A quotation was incorrectly attributed in a May 20 article on the religious left. It was John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, not Allen D. Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, who said: "My gut tells that all this foment [on the religious left] is bound to create more involvement in politics. I don't know whether there's going to be more of them numerically, but you don't need greater numbers to have a political impact; all you need is to be more active. You already see that in Ohio and some other states, where Christian conservatives no longer have a monopoly on faith in politics."
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Religious Liberals Gain New Visibility
The quickening pulse of the religious left is evident in myriad ways:
· More than a dozen books have been published in the past year decrying the religious right's influence in politics. Three have been particularly influential in galvanizing activists: Michael Lerner's "The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right," Jim Wallis's "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," and Jimmy Carter's "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis."
· The recently formed Network of Spiritual Progressives is holding a four-day conference that began Wednesday at All Souls Church in Northwest Washington. A thousand participants from 39 states are discussing a new "Spiritual Covenant for America" and spent Thursday visiting their members of Congress. Lerner, the California-based rabbi who founded the network, said the conference is partly aimed at countering an aversion to religion among secular liberals and "the liberal culture" of the Democratic Party. "I can guarantee you that every Democrat running for office in 2006 and 2008 will be quoting the Bible and talking about their most recent experience in church," he said.
· The Democratic Faith Working Group, made up of 30 members of the House and scores of aides, has begun meeting monthly on Capitol Hill to discuss faith and politics, opening each session with a prayer. Its purpose is to "work with our fellow Democrats and get them comfortable with faith issues," said its chairman, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a preacher's son who was raised in the fundamentalist Church of God.
· Organizations and Web sites that meld religion and liberal politics have mushroomed since the 2004 elections, said Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta. The think tank he heads, the Center for American Progress, has helped form alliances between some of these new groups -- such as Faith in Public Life, the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good and FaithfulAmerica.org -- and long-standing organizations, such as the National Council of Churches.
For most of the 20th century -- from the Progressive era through the civil rights movement -- religious involvement in American politics was dominated by the left. That changed in the 1970s, after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, the formation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and, on the left, "the rise of a secular, liberal, urban elite that was not particularly comfortable with religion," said Will Marshall III, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
According to John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, and others, the religious left cuts across almost all denominations, drawing in black churches, liberal Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants as well as Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and people who say they are "spiritual" but not affiliated with an organized faith.
It also includes some theologically traditionalist Christians.
Janel Bakker, 28, a graduate student at Catholic University who attends Washington Community Fellowship on Capitol Hill, an evangelical church affiliated with the Mennonite denomination, said she grew up in a "relatively conservative religious home" where "the big issue was considered to be abortion."
But Bakker, who has attended several rallies against the Iraq war, said she now regards poverty, peace and the environment as important spiritual issues ignored by the religious right. "The religious right has assumed that capitalism is the way to go and is the most moral way to organize society," Bakker added. "Young people are questioning that."
Liberal evangelicals are " leaping out of the closet and they are saying 'Enough is enough,' " said Jack Pannell, spokesman for Sojourners, a Washington-based evangelical social justice ministry. "Evangelical Christians are not all white people living in the suburbs and only concerned with abortion and same-sex marriage."
Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides.
"If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion," said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become "the polar opposite to . . . the religious right" or be "a voice in the middle."
"What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don't need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension," he said.
Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. "I do think," said Hertzke, "that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004."