‘Out’ Inside the Beltway

By Amy Sullivan

Let your light so shine before men.
(Matthew 5:16) 

One of the unanticipated consequences—and, perhaps, a benefit—of being an outspoken Christian in liberal politics is having people come out of the closet to me. It isn’t a hidden or misunderstood sexual leaning that they confess, however, but a religious one. “I’m religious, too,” they’ll whisper in my ear as they shake my hand quickly after a gathering of Democratic activists. One congressional aide identified himself as an evangelical during a public Q&A, and then told me afterward that it was the first time he’d “outed” himself in front of a Democratic crowd. “How did it feel?” I asked. He paused. “A little scary. But good.”

Long before values talk was all the rage, even members of Congress expressed relief on those rare occasions when religion was an approved topic of conversation at conferences. But while these reactions are understandable— it’s always reassuring to find fellow travelers—they are also frustrating. Why do these people feel so alone? Where have all the religious liberals been?

Keeping our heads down and our mouths shut, it seems. When the religious right emerged two decades ago, being religious became not only déclassé, but also dangerous. No one on the left wanted to be lumped in with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; nor did they want to cross any lines by inappropriately mixing church and state. So religious liberals started secularizing their language and compartmentalizing their church-going selves. And as groups like the Christian Coalition became more vocal, these religious liberals withdrew further from public view.

It’s no surprise that avowedly secular liberals came to associate all things religious with conservatism and intolerance.

The parting gift they gave Christian conservatives was an uncontested public square. Years before the religious right had the membership numbers to match its boasts of political influence, it was winning debates simply by controlling the agenda and cornering the market on faith. It’s no surprise, then, that avowedly secular liberals came to associate all things religious with conservatism and intolerance.

As a result, religious liberals can feel like an endangered species. They face endless queries, from liberals and conservatives alike, about whether it’s possible to be both a Christian and a Democrat. And there are more harmful stereotypes. Comments in political strategy sessions about religious voters not being “our” voters. Or, a Senate legislative aide is pulled off work on genetic-testing legislation because his colleagues assume that his faith means he is pro-life and therefore unacceptably conservative on the issue (he’s not). The mere mention of faith issues in print can stir up a sweeping, dumbed-down reaction: “Stop trying to impose your religion on us!”

It’s no wonder many of us opt to go quietly about our business, saving the religious talk for our houses of worship. And, of course, that’s the problem. We’ve forgotten one of the first songs I learned as a child in a Baptist Sunday school: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” At the time, this kind of pronouncement was the scariest part of my religious tradition. Even then, I was queasy about biblical literalism, and not too keen on the prohibition on female authority. But as a deathly shy individual, I was definitely not down with witnessing.

Yet it’s hard to deny that much of what I do now is witnessing, simply standing up in liberal settings and saying for the record: I, too, am a Christian. My journalism colleagues used to kid me by calling me “Bible girl,” but it’s actually been liberating to take on that alter ego. When I speak to Democratic audiences, I wear my stylish silver cross and I talk about playing Bible Daughters (a Go Fish-like card game) on family vacations. As weird as I may sound to them, at least I don’t sound like James Dobson or Rick Santorum.

And when I say, in answer to their questions, I’m a Democrat not despite my faith but precisely because of it, I see their eyes widen in an “a-ha!” expression. I may want to scream and ask, for the love of God, have you never heard of Dorothy Day or Abraham Joshua Heschel or Martin Luther King, Jr.? But I do not. After all, conservatives have spent a good 20 years drumming that powerful tradition out of our collective memory, and it’s going to take a whole lot of us, doing a lot more than screaming, to take it back.

In the face of spectacles like Justice Sunday and the assertion that those who disagree with the Republican Party are waging war against people of faith, in the face of journalists who conflate “religious” with “conservative,” in the face of liberals who are tempted to oppose all things religious, we have to demand to be counted.

We can start by reaching into those bushels to find our flickering lights, and holding them aloft for all to see. If enough religious liberals let their lights shine, they would illuminate a world infinitely more complex and interesting than one in which religion is assumed to be the sole property of conservatives. Shine on. 

Amy Sullivan has degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School. She is an editor at, and writes for, Washington Monthly.

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