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Southpols: The left side of the religion-political divide

The Top Story by Chris Graham


The focus on faith and values issues in politics is so much on the religious right and what it does to inject itself into debates on the topics of the day that one can almost fail to recognize that the religious left gets practically nothing in this respect in the way of attention.

The news is that there is indeed a religious left – and it is aiming to offer a competitive counterbalance to Christian conservatives.

“The mainstream religious voice has been entirely too quiet,” said the Rev. Doug Smith, the executive director of the Richmond-based Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“We have allowed too many extreme groups within our circles to redefine what it means to be faithful – and really to redefine what God is all about. I believe that the more mainstream religious community is speaking louder – and I think that we are certainly investing much more time and energy in making sure that the volume of our voice of our priorities is turned up,” Smith told The Augusta Free Press.

Religious conservatives have been growing steadily in political influence dating back to the mid-1960s. Their successes are many – two elections of Ronald Reagan, two elections of George W. Bush, the Republican Party takeover of Congress in 1994.

The track record of the right makes it easy to overlook the fact that the religious left was the driving force behind two significant political movements that transformed American society in the first two-thirds of the 20th century – the women’s rights movement and the civil-rights movement.

“The role of moderate and progressive religious organizations can be quite significant. History provides that lesson for us,” said Melody Barnes, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for American Progress.

“Looking at moderate and progressive religious movements over time, and the way they’ve joined with the broader progressive movement, has really contributed to really important social change in our country – from abolition to dealing with child-labor laws to workers’ rights to the civil-rights movement. All of those were progressive movements, and many of them were fueled significantly by the voices of interfaith religious leaders,” Barnes told the AFP.

And then, for whatever reason, the religious left fell silent.

“Many people have moved to the right politically because there is no spiritual voice that they hear coming from the left – and they feel that there’s a religiophobia that exists in some segments of the left,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, the national cochair of the Berkeley, Calif.,-based Network of Spiritual Progressives and the author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right.

“Many people feel pushed away by that. People who otherwise agree with the Democratic Party or with the social-change movement, the antiwar movement, the environmental movement, the social-justice movement, nevertheless feel put down by a left that seems to be insensitive to their spiritual aspirations,” Lerner told the AFP.

One of the many challenges faced by religious-left leaders, according to Fred Plumer, the president of the Gig Harbor, Wash.,-based Center for Progressive Christianity, is that “progressive Christians have always felt that we should be judged by our actions as opposed to our beliefs, and that it was actually inappropriate as part of the culture to spend a lot of time talking about one’s beliefs – except when you did that in your personal worship center.”

“A lot of things have not been articulated probably as well as they should have been – about who we are and what we are – as a result of that cultural understanding,” Plumer said.
“It is frustrating to me that we get judged for our silence – and have been pushed to the fringe. But times are changing. There is a response to feeling like you’re being marginalized by the more ultraconservative Christians – who I don’t feel speak for the majority of Christians in this country,” Plumer told the AFP.

The resurgence of the religious left, to Plumer’s dismay, is a result at least in part of progressives “learning to articulate out of a need rather than probably what we may or should have been doing all along.”

That the left is still struggling to emerge from the right’s shadows could lead to the temptation for spiritual-progressive leaders to adopt the tactics of religious conservatives.

“To their credit, part of what has happened is that the religious right had a much larger megaphone – that while the civil-rights movements and those other movements were under way, the religious right became really concerned about that and, to their tactical credit, developed media outlets and developed a way of communicating with people who shared many of their views to try to elevate their goals in a way that moderate and progressive religious leaders did not,” Barnes said.

Progressives are working busily to develop their own communications strategies – but significantly, they do not plan to use the right as their model in this.

“Last week, I was asked to debate a pastor of one of the largest churches in the state of Washington – and this person started out his debate by quoting things that I’d written 30 or 40 years ago to try to embarrass me. This technique is one that you can find on Fox News – and it’s not one that I want to see the left engaged in. I don’t want to see a spiritual left end up being a bunch of spiritual bulldogs fighting the right with the right’s weapons,” Lerner said.

“Are we going to be able to hand out voting guides? Probably not with the same impact – not with the same effect. Because we can sit in the church and have Republicans and Democrats and independents who believe that basically we’re all trying to work for a better world and a more just world – and we can have conversations about this. And we do that all the time in our more progressive churches,” Plumer said.

“It is difficult for us to put out something that says, This is the way that a real Christian should vote. And I hope that doesn’t change. I want to struggle with those issues,” Plumer said.

The impact of the re-emergence of the religious left is not likely to be the counterweight that progressives would like to see.

“I don’t know that it can be comparable,” said Charles Kimball, a religion professor at Wake Forest University.

“There aren’t as many easy themes or uniting themes that people who come from the left side of the political and religious spectrum all agree on the way we’ve seen some of the issues on the religious right that have been easier to rally people around. So I don’t know that you’ll see something comparable – but you are certainly seeing more people getting actively involved in the political sphere from what we could call the religious left,” Kimball told the AFP.

“I do not anticipate the religious left to become as big as the Christian-conservative movement. The reason is that the numbers of people who would describe themselves as members of the religious left is just not as large as the religious right,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“It’s also not clear where to draw the line of where the religious left is. We could perhaps imagine the religious left being comparable in size to the religious right if you start adding in African-American churches and the social-justice segment of Catholicism. But it is by no means clear how big this movement is going to be and how unified it’s going to be,” Farnsworth told the AFP.

Conservative scholar Joseph Loconte is more to the point on this.

“I don’t see that kind of political strength coming from the religious left – because they don’t seem to be terribly representative of ordinary people, ordinary Americans, the values that ordinary Americans have. They don’t seem to be terribly representative. They do seem to be out of step with the mainstream,” Loconte said.

“I know it’s difficult for my American friends to acknowledge it, but part of the reason that religious conservatives, Christian conservatives and others, have been so successful is that they tap into the commonsense instincts of so many Americans,” Loconte said.

“It’s not just a failure of liberals to quote-unquote ‘get their message out’ – we hear that constantly from liberals and Democrats, that it’s a failure to get their message out. They’ve gotten their message out, and many Americans are throwing it back in their faces. They’re not interested in some of – not all, but some of – the more radical aspects of their agenda,” Loconte told the AFP.

Lerner hears these kinds of statements from conservatives about the potential of the religious left and realizes that the impact is being felt in the here and now.

“It’s not just, Let’s be more left, or let’s be more right. It’s, Let’s go back to the spiritual values that we hold, and truly put them in a position to shape our daily lives and our institutions. That’s a different way of doing politics – and I think it could have a very big impact on the Democratic Party and across the political spectrum,” Lerner said.

Barnes is there as well.

“This is why moderates and progressives in the religious community are not interested in replicating the religious right,” Barnes said. “There are a number of concerns that they have about the way the religious right has done business over the years – their my-way-or-the-highway, we’re-gong-to-turn-our-view-of-Scripture-into-law kind of approach. The moderate and progressive religious community is more interested in being prophetic than being partisan – in speaking from the values that they hold dear and they hold true from their religious beliefs and speaking truth to power.

“There’s not a desire to take the model of the religious right and change some of the words and, voila, you have the views of the moderate and progressive religious movement – but in fact to elevate the voices so that there’s an elevation of the values and the views of those who come from the moderate and progressive community,” Barnes said.


(Published 03-20-06)


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