By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008
All the pieces were there for a classic Washington celebrity book party: George Stephanopoulos's gorgeously appointed Georgetown home, media glitterati like Chris Matthews milling around, a book about politics, a bunch of priests.
A bunch of priests?
If anything embodied the complicated, shifting and sort of weird relationship between politics and religion these days -- particularly on the left -- it was the party Tuesday night for local writer Michael Sean Winters's new book: "Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats."
A premise of the book mirrors one posited by some Democratic strategists running the show these days, which is that the party, hostile to the concerns of religious voters in the past few decades, better get with the program and stop pretending faith has no place in politics.
Sure, Sen. Barack Obama doesn't seem to go a day without talking about his faith, but how well does this stuff play on the ground, at eyeball level? In other words, what happens when you've got a bunch of liberals drinking white wine on a lovely summer evening -- and being asked to celebrate the idea that they need to be more open to spiritual arguments against gay marriage and abortion?
"This is a distinctly paradoxical group," said New Republic literary editor and Winters's longtime friend Leon Wieseltier. "Devout Catholics and devout liberals don't always hang together. That doesn't mean they are irreconcilable, but it will require a lot of work."
The gay Jamaican insurance adjuster by the hummus was talking about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and how everyone would have ignored the Chicago minister had he been railing against gays and lesbians. The priest standing near Stephanopoulos's massive seashell collection was talking about how Pope John Paul II urged clergy to stay out of American politics, which is "the bread and butter of American culture." Winters, a former seminarian and political speechwriter, pined for the days when church officials made radio speeches paid for by the Democratic Party.
In a nation founded with a separation of church and state, "we have certain ideas about how religion and politics mix, where the line is. . . . The line shifts, and Democrats have been on the losing side of that line, and we have to figure out how to be on the winning side," Winters told the crowd from the landing of the foyer's grand staircase, prompting an "mm-hmm."
Lately Americans across the political spectrum have been embroiled in debates about what is the proper place of religion in politics. Winters argues that it should be obvious that John F. Kennedy was wrong when he said religion is "a private affair"; instead it is the starting point for tens of millions of Americans when they describe why they believe what they do.
Not everyone at the party was completely won over by that idea. Wieseltier said the Democrats' deliberate pursuit of the faith mantle was a bit "cynical."
"Liberalism doesn't have to be hostile to religion, but it has to be skeptical of all absolute claims in the public realm. This idea that everyone should rush into each other's arms because that's how [Karl] Rove got [George] Bush elected is odd and unattractive."
Winters, the gregarious former manager of D.C. institution Kramerbooks, also told the crowd the obvious: "I want to say something about the clergy -- there's a lot of them here! And some of you have never been to a party with so many priests." This prompted much chortling from the assembled men of the cloth.
Not surprisingly, the half-dozen priests at the party seemed the most comfortable with the politics-religion cocktail. That's what the Vatican is like, one said: who's in, who's out. "There is no more political place than a church basement," said the Rev. Ray Kemp, a smiling bear of a clergyman with a goatee and an agenda to get priests more involved in activism.
He seemed focused until the famous homeowner (an old friend of Winters's) wandered into the room. "Michael!" Kemp shouted to the author, "introduce me to your host!"