Religious Right, Left Meet in Middle

The Rev. Rob Schenck says a willingness to reach across partisan lines is attractive, especially to young people.
The Rev. Rob Schenck says a willingness to reach across partisan lines is attractive, especially to young people. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Rev. Rob Schenck is an evangelical Christian and a leader of the religious right. Rabbi David Saperstein is a Reform Jew and a leader of the religious left. Both head political advocacy groups in Washington, and they have battled for years over abortion, gay rights, stem cell research and school prayer.

This summer, each intends to preach a bit of the other's usual message.

Schenck said he plans to tell young evangelicals at a Christian music festival on July 1 that homosexuality is not a choice but a "predisposition," something "deeply rooted" in many people. "That may not sound shocking to you, but it will be shocking to my audience," he said.

Saperstein said he is circulating a paper urging political moderates and liberals to "demonstrate their commitment to reduce abortions" by starting a campaign to reduce the number by half within two years.

Schenck and Saperstein disclosed their plans in separate interviews. They are not working together. The minister remains a die-hard opponent of same-sex marriage; the rabbi staunchly supports a woman's constitutional right to choose an abortion. But both are trying to find common ground between liberals and conservatives on moral issues -- and they are not alone.

After a year in which religion played a polarizing role in U.S. politics, many religious leaders are eager to demonstrate that faith can be a uniter, not just a divider. The buzzwords today in pulpits and seminaries are crossover, convergence, common cause and shared values.

Last week in Washington, representatives of more than 40 U.S. denominations took part in the Convocation on Hunger at the National Cathedral, where they sang a Tanzanian hymn while the choir director shook a gourd full of seeds and children laid breads from around the world on the altar.

It may have been mistaken for a hippie ceremony were it not for the sight of clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God and other evangelical churches praying alongside Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, mainline Protestants and Jews.

The show of solidarity was partly a reaction against "the recent manipulation of religion in ways that are divisive and partisan," said David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister and president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit group that helped organize the service.

"Because religion has been dragged into political life in some ways, this is the religious leadership of the nation saying, 'No, let us show you what religion in the public square should really be about,' " he said.

Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are moving quickly toward full communion, which would allow them to swap clergy and recognize one another's sacraments. Protestant and Jewish leaders, who have been at loggerheads over proposals to divest stock in companies that help Israel maintain control of the Palestinian territories, have announced a joint trip to the Holy Land in September.

The National Association of Evangelicals is promoting dialogue with Muslims, concern for the environment and efforts to combat poverty. "On issues like poverty, the cold war among religious groups is over," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, its vice president for public policy.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company