The religious left needs strong moral issues


This Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009 picture shows the shadow of an anti-abortion supporter holding a cross near a Planned Parenthood in Dubuque, Iowa to protest the 36th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's ruling on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions. (Jeremy Portje/AP)
January 11, 2013

“Why do reporters cover hateful and controversial religion stories but never the nice, good things that religious leaders do?” I’m inevitably asked this question by well-intentioned clergy members hoping to get more media coverage for their earnest interfaith work.

There are two answers, and I always give both.

First, drama and conflict are essential ingredients in all stories, and religion stories are no exception. So while the decision to cover every inflammatory remark by an Islamophobic Christian pastor in Florida is journalistically questionable, a journalist’s impulse to cover religion with the same skepticism and eye for drama as he or she would bring to coverage of, say, politics is understandable.

But second, I say, pointedly, the religious left needs to do a much better job of making its priorities and activities newsworthy. Kumbaya is not a story. Why can’t we all just get along is not a story. Since the rise of the religious right in the 1970s in reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, the religious left has failed to gain any comparable visibility, traction, or voice on major issues in the political sphere.

News releases from the precincts of the religious left continue to emphasize niceness over moral authority. Just this week, the National Catholic Reporter ran the following headline: “Faith leaders want Americans to pray for collegiality.”

There’s nothing wrong with being polite, of course. But a great, galvanizing, undeniable moral argument is better. “Civility is a great friend of the status quo,” says Jim Naughton, partner at Canticle Communications, which advises faith-based groups. “People aren’t going to change because you’re nice to them.”

The “religious left” has not always been so faint of heart. Progressive religious leaders framed the arguments that made the great social movements of the 20th century: the labor movement, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. (Ironically, the most compelling moral arguments for same-sex marriage in the 21st century have been made by conservatives.) So what explains the religious left’s comparative impotence? Here’s what insiders say.

Leftist voters are not religious. This is patently false. Much has been made over the growing number of “nones” in America – people unaffiliated from any religious tradition – and the overwhelming percentage of those who vote Democratic. But to be unaffiliated with any faith group is not the same as being deaf to a moral argument, or even a theological one. And the number of people in America who say they believe in God hasn’t changed much in about 50 years.

Even Ralph Reed, the Christian right leader concedes this point. The “nones” aren’t saying anything about their inner spiritual lives. They’re saying, according to Reed, “I don’t like Wall Street. I don’t like organized sports. I don’t like Washington because the politicians on both sides are liars. And while we’re at it, I don’t like organized religion.”

Conservative Catholics and evangelicals are the enemy. Also false. The religious right and the religious left are at odds over two main issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. And that conflict is, admittedly, fierce. But on many important issues – immigration and poverty to name two – the religious left can find common ground with its brothers and sisters on the right. To discount potential allies because their views are not universally palatable is politically naïve. This was the take-home lesson of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

The left can’t decide which issues matter most. This is true. The left has allowed America to think of “values” issues as abortion and gay marriage – and not, say, economic or workplace justice. Meanwhile, in some religious-left offices in Washington, activists work on 60 or 70 issues at once – diluting resources and message.

But Vinnie DeMarco, national coordinator of Faith United Against Gun Violence, is optimistic that in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, gun-control laws will change, finally, thanks in large part to his broad coalition of faith leaders who, “once they saw 6-year-olds riddled by bullets,” were galvanized into action.

DeMarco met with Vice President Biden last week, and next week he, together with Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faith leaders, will hold a news conference to demand restrictions on sales of assault weapons, universal background checks, and the strengthening of gun laws. A Quaker, DeMarco puts things simply — and not too politely: “This is going forward until we succeed.”

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