Politics Watch

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A stack of new books argues that the dominance of the religious right is coming to an end as the evangelical left and center increasingly find their voice. -- Alan Cooperman

THE PARTY FAITHFUL How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap By Amy Sullivan | Scribner. 256 pp. $25

During John Kerry's 2004 presidential race, young, gung-ho Catholic campaign workers planned to hand out leaflets in Ohio parishes -- until a field director stopped them cold. "We don't do white churches," the party official said.

Amy Sullivan tells that story as an example of how, until recently, Democratic candidates simply gave up on many religious voters, particularly Catholics and evangelicals. Sullivan is "angry with Republicans for claiming a monopoly on faith," but she is even more "disappointed with Democrats for giving it to them." Polls show that the more often people go to church, the more likely they are to vote Republican. That "God gap," she writes, "represents a failure of the left as much as it does an achievement of the right."

Sullivan's passion derives from the fact that she is both an evangelical and a Democrat. She is convinced that there are plenty of people like her -- "liberals because of, not despite, their religious beliefs" -- and that the Democratic Party is finally taking notice. Despite her partisanship, her book is an evenhanded account of religion's role in recent elections, concluding with the 2006 midterms in which some Democrats successfully reached out to religious voters.

THE FUTURE OF FAITH IN AMERICAN POLITICS The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center By David P. Gushee | Baylor Univ. 335 pp. $24.95

Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia, is a respected, and respectful, spokesman for evangelical centrists. He has nary a harsh word for fellow evangelicals to his political left or right. But he does argue that the "evangelical center" is "winning the hearts and minds of younger evangelicals and thus represents the likely future of evangelicalism far more than the graying evangelical right."

His definition of the evangelical center takes up three pages. But it boils down to this: Centrists really do care about abortion and traditional marriage, but that's not all they care about. In Gushee's words, they embrace "a broad and holistic moral agenda rather than a narrow focus on abortion and homosexuality." Much of his book is devoted to their growing outspokenness on issues such as torture, divorce, climate change and war.

According to Gushee, the broad evangelical center rejects the religious right's "mood of angry nostalgia." But he says centrists do not accept "the working pacifism of the left," are divided over capital punishment and try to "avoid polemical engagement with the right whenever possible."

RED LETTER CHRISTIANS A Citizen's Guide to Faith & Politics By Tony Campolo | Regal. 240 pp. $19.99

Campolo, a Baptist minister, has a blurb on his book's cover from Bill Clinton, whom he counseled in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. Though his theology is conservative, Campolo has long taken politically liberal stands. That, plus the Clinton association, has led some evangelicals to question his principles. In this book, he spells them out.

The title refers to the words of Jesus, which are highlighted in red in many Bibles. A couple of years ago, a group of prominent evangelicals, including Campolo, began calling themselves "red letter" Christians to signify that they take their cue from Jesus's radical concern for the poor. "It seemed to us," Campolo writes, "that Evangelicals often evade what Jesus said in those red letters in the Bible, and that this evasion lends some credence to Mahatma Gandhi's claim that everybody in the world knows what Jesus taught -- except for Christians!"

Campolo's differences with the religious right are known. This book reveals the fault lines between the evangelical left and center, which raises the question: When they are no longer drowned out by the right, will they come together or drift apart?

THE GREAT AWAKENING Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America By Jim Wallis | HarperOne. 336 pp. $25.95

Wallis tops his friend Campolo: He's got a blurb from Bono, not to mention a foreword by Jimmy Carter. The 2005 bestseller God's Politics made Wallis the best known "progressive" evangelical in the country; in that book, he argued that the left had foolishly tried to keep faith out of politics and that the right had foolishly discredited the role of religion in public life. In this book, he declares victory: "The era of the Religious Right is now past."

Next, according to Wallis, comes a broad movement for social justice, environmental sustainability and cleaner politics. On issue after issue, he charts a middle course: He calls, for example, for a culture that "defends the vulnerable unborn," but he suggests taking practical steps to reduce the 1.3 million U.S. abortions each year, rather than criminalizing abortion. In foreign policy, he calls for "nonviolent realism" to bridge "the gap between traditional pacifism and the just-war tradition."

And in all these realms, Wallis sees religion playing a positive role: "For too long, ideological religion was a big part of our problems, but now an engaged spirituality could be a big part of our solutions."

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