiences that political leaders strive to evoke for them” (Smith 2003:45). They often do so by embedding each citizen’s personal story of struggle and triumph within a larger, transcendent, narrative of national destiny (Bellah 1967). In sociological terms, we can think of stories of peoplehood as linking what Somers (1994) calls a “public narrative” (e.g., a telling of American history with which many people are familiar) with individuals’ “ontological narratives” (“the stories that social actors use to make sense of—indeed, to act in—their lives”) (618). While public narratives are rooted in historical time, ontological narratives are rooted in biographical time. So an effective story of peoplehood embeds “biography within history” (Mills 2000). It also, importantly, encourages citizens to imagine where the country is (or should be) heading in the future, and their role in protecting it from (or pressing it toward) that destiny. A story of peoplehood is most likely to resonate with a group when it connects to what Hochschild (2016:16) calls their “deep story,” “a story that feels as if it were true.” To be clear, one’s deep story need not be based on one’s actual experiences or material conditions, but rather on one’s perceptions of these. And these perceptions—for example, that one is marginalized and scorned by society—can be strongly influenced by political and media elites, even in the absence of interpersonal experiences of marginalization and scorn (Polletta and Callahan 2017). The most powerful stories of peoplehood likely resonate with multiple groups’ deep stories. The ritual retelling of such stories during political campaigns serves as a kind of “bridging cultural practice” (Braunstein et al. 2014) that encourages socially and ideologically diverse groups to develop a shared “self-understanding”—not only a sense of who “we” are, but also a shared vision of where “we” are headed together (Brubaker 2004:44). This is one way through which these kinds of stories facilitate and support diverse political coalitions. Thus, they have the potential to shape, or reshape, the political field. They can also profoundly influence the ways in which individuals understand, act, and interact within the political world. Specifically, they can become scaffolding for the interpretive worlds in which groups of citizens embed themselves, and from within which they evaluate what is in their best interest, who their allies and enemies are, the credibility of authorities and information, the appropriateness of different kinds of political action, and the democratic virtue of other citizens (Braunstein 2017b; Lepore 2010; Reed 2017). As such, although stories of peoplehood have the capacity to bring political groups together and imbue their solidarity with sacred meaning, they can also create meaning barriers between groups that drive political polarization. This is particularly true in a diverse nation like the United States, where multiple versions of the national story circulate at any given time and are continually revised in light of new events (Smith 2017). Each version is partial, emphasizes different events, identifies different heroes and villains, and traces a different path between the past, present, and future (Dionne 2012; Lepore 2010). Not surprisingly, these stories are heavily contested. Presidential elections are as much about disagreements over the American story as they are about policy differences. Religious Roots, Resonances, and Carriers When politicians tell stories of peoplehood, they neither create new narratives “using completely raw wood” (Smith 2003:55), nor pluck fully-formed narratives like books from a shelf (Jasper 2006). Rather, they assemble various combinations of characters, events, and plot lines from a vast “cultural repertoire”—the set of culturally and historically available discourses, symbols, stories, and so on from which individuals and groups draw when engaging in public life (Williams 1995, 1999). A skilled storyteller brings these elements together in a manner that feels authentic and distinctive, yet also familiar and meaningful to large audiences of potential voters. While these narratives have attracted increasing attention from scholars and political observers in recent years, less recognized is the extent to which many of these narratives are composed of elements that have religious roots and resonances. This is true of narratives on both the political left and right, and narratives that are explicitly religious as well as those that are ostensibly secular. This is especially true in the United States, thanks to Americans’ high levels of religiosity and self-understanding as a “chosen people” (Smith 2004). It thus makes sense that many of the stories that resonate widely “interpret [Americans’] historical experience in the light of transcendent reality” (Bellah 1975:3). As Williams (1999:2) has argued, “In American politics, cultural resources drawn from religion are particularly potent even if religious groups as such are not prominent players within the movement. Our ideas about politics, even many of our supposedly secular ideas, are rooted in religion.” These “cultural resources drawn from religion” constitute an important element of Americans’ broader cultural repertoire. Seeing the subtle religious elements and roots of political narratives, and understanding why they matter, requires an approach that illuminates “how religious ideas undergird the cultural themes that inform how Americans think and talk about public politics,” whether or not these are also expressed explicitly in the “religious attitudes of individuals” or in the “organizational involvement of churches” (Williams 1999:2). But politicians also speak in terms that more explicitly “sacralize” the American story. In such cases, they are (consciously or not) drawing on a set of cultural resources associated with American “civil religion.” As Bellah first observed in a classic 1967 essay, American politicians commonly weave pivotal periods of American history—like the Revolution, slavery, and the Civil War—along with “biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth” into narratives that infuse the nation and the struggles of its people with sacred meaning. This American civil religion “has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations” (Bellah 1967). Versions of this narrative have historically resonated with Americans across the political divide, in part because of its symbolic flexibility (Williams 1995). Previous research finds that such narratives can be exclusionary or inclusive/integrative; particularlistic or universalistic; ethno-religious or civic; priestly or prophetic (Braunstein 2017b; Flores and Cossyleon 2016; Gorski 2017a; Reed et al. 2016; Smith 2003; Williams and Alexander 1994). Through the lens of these narratives, we can see how religion has supported calls for both restorationist nostalgia and prophetic resistance. To be clear, stories of American peoplehood need not draw explicitly on these kinds of religious elements, and in fact those that do can raise normative concerns (Smith 2003). Many Americans—especially liberals—are wary of blending religion and national mythology, fearing this could too easily veer into white Christian nationalism (Smith 2017). Yet in so doing, they pass up an opportunity to assert a progressive moral vision of what it means to be part of a national community. After all, nationalism is not intrinsically exclusionary; rather, when people imagine themselves as part of a diverse and inclusive national community, this can empower them to demand greater economic, political and social rights, not only for themselves but also for others within and beyond the nation (Anderson 2006; Calhoun 2007). In recent decades the American left has also more generally avoided morally “expansive” language, including religious language (Hart 2001). This choice reflects a substantive concern related to the appropriateness of inserting religion into politics, as well as a practical concern that religious language could alienate the secular (and secularist) members of their base or fuel division within the electorate. While these are reasonable concerns, the result is that liberals have effectively ceded the moral high-ground to conservatives on issues of public concern (Hart 2001), and overlooked the extent to which some religiously infused messages and practices can call diverse groups to participate in a shared moral project (Braunstein et al. 2014). But even assuming that it is possible to craft a sacred story of American peoplehood that inspires religious and secular progressives alike, progressive leaders would still struggle to mobilize this story at the national level. This is because there is a paucity of “carriers” (Williams 1995:127) of religiously infused cultural resources on the left, particularly within a national Democratic Party increasingly dominated by secular (and secularist) voices and concerns (Dionne 2008; Sager 2017; Sullivan 2008). For most Democratic candidates today, speaking in a prophetic religious register would not feel authentic or “appropriate” (Clemens 1993:758; see also Braunstein 2017b; Jasper 1997), and telling sacred stories of peoplehood would not likely be perceived as credible or persuasive.4 Still, there are exceptions. For example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconicity provides a prophetic script that is almost universally recognizable and positively valued among progressives. Obama, a black man steeped in both the Black Church and movements for social justice, was able to draw on this script to great performative effect (Alexander 2012). Of course, leaders of the Black Church must also take care not to cross the fine line between prophetic (good) and “angry, black man” (bad), as Rev. Jeremiah Wright did when he voiced criticisms of the United States during the 2008 election (Gorski 2008). More generally, religious leaders and those who are viewed as authentically religious tend to have high levels of moral storytelling authority (Braunstein 2012, 2017b), rooted in their status as the “carriers of the moral” in American society (Williams and Demerath 1991). This suggests that a wider array of Democratic candidates deeply rooted in their faith communities could bring this credibility into the political sphere. Yet this credibility appears to be limited to those representing faith traditions closely associated with “American-ness” at any given moment (Herberg 1955). Today, Muslims and other religio-racial minorities are often viewed with suspicion when voicing their religious or political views (Yukich 2017). Meanwhile, even religious candidates who would not face such prejudices may still not feel comfortable speaking publicly in a prophetic religious style. For example, white liberal Protestants (like Clinton) tend to prefer “quieter” expressions of their faith (Lichterman and Williams 2017; Wuthnow and Evans 2002). So long as there are not more diverse cultural templates for being both progressive and religious, Democrats will struggle to mobilize a religiously infused narrative of American peoplehood. Yet for all of the reasons outlined above, this kind of morally expansive narrative could help them to both unify and energize their diverse coalition, and to offer an alternative to Trump’s narrative of American decline. As such, those leaders who can comfortably and authentically carry such a narrative will be in a unique position to add value to the broader progressive project. THE MORAL PERFECTION NARRATIVE In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democrats and leaders of the Trump resistance movement are in search of a narrative that both resonates across their diverse constituencies and offers an alternative to Trump’s story of American decline. They should not overlook the fact that one possible narrative already exists. The moral perfection narrative has a long history, but it is most closely associated today with Barack Obama. The story of America he told during his 8 years in power could not have differed more sharply from the words offered by his successor. Four years before Trump’s swearing in, when giving his second inaugural address, Obama noted that “what binds this Nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”5 He went on to quote from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He then pivoted to the narrative theme that defined his presidency—the notion that America is a moral project that is not yet finished: “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.” Like Trump’s, Obama’s words acknowledged the depth of people’s enduring struggles, disappointments and fears for the future—in 2008 and 2012, as in 2016, these were substantial. Yet Trump and Obama embedded the suffering they observed in different stories about America’s past, present, and future, which offered Americans profoundly different paths forward. The kind of story that Obama offered was not found on the national political stage during the 2016 election, but a version of this narrative still circulates in American public life, carried primarily by the leaders of today’s growing yet diffuse progressive religious movement, sometimes dubbed the “Religious Left” or “religious resistance” movement (Braunstein et al. 2017; Goodstein 2017a). This movement includes national figures like Barber, Sister Simone Campbell, Rev. Traci Blackmon and Rev. Jim Wallis, as well as countless local leaders within faith-based community organizing networks like Faith in Action (previously PICO National Network)6 and beyond. Historically and today, this field includes faith leaders who position themselves as moderates representing “the moral center” as well as more radical voices who are deeply critical of American culture and political institutions and position themselves at the political margins (Goodstein 2017a; McKanan 2011). The field is also extraordinarily socially diverse in terms of its religious, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition, and organizations also typically work in coalition with both religious and secular partners (Goodstein 2017a; Wood and Fulton 2015). As such, it resembles in miniature the ideologically and socially diverse coalition of voters that comprises the Democratic Party’s base and the broader Trump resistance movement. Leaders within this field, many of them clergy as well as longtime activists and organizers, often tap into the moral perfection narrative when talking about their vision of the country. While their stories about America differ in the nature and targets of their critiques and their level of optimism about the country’s future, they tend to portray the American democratic experiment as a sacred project that is not yet finished; they emphasize the social movements, civic prophets, and ordinary men and women who have fought for recognition and inclusion in the American story, and in so doing have become “authors” of this story (Smith 2003:188); and they weave in religious archetypes, characters, and symbols that infuse this history with transcendent meaning and import (Braunstein 2017b). Of those faith leaders who carry this narrative today, Barber has emerged as a breakout star. In June 2017, his photograph accompanied an article on page A1 of the New York Times about how “faith leaders whose politics fall to the left of center are getting more involved in politics to fight against President Trump’s policies” (Goodstein 2017a). The photograph captured him from the waist up, his face drawn into a challenging stare, framed by a starched white collar and a thick gold chain holding a large cross. In the article, he is described as “a gifted preacher with a big-tent vision” and a strong “contender for King’s mantle.” He originally attracted national attention in 2013 as the leader of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina. In December 2017, he announced that he (along with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis) was relaunching the Poor People’s Campaign that King started fifty years earlier, shortly before his 1968 assassination (Goodstein 2017b). The first “Fundamental Principle” of this newly relaunched Poor People’s Campaign encapsulates two key aspects of Barber’s story about America: “We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.”7 As the first part of this principle suggests, Barber often reiterates that his political work is rooted in both religious and political values. As Goodstein (2017a) notes, he “cites the Constitution and the common good as freely as the Bible.” In his words, “We use the words that progressives have thrown away—morality, welfare, poor, faith—because those are soul words” (Goodstein 2017a). Moreover, as the second part of this “Fundamental Principle” shows, the Poor People’s Campaign is grounded in a story of a country in crisis, in which “moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.” So central is this theme to their work that they are calling the campaign “A National Call for a Moral Revival.” The critical nature of this analysis brings to mind Sanders’ insistence that anything short of a “political revolution” will be an insufficient cure for what ails the country. And indeed, this radical spirit is on display in the efforts of today’s Poor People’s Campaign, as it was in King’s original campaign. Yet in contrast to Sanders’ secular narrative of revolutionary change, Barber’s version of the moral perfection narrative seeks to fuel revival using tools intrinsic to the American democratic tradition itself. In this sense, it shares some of the optimism found in the multiculturalist progress narrative about the country’s capacity for moral progress, but it does so without being overly celebratory about what has already been achieved. Overall, while the moral perfection narrative is distinct from both of these other progress narratives, it incorporates key features of both—it is committed to expanding the boundaries of economic, social, and political inclusion, while also open to radical change to achieve this goal. COMPETING NARRATIVES OF NATIONAL BELONGING Turning now to a comparison of the moral perfection and conservative decline narratives, we can see how they supply citizens with alternative ways of imagining the nation, in terms of their portrayal of (1) the country’s historical trajectory, (2) American identity and belonging, and (3) citizens’ responsibilities to the American democratic project. Historical Trajectory Although Trump delivered his lines with artful flair, the story of American decline that he peddled was not new. The varied constituencies that comprise today’s Republican coalition, including libertarians, corporate elites, religious conservatives, and groups defending white racial privilege, each embrace variants of this decline narrative. Consider, for example, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan’s claims that the nation’s “100 percent Americanism” was being contaminated by racial and religious minorities (McVeigh 2009); Ayn Rand’s dystopian melodramas of collectivism run amuck (Burns 2009); the Koch Brothers’ sober tales of the death of “free enterprise” (Mayer 2010); Jerry Falwell’s jeremiads against the nation’s moral decline (Harding 2000); and the Tea Party movement’s historical account of the country’s fall away from the vision of the Founding Fathers (Braunstein 2017b).8 While each apocalyptic tale of the country’s impending ruin involves a slightly different constellation of heroes, villains, and key events, they share a common plotline: they are all declension narratives—stories we tell about something declining or deteriorating continually over time.9 Yet many of these conservative declension narratives also point to a hopeful path forward. Tea Party participants, for example, believed they could stave off further collapse and restore the country’s greatness by calling the country back to original Constitutional principles (Braunstein 2017b). Trump echoed this optimism in his inaugural address, which he closed by pledging, “Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, together, we will make America great again.”10 Ronald Reagan, too, ran for president promising to “make America great again,” yet by his 1984 re-election campaign suggested Americans had emerged from the darkness by declaring, “It’s morning in America again” (Beschloss 2016). In each of these conservative narratives, the country’s historical trajectory takes the form of a circle—the path forward involves going back to a moment of earlier perfection: Eden (Gorski 2017a). While Americans who share this nostalgic vision do not consistently reference a specific moment in the past that reflected this ideal, Dionne (2016:1) observes that contemporary conservatism blends nostalgia for “the government and the economy of the 1890s, the cultural norms of the 1950s, and, in more recent times, the ethnic makeup of the country in the 1940s.” It was not a mistake that Reagan’s “It’s morning in America again” advertisement featured images that “would have fit almost seamlessly into the 1950s sitcoms ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It to Beaver’” (Beschloss 2016). As Gorski (2017a:108) argues, this circular conception of time can be contrasted to forms of “historical consciousness” that envision the “possibility of moral progress.” The moral perfection narrative represents one such progress narrative. The distinction between these two visions of the country’s trajectory is brought into focus through a closer look at Barber’s call for a moral revival. As discussed, this in some ways echoes Sanders’ calls for political revolution, but in others it resembles the calls for restoration that are found in Trump’s and other conservative declension narratives. Christian revivalists during the Second Great Awakening, for example, relied on declension narratives to underscore the necessity and urgency of revival.11 More recent Christian nationalists, too, have dramatized the country’s decline when calling upon Americans to mobilize—often behind a savior figure (Jerry Falwell, Glenn Beck, Donald Trump)—to restore the nation’s soul (Braunstein 2017b; Gorski 2017b; Harding 2000). Yet moral revival need not require the restoration of an earlier set of social arrangements, as the conservative decline narrative suggests; rather, it can involve a renewal of resolve to move toward a new set of social possibilities. By embedding the idea of moral revival within a broader narrative of moral progress, the moral perfection narrative offers progressives an alternative means of making sense of the feeling that the nation is backsliding—politically, economically, or morally—after a period of hopeful progress. At the same time, the idea of revival does convey that something is being recovered from the past. For Barber, it is an unrealized moral ideal that needs reviving, rather than a preexisting social reality. In his insistence upon reinterpreting and reviving core American ideals, his story of America bears much in common not only with Obama’s, but also with those told by earlier figures like King and Abraham Lincoln. As Beem (2018) argues, “King did not want to challenge, let alone replace, [America’s founding] ideals of freedom and equality. He wanted America to better embody them. He argued that the civil rights movement was just the latest in a long American tradition that was both grounded in those ideals and sought to make them more authentic.” Through this lens, Lincoln, too, can be viewed as an important carrier of the moral perfection narrative, by reasserting the place of the Declaration of Independence (even more so than the Constitution) as the “apple of gold” at the center of the American story—“a ‘maxim’ set up to be ‘constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated’ in ways that could augment ‘the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere’” (Smith 2017). These different versions of the moral perfection narrative share a common depiction of the country’s trajectory. They acknowledge that America’s founding was far from perfect, having arisen out of the sins of conquest, genocide and slavery, and that the country’s more recent history, too, has been marred by injustices and inequalities, particularly for people of color and recent immigrants. Still, they are hopeful about the future, tapping into an image of American democracy as a long-term moral and political project, a journey toward a more just and inclusive future. They ground this hope not only in a vision of humans’ capacity for progress, but also in the fact that although Americans may never have lived up to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” it is nonetheless, in King’s (1963) words, “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King (1956), paraphrasing the theologian Theodore Parker, famously equated history to a long arc that is slowly “bending toward justice.” But upon closer inspection, time in the moral perfection narrative really resembles a spiral, “widening upward and outward toward higher principles and greater inclusiveness” (Gorski 2017a:108). In contrast to narratives of linear progress, in which “each new stage fully superseded the old,” a spiral vision of time involves “the periodic return to sources,” and an effort to realize the aspirations of the past rather than fully replace them (108). It also, like the Exodus story, involves a lot of wandering and backsliding. A spiral-like trajectory can account for such setbacks and advances, and for changes both small and large, embedding these all within a vision of a chosen people’s “forward movement”—toward the Promised Land.12 Identity and Belonging Second, each story implies a different vision of American identity and belonging, or who “the people” are. One way of discerning this difference is through attention to the perspective from which each story is told. Trump’s story, like that of the Tea Party before him, is told from the perspective of those who were once at the metaphorical center of American society—what Sarah Palin once called “the real America” (Leibovich 2008) and what Trump called America’s “forgotten men and women,” essentially, white working- and middle-class Christians.13 It is “their country” that is declining. Such claims reflect these men and women’s perception (accurate or not) that their social, political, and economic status within the country is being devalued (McVeigh 2009). Making America great again thus involves creating the conditions under which their central position is restored. Yet American history can also be recounted from the perspective of those men and women who were once relegated to the social and political margins and have had to fight for recognition and inclusion—immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, and the poor. Members of these groups do not tend to look back at earlier periods in American history with nostalgic yearning and may still be deeply critical of the country. In the story told by Obama, Barber, and other progressive faith-based activists, it is “their country” that is at stake (Braunstein 2017b). Creating a “more perfect union” for this diverse people involves continuing on the country’s long and uneven journey to live up to its founding ideals. These stories also imply different ideal visions of what it means to be a political “people.” This difference can be expressed by reference to Allen’s (2004) distinction between oneness and wholeness. The metaphor of oneness (e.g., E pluribus unum, or “out of many, one”) is at the center of most Americans’ visions of national belonging. But, as Allen argues, it implies a mythologized homogeneity that is insufficient for knitting together “diverse and disagreeing citizens” (16). It is a metaphor that makes it uncomfortable to recognize our differences and difficult to acknowledge and redress historical wrongs against groups of Americans. While all usages of the oneness metaphor are not necessarily problematic, Trump takes this metaphor to its extreme—a point made clear by the extent to which he has reinvigorated groups on the alt-right who explicitly support white Christian nationalism. A metaphor of wholeness, on the other hand, emphasizes heterogeneity, not homogeneity; “integration, not assimilation,” and “can help a democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference” (Allen 2004:20). While Obama has occasionally referenced the idea of oneness—as in his famous statement that “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America”14—the overall story he tells about America is one defined by wholeness. He expressed this complex sentiment in his first inaugural address: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”15 For its part, the progressive religious movement seeks to model this wholeness-based vision of American belonging through an intentional focus on including minority and marginalized voices in their diverse coalition (Braunstein et al. 2017; Wood and Fulton 2015). Citizens’ Responsibilities Finally, the conservative decline and moral perfection narratives also point toward different visions of citizens’ responsibilities as a member of the political community. At the heart of this difference is whether one believes the story of America was “authored by God” and is thus fixed, or whether it is “primarily authored by the American people themselves, acting as agents in human history, and … responsible for defining our civic aims and identity” (Smith 2003:188). Many (although not all) conservative decline narratives conform to the former type.16 They imply that the nation’s founders achieved perfection (often aided by God) when they drafted the country’s founding documents and established its political institutions. The responsibility of citizens is thus to follow the sacred “map” they left—enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and to trust only those political leaders who hold this “originalist” view. This is how many Tea Partiers talked about the founding documents, and their role in relation to them (Braunstein 2017b). And it is telling that one of Trump’s first acts in office was to appoint someone who shared this philosophy to the Supreme Court. Likewise, it follows that failure to adhere to the nation’s sacred texts (like failure to follow the word of God) prompts decline and necessitates revival. As Gorski (2017a:107) writes, “In this form of historical consciousness, American history consists of a double movement: away from the plain meaning of sacred texts and then back again.” Some versions of this narrative prompt patriotic citizens to look inward at how their own moral failures have contributed to the nation’s backsliding. But most point outward at what are perceived as evil forces hell-bent (sometimes literally) on eroding the nation’s (white Christian capitalist) perfection—immigrants and multiculturalists; religious minorities and secular humanists; communists and champions of social justice (Braunstein 2017b; Burns 2009; Gorski 2017a). Making America great again involves protecting the country from these forces. Meanwhile, the moral perfection narrative points toward an alternative solution to the country’s current travails, in which citizens are not charged with protecting an already fully-formed America; they are called to perfect it. As Dionne and Reid (2017) note in their review of Obama’s speeches as president, “In Obama’s rhetoric, ‘perfect’ is as often a verb as it is an adjective describing some optimal state. The assumption is always that the United States has not yet reached its goal, but that it gets nearer to it by the decade.” Obama consistently reminded people that they were agents in this never-ending sacred struggle to forge a “more perfect union.” He drew explicitly on this idea during one of the most significant moments in his public life, his 2008 speech on race. This speech, delivered from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, was not only formally entitled, “A More Perfect Union,” but began by referencing the preamble of the Constitution, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” and observing, “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy…. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.”17 Obama returned to this theme during his 2015 speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”18 Standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where civil rights leaders were violently attacked by law enforcement 50 years earlier, he remarked: “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this Nation’s founding, our Union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.” Barber and his colleagues echo this sentiment, although they are less sanguine about the extent of progress thus far. For example, promoting the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber’s organization Repairers of the Breach tweeted the message, “We are dreaming of the nation we’ve yet to become, and are daring to see it through.”19 This idea is also captured in the title of a documentary series created in conjunction with the campaign, “America Will Be,” a reference to a segment of the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again”: O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!20 In this story about America, activists, organizers, and civic prophets—from the civil rights movement to today’s Poor People’s Campaign—have played a pivotal role in pressing the nation to live up to its founding ideals. These figures have pursued varied social change strategies, with some calling for incremental policy solutions and some for more radical changes to the social and political system as a whole. The moral perfection narrative provides a means of framing these varied efforts as part of a common moral project rather than at odds with one another. In so doing, figures like Obama, Barber, and many others call upon a diverse array of Americans to contribute to the project of perfecting the nation. In Obama’s words on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday: What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this? What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this Nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?21 CONCLUSION: RELIGION AND RESISTANCE IN THE AGE OF TRUMP In the wake of the Democrats’ defeat in the 2016 election and the subsequent emergence of the Trump resistance movement, Americans who reject the premise that the country’s best days are behind it have sought an alternative narrative around which to organize. Progressive religious leaders today are the carriers of one such narrative. Although the moral perfection narrative is not the only potential alternative to Trump’s decline narrative, it is striking that it has not been more widely recognized as a possibility. After all, it has at different points in history inspired majorities of citizens at the national level and currently provides meaning and direction to an ideologically and socially diverse movement with roots in communities around the country, suggesting that it has the potential to resonate with the Democratic Party coalition and beyond. It is unapologetically, sometimes even radically, progressive, but also grounds its account of progress in distinctively American values and myths. And while it is legible to secular citizens, it is recounted in the kind of prophetic religious language that has historically inspired diverse citizens to imagine themselves are part of a shared moral project. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it incorporates key elements of both the multiculturalist progress and revolutionary change narratives, offering a means of bridging some of the divides within the progressive coalition. Yet a number of factors currently prevent progressive religious leaders and the moral narratives they carry from being embraced by the broader Democratic coalition. First, they tend to be overlooked by the mainstream media. According to Williams (2017), this is in part because religious conservatives and religious progressives occupy different positions in relation to the Republican and Democratic parties: while the Religious Right has since the early 1980s been an institutionalized part of the GOP coalition, the Democratic Party has been characterized as somewhere between religiously tone deaf and hostile toward religion, rendering progressive religious voices and organizations an awkward fit within its coalition (Dionne 2008; Sager 2017; Sullivan 2008). In a media environment dominated by “horserace journalism” and an accompanying focus on party competition and elections, groups that fall outside of this two-sided story receive less attention (Williams 2017:350). Political scientists also generally overlook progressive religious voices due to the field’s tendency to view the political landscape in electoral terms. Through this lens, politics is a battle between two “sides”—the two major political parties—which are seen as aligning closely with religious conservatives and liberal secularists (Williams 2017). Even those who are attuned to the presence of religious progressives tend to underestimate their potential impact, due to a narrow focus on their potential to offset the electoral influence of the Religious Right. Cox (2017), for example, argued in a post at the widely read blog, FiveThirtyEight, that progressives should not “bet on the emergence of a ‘Religious Left’,” noting that religious liberals lack the numbers, youth, and technological prowess to exert meaningful electoral influence. This is not an unfair assessment, and this conclusion is consistent with research showing that this movement suffers from a significantly less developed collective consciousness than the Religious Right—for example, many individuals who hold progressive religious views do not identify strongly as “progressive religious activists,” and progressive religious organizations vary in their identification with a broader progressive religious movement (Olson 2017). Moreover, for many religious liberals, their religious identity is not their most politically salient identity (Lichterman and Williams 2017). And when these individuals do organize as “people of faith,” they tend to do so within coalitions that face a variety of cultural and strategic challenges arising from their religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and political diversity (Braunstein et al. 2014; Diaz-Edelman 2017; Geraty 2017; Wood and Fulton 2015). In light of these challenges, it is unlikely that an insurgent Religious Left will emerge as a serious electoral counterweight to the Religious Right in 2020. But a focus on progressive religious voters and organizations alone misses other significant ways in which progressive religious voices could impact the political scene. Indeed, the historical influence of progressive religious actors in the United States has not typically derived from their numbers, but from their morally expansive rhetorical style (Hart 2001) and unique cultural resources (Williams 1999). These have included moral languages of the public good and the good society (Bellah et al. 1985; Williams 1995); moral exemplars drawn from the Bible and American religious history (Braunstein 2017b; Fuist 2017; Raboteau 2016); and most relevant to our purposes, civil religious narratives that imbue progressive action—religious and secular alike—with moral weight (Bellah 1967; Braunstein 2017b; Gorski 2017a). As carriers of these cultural resources, progressive religious leaders have contributed substantially to broader progressive efforts for social change (McKanan 2011). This includes movements with widely recognized religious dimensions, like the abolitionist movement (Young 2006), the civil rights movement (Morris 1984), and the immigrant rights movement (Yukich 2013); as well as those typically viewed as secular, like the nineteenth-century populist movement (Williams and Alexander 1994), the labor movement (Carter 2015), the New Left (Gahr and Young 2017), and the Black Power movement (Cressler 2014). By shifting our attention to the capacity of religious groups to serve as carriers of cultural resources that can benefit broader political coalitions, this article sheds new light on the role progressive religious voices have played historically and could continue to play today. To be clear, I am not arguing that if Democrats had told a different story of America in 2016, they would be in the White House, or that embracing the moral perfection narrative (or any other narrative) now will guarantee success in 2020. Indeed, history suggests this would not be sufficient to gain and secure power (Smith 2003). But it is hard to imagine that Democrats or the Trump resistance movement will be able to unify and inspire their diverse base to mobilize and support a progressive agenda without offering a broadly resonant alternative to the decline narrative around which today’s conservative coalition has rallied. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Jack Delehanty, Rogers M. Smith, Melissa Wilde, and Rhys H. Williams; audiences at the Media Activism Research Collective workshop at the University of Pennsylvania and the American Sociological Association; and the three anonymous reviewers and Editor for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article. 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Footnotes 1 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=120000. 2 There are of course countless ways in which we could delineate the various narratives that have circulated historically in American political life, as well as globally (Smith 2003 offers the fullest available account of these varied “stories of peoplehood”). I am only arguing that these two narratives, along with the conservative decline narrative, were the dominant ones mobilized by major candidates in the 2016 election. But one could also offer a different account of these. For example, Brooks (2017b) identifies four competing stories in American life today that overlap with the narratives I have identified, but do not include the revolutionary change narrative. See also Smith (2017). 3 While “multiculturalism” has been embraced by more Americans in recent decades, it is a stretch to argue, as many conservatives have, that this ideology has become hegemonic to the extent that it now “dominates America’s classrooms” (Brooks 2017c). 4 Not everyone is equally adept or credible as carriers of narratives (Blommaert 2001; Polletta et al. 2011), including religious narratives (Braunstein 2012, 2017b). 5 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=102827. 6 This recently announced rebranding will go into effect on May 1, 2018. 7 The campaign’s Fundamental Principles can be found at: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/fundamental-principles/. 8 According to Jones et al. (2015): “No group expresses greater pessimism about America’s future than members of the Tea Party. Only one-third (33%) of Tea Party members say that the country’s best days lie ahead, while about two-thirds (65%) say they are in the past.” 9 To be clear, declension narratives also circulate on the political left: for example, among groups who lament the decline of organized labor (McCoy 2016) or of liberal arts education (Kimball 2014). 10 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=120000. 11 As the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (2014:9) observed, a “‘Revival of Religion’ presupposes a declension.” 12 While recognizing this general pattern, Walzer (1986:12) nonetheless refers to the Exodus story as a linear narrative, defined by a “strong forward movement,” in contrast to “cyclical understandings of political change.” 13 This is also evident in Trump’s description of the words, “Merry Christmas” as “our cherished and beautiful phrase” (emphasis added), a statement that only makes sense from the perspective of a Christian. This December 24, 2017 tweet by @realDonaldTrump can be found at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/945126026824298497. 14 The full text of Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=76988. 15 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=44. In 2016, Clinton also tapped into this metaphor when she explained, “America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again” (Gass 2016). 16 One clear exception is Ayn Rand, an ardent atheist whose ideal vision of society involved maximizing individual agency (Burns 2009). 17 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=76710. 18 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=109728&st=&st1=. 19 This October 10, 2017 tweet by @BRepairers can be found at: https://twitter.com/BRepairers/status/917675019769122816. 20 This poem is excerpted in a blog post by The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice promoting the first episode of the documentary series, found at: https://kairoscenter.org/july-4-2017-america-will-be/. 21 The full text can be found at: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=109728&st=&st1=. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Sociology of ReligionOxford University Press

Published: Apr 12, 2018

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