Taking Back the Faith

Taking Back the Faith

Where are the progressive religious leaders who can fill the shoes of William Sloane Coffin?


Until the wake-up shock of Bush II’s re-election, I was one of the great slumber party of mainline American Protestant “liberals” (as we were then still known) whose response to the outrages of those who stole our identity as Christians was the cheap and comfortable scorn and smugger-than-thou ridicule of the disengaged. My own religious-political alarm had begun to ring during the summer before the 2004 election, when I reviewed for The Nation Warren Goldstein’s biography William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience. The book brought back to me in stirring detail the work of leaders like Reverend Coffin, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan and their Jewish allies like Rabbi Abraham Heschel in battling racism, unjust war, nuclear proliferation, poverty and threats to civil liberties. I wrote that “their inspiring example raises a disturbing question: Where are their counterparts now?”

In the past year I put that question to religious leaders and lay people as I traveled around the country trying to understand what has brought us to the political-religious crisis of our time and what, if anything, is being done about it. When asked who is the contemporary equivalent of Coffin, the white Protestant firebrand of civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement, several mainline Christians sighed and said, “Well, I guess–Coffin.”

Long retired from active ministry and in his 80s, Coffin writes and speaks out against the war in Iraq and the religious right more than most mainline leaders today, though he has suffered a stroke and is largely confined to a Barcalounger by the living-room window of his home in New Hampshire.

Lacking an active Reverend Coffin, several people suggest his potential successor might be his actual successor at New York’s Riverside Church, the popular African-American preacher James Forbes. Both of the people who named Forbes live in New York, though; he has done little to make himself known in the nation at large.

One afternoon over tea in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, I ask a bright young pastor of a mainline Protestant church in an affluent suburb who he thinks is the contemporary Christian counterpart to William Sloane Coffin in the 1960s. After some minutes of silent musing, he shakes his head, then smiles and says, “Rabbi Lerner.” This minister is not the only Christian who named Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun, a Jewish and interfaith magazine, as the person who is doing the most significant work in opposing the religious right’s theft of the meaning and the message of Christianity for the political power of the neocon Republican con men.

The most consistent answer to my question is the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose barnstorming book tour for his bestselling God’s Politics took him to fifty-six cities in twenty weeks and brought him into question-and-answer sessions with crowds of 1,000 to 2,000 people at a time. Michael Lerner’s new book, The Left Hand of God–which turns out to be almost a companion volume to God’s Politics–is on target to elicit a similar grassroots response.

The unlikely duo of Lerner and Wallis, a rabbi and an evangelical Christian, are the names most often cited in my homemade, unofficial poll of Christians looking for leadership in opposing the religious right not only with words but also with deeds. But they are not forming any kind of partnership except in the sense of being friendly allies who have similar goals. Both men are known as loners, and they don’t even agree on the way to go about reaching their common goal of opposing the power of the religious right. While Lerner wants to form a “spiritual left,” Wallis doesn’t want to use the term “left,” or even “progressive,” and least of all “liberal” in his own work.

At this stage, however, as the first meaningful response to the religious right is finally taking form, terminology–left, middle or center and red, white or blue–is not the most crucial issue. There’s no debating what flag you will fly until you have ammunition, troops and a battle plan, a strategy.

Wallis tells me:

Bill Moyers and others say, “You’ve helped put out a progressive religious message–not just a progressive political message–now you’ve got to institutionalize this.” So we’re talking about a media platform that would involve some kind of radio–we’re in discussions with people in radio about a progressive religious show or regular commentaries. Also, I do a lot of op-ed pieces, and we’re going to see if one of the syndicates would like a weekly commentary from me on the whole area of religion, values and ethics. We’ll use the Internet very heavily, with much more streaming, much more using speaking events. That’s kind of the “air war.” James Dobson of Focus on the Family is out there on 3,000 stations a day, and you need to have a response–not specifically to him, but to have an alternative voice.

Wallis, Lerner and other religious progressives are up against a long-entrenched and formidable foe, especially on radio and TV. The Republican activist Paul Weyrich told a group of neocon advisers Bush had brought to the White House that they had no excuse for failing to get their message out. “There are 1,500 conservative radio talk-show hosts. You have Fox News. You have the Internet, where all the successful sites are conservative. The ability to reach people with our point of view is like nothing we have ever seen before.”

Wallis realizes that even if he gets a toehold in radio and television, it’s only a start. “You can’t just be on the air and in the media, so we’ve been having extensive conversations at our magazine Sojourners and at our Call to Renewal movement about organizational strategies. We’ve had lots of other organizations and groups come by who’d like to make alliances and partnerships, so we’re talking about a pastors’ network, a congregational network.”

I ask Wallis if he has any plans for trying to do the kind of grassroots political work the religious right has done so successfully in getting people elected to school boards and local offices. “I’ve met lots of local elected officials,” he says, “who have a progressive faith perspective–state senators and representatives, mayors, school board commissioners. They’ve urged us to have a gathering for state and local officials. We’d have hundreds for such a conference. I’ve got former students from Harvard running for office around this agenda, running for city councils already, and some of them are going to be running for state offices. The right does it in an overtly partisan way, almost like a power bloc within the Republican Party. I see us doing more like a civil rights movement kind of thing, rather than what the Christian Coalition did. We want to build a movement around issues like poverty and hold politicians accountable, more than just joining the political party and trying to gain power within the party.”

* * *

“We realize this time it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.”
   –Dave Robinson, director of Pax Christi, the Roman Catholic progressive movement for peace and justice

The jacket of Robert Edgar’s suit is off, and his shirt is crisp and white, his tie straight, his glasses clear. Before becoming general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), Edgar was a six-term member of the House of Representatives, the first Democrat in more than 120 years to be elected from the heavily Republican Seventh District of Pennsylvania. He also served as a minister to Methodist congregations and as a college chaplain before coming to New York in 2000 to run the NCC from his office in “the God Box,” a building on Upper Broadway that serves as headquarters for the NCC and a number of Protestant denominations.

“We’ve been Sleeping Beauty,” he says, “but the actions of the Bush Administration to force us into war in Iraq was the kiss that woke us up.” One result of the wake-up, Edgar says, is the website started by the NCC, called FaithfulAmerica.org. “Is that in response to the religious right?” I ask. Edgar sighs:

Almost everything we do is in response to the religious right. They have done an excellent job over the last forty years in silencing moderate to progressive voices. We’re trying to be silent no more, we’re trying to stand up when they’re telling us to sit down, and we’re trying to speak out when they tell us to be silent. Here we’re using some new energy and techniques to go after those who are trying to take us down the wrong road.
 We watched how MoveOn.org and Working Assets and other advocacy groups have formed, and about a year ago we said, Can’t we invent that same kind of technology for the faith communities? In May of last year we had 2,000 e-mail addresses, and now there are over 125,000 who we talk to about once every ten days.
 Churches that stand for something grow. Not just conservative churches but liberal churches that take the Gospel seriously are increasing in membership. But many of our pastors haven’t figured that out yet.

I ask if some ministers today are fearful of speaking out because of the current atmosphere of divisiveness and the intimidation by the Bush Administration and their religious right followers. “Absolutely,” says Edgar.

The question I ask is: How do you instill courage and the ability to risk in pastors today? In the 1960s there were a number of pastors willing to be fired over the war in Vietnam and the issues of segregation and civil rights. I see a negative trend recently that many pastors are waiting to retire or don’t want to rock the boat in their congregations. They love to tell Bible stories as opposed to taking their spiritual gifts out of the Scripture and relating them to life and work issues. Ministers are under that kind of threat, balancing their call by God to their vocation to the poor and nonviolence and justice with the practical call of where do they get the money to pay their mortgage–it’s a serious challenge.

I ask if there’s anyone comparable now, in liberal religion, to William Sloane Coffin. Edgar says:

There’s a cluster of people who meet every Thursday by telephone. It just started in the last two years, with Jim Wallis, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, David Beckman of Bread for the World, George Regas, who was pastor of the big Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Jim Forbes of Riverside Church. The problem with liberals is we don’t follow very well. We brand our organizations instead of our issues; the religious right is better at branding their issues. We’ve changed over the last three years, and said there really are only three issues–poverty, environment, justice. All others are important, but we have to brand those issues until we actually see changes in the trend lines on poverty, on the healing of the earth.

“What about the war in Iraq?” I ask. Edgar replies:

It’s first… I led a delegation to Baghdad, and we sent delegates to talk with Tony Blair, Schröder, Putin, Chirac and the Pope. Three thousand five hundred people gathered on Martin Luther King’s holiday in 2003 to oppose the war, before any body bags were coming back. It was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, and another event at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. With Vietnam it took years to get opposition to the war, but here before it started most religious leaders were opposed to war–except our conservative colleagues, who were reading the Scriptures through the eyes of Armageddon.
 We fell asleep in the 1970s, laughed at the early formation of the Moral Majority–we didn’t take them seriously. Now the Methodists have a $2 million campaign to try to get people to come to their churches.

The Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ also have recruitment campaigns, using TV advertising. Now mainline Protestantism has discovered the Internet, whose most successful websites are operated by the churches and organizations of the religious right, which has had them up and running for years. They rule the radio airwaves, and as for television, Jan Love of the Methodist Women’s Division says:

Twenty years ago, the mainline Protestant churches made a decision not to get heavily into television–and that was stupid. We didn’t know how stupid at the time. Bob Edgar has got us on the Internet. He has also organized meetings with high-level Christian leaders and progressive movements across the country, trying to see if there’s a common strategy that can be articulated across the denominations. Bob Edgar is at the heart of those things. And Bill Moyers has helped pull one of these together.

Bob Edgar’s work has stirred the religious right to label him “Antichrist,” which now must be a term of honor among spiritual progressives.

Baptist minister Bill Moyers began the new academic year at Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 2005 by invoking the ghosts of the great teacher-scholars who made that place the bastion of liberal theology–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr. Moyers said their heritage was now at risk:

Listen quietly on such an occasion as this and you can hear that chorus of voices–the legions who have passed this way–calling us back to prophetic witness…. They are saying, “Union, religion has bowed again to power and privilege. Stand for justice–and the faith that liberates God from partisan agendas.”

Grassroots groups around the country have not required the ghosts of Tillich and Niebuhr to galvanize them; the words of Bush, Rumsfeld, Frist, Falwell and Robertson have been frightening enough to raise the opposition of ordinary citizens against the current political/religious regime that has led us to war and near national bankruptcy while invoking a God who stands for war on foreign countries as well as on the middle and lower classes of our own country.

A group of citizens led by a healthcare worker rallied in front of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, in August 2005 to deliver a “declaration to the leaders of the religious right,” saying, “You do not speak for us or for our politics. We say ‘No’ to the way you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals.” The group was organized four months earlier as the Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) and held its rally in front of a church ministered by Pastor Jerry Vines, a local Falwell-Robertson clone who had made headlines in 2002 for calling the Prophet Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile.”

The group’s protest against the religious right, locally symbolized by Pastor Vines, immediately brought support for CAP from Professor Omid Safi, a co-founder of the Progressive Muslim Union and professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University, who said the positions taken by CAP reflected those of the PMU. “I think groups like this should be working hand in hand,” he said. CAP founder Patrick Mrotek, a healthcare-management consultant, says the group has recruited community organizers in twenty cities across the country and will also join and support the work of Wallis’s Call to Renewal movement.

The Rev. George Regas, in his twenty-eight years as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California (whose numbers qualify it as a “mega-church”), led his congregation to oppose the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race and the Gulf War and to support a whole range of human needs, such as an AIDS service center. After retiring from the ministry, he founded and serves as director of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.

Reverend Regas tells me:

Some people say the reason mainline churches have lost membership is they were too much involved in peace and justice work–I think they’ve declined because they haven’t done it enough! They’ve been too timid in that commitment, and that’s not attractive to anyone. The mainline is timid today–there was a day when it wasn’t. In those days we weren’t facing a religious right–it wasn’t part of the story at all. It’s sure a new day now. But we can’t compete with the religious right if we have no financial resources. At least there’s a consciousness now in the mainline churches that we have to change and create our own.

Dave Robinson of Pax Christi says: “I think that this is a very hopeful time for progressive religious groups in our country. The events of the past four years have energized some of our traditional groups and have also given birth to new, exciting efforts within the progressive religious community.”

Perhaps most significant will be a new group of progressive evangelicals, led by Jim Wallis and his Call to Renewal group, and other leaders who want no part of the Falwell-Robertson rhetoric or politics. They’re calling it Red Letter Christians, alluding to the words of Jesus in many versions of the New Testament, which are printed in red type. The name also avoids identifying the group with any political party. These politically liberal dissidents make up as much as 35 percent of the evangelical movement, amounting to millions, according to Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a popular evangelical author and speaker.

These movements are serious, sincere and dedicated; the meetings of Christian leaders called by Bob Edgar are hopeful, the rhetoric of Wallis and Lerner is inspiring, and even more positive, they are taking concrete action.

Then look at all these efforts next to just one example of the way the religious right is already arming and organizing for the next battle: In August 2005 a website appeared that launched the Ohio Restoration Project, whose purpose is to enlist thousands of “Patriot Pastors” to get out religious right voters for the 2006 elections. The Columbus minister who heads the project calls these midterm Congressional elections a battle between “the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell.”

At the same time, the people they call “the hordes of hell”–the representatives of mainstream religion from the NCC–were still trying to agree on a common strategy. Part of the strategy that remains a conundrum to most progressive religious leaders is not only how to avoid the blows from the armies of the right but also how to overcome the hostility of people who ought to be their allies on the secular left but treat them with scorn, condescension or indifference.

A young man in Boston came up to Wallis after one of his bookstore talks and said, “I’m gay, and I want to thank you for making me feel welcome tonight. But you know, it’s easier to come out being gay in Boston than it is coming out as religious in the Democratic Party.”

The African-American attorney Van Jones, founder and executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland (which challenges human rights abuses in the prison system) wrote on the Internet: “It is still commonplace to hear so-called radicals stereotyping all religious people as stupid dupes–and spitting out the word ‘Christian’ as if it were an insult, or the name of a disease. I thought progressives were supposed to be the standard-bearers of tolerance and inclusion.”

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, an adviser to Union Theological Seminary, says:

You don’t go into a liberal community and talk about your faith and your prayers–they snicker. So in divorcing it you lose track of it, you forget why we should care about social justice–is it just so we could be fair? What’s the underlying principle of equality? We didn’t talk about the values that underlie policy–why are we against racism, poverty? A lot of these issues I believe in come from my religious upbringing.

A majority of Americans have had some kind of religious upbringing, and 90 percent of them say that they believe in God. The Democratic Party and progressive politicians and activists need not adopt their faith, but they had better take that belief into account if they hope to regain national power in the years to come.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy