Thursday, March 10, 2005

Salon on the Religious Left: What Would Falwell Do?

Amy Sullivan has a piece on Salon that's worth reading. Nothing that hasn't been said elsewhere, but a good overview. Some excerpts:

What would Falwell do?
After years of near-invisibility, religious progressives want to regain their vanished political clout. But with conservatives claiming a monopoly on godliness, it's going to be a struggle of biblical proportions.

The Bush administration is going to hell. That, at least, could be the take-away message from a Tuesday press conference religious leaders from five major Protestant denominations held at the National Press Club. Clad in clerical collars, and invoking the Gospel story of Lazarus, a poor man ignored at the gate of a rich man's estate who went to heaven while the rich man was sent to hell, the leaders called on Congress to oppose what they called an "immoral budget" and staked a claim for moral values that don't have anything to do with abortion or gay marriage. "The 2006 budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust," they charged. "It has much for the rich man and little for Lazarus." But while the press conference focused on calling attention to the need for truly compassionate policies that protect the most vulnerable in society, it had another mission as well: to assert the relevance of the religious left.

What's that, you say? The religious what?

Everyone knows about the religious right, a movement of conservative, mostly Christian, religious communities that has become increasingly involved in American politics over the last three decades. The idea that there could be a countervailing religious force, whether defined as religious progressives or simply everyone not part of the religious right, has long since been dismissed from public consciousness. Indeed, the religious left had almost forgotten about itself -- the community hadn't come together to protest a federal budget, one of the religious leaders told me, "since the early Reagan years."


The decline and fall of the religious left has been so complete that news organizations regularly conflate terms like "religious voters" and "moral values" with "right-wing," without a second thought. When Time magazine recently ran an article about Democratic religious outreach efforts, the piece concluded with the thought, "Religious voters might like the music, but they're unlikely to be seduced by it as long as Democrats stick to their core positions," as if religious Americans could only support the Democratic Party by putting their faith aside, not because of their faith. The easiest way to change this perception is for the religious left to aggressively and vocally reenter political life. But it's a long climb back to relevance.


There are signs of hope. After the election, the religious left commissioned and received a report that brutally, but accurately, assessed the movement's weaknesses and past mistakes. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine and the progressive Call to Renewal organization, has a new book on the New York Times bestseller list and has been blanketing airwaves on a national book tour, chatting up Jon Stewart, Charlie Rose and Terry Gross. And millions of Americans, outraged by post-election assumptions that "moral issues" are defined exclusively as conservative concerns, are hungry for a way to mobilize their religious progressive numbers. They may have to go hungry a while longer. When I asked the assembled leaders how they planned to mobilize their congregants to oppose the Bush budget, the response was meek: "We have some listservs ... we're asking people to contact their representatives." After an election season in which the Christian Coalition distributed 70 million voter guides, the religious left will need to do more to make itself heard.


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