A Religion News Service article on the Sept. 4 Religion page incorrectly attributed a quote by Shaun Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, to John D. Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress. It was Casey who said of recent efforts by the religious left to counter politicking by the religious right: "This may be a case of too little too late," because there is no strong "nationwide organization backing this up." (Published 9/17/04)
With a full-page ad in the New York Times, a flashlight- illuminated protest on Broadway and a plea from rock star Bono for spiritually motivated, poverty-fighting activism, the religious left has sent a message to the presidential nominees and voters during the Republican National Convention.
After years of impotence, the religious left's movement is reinvigorated, its leaders say.
Although it is difficult to tell whether that assertion has real muscle behind it, political analysts on the right and left agree that the movement appears determined to assert that God is not a Republican.
"What we're seeing in this campaign is a reinvigoration of the progressive religious voice," said John Podesta, president of the Washington-based Center for American Progress who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
The religious left, which in the 1960s was a major force in the civil rights movement and the war on poverty, has been overshadowed in recent decades by a highly organized religious right that employs high-tech communication and old-fashioned political strategies to energize grass-roots voters.
Scores of state and national nonprofit groups such as the Christian Coalition have shown that they can light up congressional switchboards, overpower e-mail servers and put issues on the national agenda.
In the past, religious progressives -- the term they prefer, as opposed to liberals -- have tried to counter those efforts but have lacked the institutional breadth and structure that translate into political power. Even supporters of the left say the movement's impressive display of activism during convention week in New York might be a matter of geography. Many progressive religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, are based in this city.
A full-page ad in the New York Times, sponsored by the progressive evangelical organization Sojourners and signed by dozens of religious leaders, had a super-sized headline saying, "God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat." That ad was noticed, but the test will be how effective the movement is outside one of the country's most liberal cities.
"This may be a case of too little, too late" because there is no strong "nationwide organization backing this up," Podesta said.
Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies project of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the religious left is preaching to the liberal choir, not religious swing voters.
"They already have this [liberal] vote," he said. "This National Council of Churches crowd is not about to vote for Bush, anyway."
Cromartie and other conservatives cite surveys showing that the more religious a person claims to be as measured by church attendance, the more likely that person is to claim support for Bush.
But Democrats are fighting to close this "God gap."
It was Clinton who, with prophetlike fervor, uttered this week's first cry from the religious left's wilderness.
"Political involvement dictated by faith is not the exclusive province of the right wing," the former president said at a Sunday service in New York's interdenominational Riverside Church.
Riverside, an ethnically diverse "megachurch," is the mother ship of Mobilization 2004 and Let Justice Roll, nationwide efforts advocating "prophetic justice principles" for this year's voters and candidates.
The Rev. James Forbes, Riverside's pastor, said he has traveled to Seattle, Minneapolis and Rochester, Minn., Boston and Oregon's Portland and Eugene to preach that "the elimination of poverty" must be a core faith value.
"What we're seeing is a revitalization of progressive religion," said Paul Sherry, the National Council of Churches' poverty mobilization coordinator, who has traveled with Forbes. "This is far beyond an isolated phenomenon. We've been impressed, even surprised, by the depth of commitment we're seeing in all the cities."
Spiritual commitment was the theme Tuesday at St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church, a few blocks from the convention site. No candidates were endorsed, but Irish rock star Bono challenged an interfaith crowd of about 250 people to work for social justice by changing political equations.
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World Institute, a Washington-based hunger-fighting organization, urged activists to "give some money and give some time to a candidate who you believe will help bring justice to the poor and hungry."
In an interview, Beckmann said that his group never has been as politically active as it has been this year, and that the effort is having an impact. He said that John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, has used poverty statistics in his "two Americas speech" and that Kerry has promised to double what Bush has spent to fight AIDS in Africa. That came after Beckmann and other activists met with Kerry's foreign policy advisers at the campaign's request.
Beckmann dislikes the term "religious left," arguing that hunger is a bipartisan issue. Among those on Beckmann's board is 1996 Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole.
Beckmann said Bush political strategist Karl Rove closely analyzes data from anti-hunger groups. One survey showed that 78 percent of registered voters say they would rather hear candidates' plans for fighting poverty than their position on gay marriage. It's no coincidence, Beckmann said, that Bush has begun to address hunger in some of his speeches.