Closing the 'Religion Gap'
Forty years later, many secular liberals remain as uncomfortable with such talk as Northern liberals often were in the 1950s and '60s, viewing religion as at best a barrier to enlightenment and progress, at worst a wellspring for bigotry and intolerance. Such attitudes are partly a reflection of the strand of anti-clericalism that has long pervaded liberal thought. They are also a product of the success that figures like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have had in presenting themselves as the public face of religion in this country--despite the fact that they speak for a minority of religious Americans. A recent survey by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly found that evangelical Christians on the whole gave Falwell a marginally unfavorable rating. It also found that many evangelicals (in particular, those who are African-American or Hispanic) care more about jobs and the economy than issues like gay marriage and abortion. Secular liberals may shudder when informed that roughly 40 percent of Americans are born-again Christians; few are aware that, of this total, roughly one-third are "freestyle evangelicals" whose political views are eclectic, and that another 15-20 percent are members of minority groups that tend to vote Democratic. In addition to these groups are millions of mainline Protestants and centrist Catholics whose faith takes more moderate forms. For many in the latter camp, religion serves not only as a source of spiritual fulfillment but as a spur to social action on a range of issues--the death penalty, homelessness, violence against women, global inequality--close to the hearts of secular progressives.
Can such people become vocal and organized enough to counterbalance the religious right? Tom Perriello, one of the founders of Res Publica, a communications firm established recently to help the progressive faith community raise its stature in the media, believes they can. Though Perriello concedes that, to date, no force comparable to the Christian Coalition has emerged on the left, he says that between the war in Iraq and the tax cuts at home, the extremism of the Bush Administration has lit a fire under many people of faith with more moderate views. "These are people who don't necessarily think of themselves as progressive," Perriello explains, "but they are unequivocal in their support for most just policies for the neediest, for peacemaking, for protecting the environment, for enhancing the common good." One such group, FaithfulAmerica.org, recently aired an advertisement on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in which a rabbi, a Muslim cleric, a Presbyterian minister and a nun apologize for the abuses at Iraqi prisons. ("We condemn the sinful and systemic abuses committed in our name," their statement declares.) Modeling itself after MoveOn.org, Faithful America has signed up more than 115,000 members for an e-mail list that it plans to use to circulate petitions and turn out people for future events. This summer, it is organizing a "Stonewalk" in which family members of 9/11 victims and religious leaders will drag a 1,400-pound granite monument honoring "Unknown Civilians Killed in War" from Boston to New York, the respective sites of the Democratic and Republican conventions.
A few weeks before the Center for American Progress conference, I attended "Pentecost 2004," a three-day Christian mobilization designed to rally a broad coalition of religious leaders against poverty. The event was organized by Call to Renewal, a progressive faith-based organization that publishes the magazine Sojourners. The speakers' list was bipartisan--featuring both Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic Congresswoman from Connecticut, and Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Bush Administration--but the mood was decidedly not. After DeLauro delivered her speech, an impassioned broadside against the Bush Administration's tax and budget policies, she received a standing ovation. But when Jackson told the audience that being poor was merely "a state of mind" and that the best thing government could do was stay out of the way, the reaction was chilly. As his speech drew to a close, few clapped. One man stood up and, shouting across the room before Jackson could reach the exit, asked what the Bush Administration was doing for people like the woman he'd met by chance that morning on the street, a mother who worked as a prostitute at night because she didn't earn enough to support her family from her daytime job. "Well, I would say to you that you should ask a different question," Jackson replied. "What are you going to do for her?" Here was "compassionate conservatism" distilled to its essence. The audience responded with a cascade of hisses and boos.
By refocusing the debate about values away from what happens in the bedroom and toward issues like homelessness and poverty, strategists like Perriello believe progressives can reclaim the moral high ground in American politics while mobilizing religious activists to advance concerns they share. At the Call to Renewal conference, Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners, echoed this line, arguing that unlike inherently divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a campaign against poverty could unify Christians "across political and denominational lines." It's an inspiring thought, although in reality such a campaign would likely fracture along familiar political lines. For as Jackson's speech showed, framing poverty as a religious issue can as easily buttress a conservative agenda as a progressive one. The faith community is ultimately no less divided about the causes of poverty than the rest of society is, with some viewing it as a "state of mind" for which individuals have themselves to blame, others as a product of structural inequality that requires a radically different set of policies.
That said, the Call to Renewal conference did underscore the fact that, contrary to some common stereotypes about religious communities, more than just a smattering of ultra-liberal congregations in a handful of blue states are open to the latter view. Between panel discussions one day, I spoke with Ron Sider, a born-again Christian who heads the group Evangelicals for Social Action. Like most evangelicals, Sider opposes gay marriage and is passionately antiabortion. But he also opposes Bush's tax cuts and is passionate about fighting poverty, arguing that the Bible compels Christians to care about "both the family and the poor." During a panel discussion suffused with references to biblical passages--Luke 1, Amos 5, Isaiah 58--Sider called for expanding the earned-income tax credit, more generous food stamps, a living wage and "an end to the scandal of 42 million Americans without healthcare." Said Sider in explaining the basis for his beliefs, "I don't think God is a Marxist, but frequently the Bible suggests that people get rich by oppression or are rich and don't share what they have--and in both cases, God is furious."