The public discussion between evangelicals and progressives has been dominated by too many false choices and too much mutual misunderstanding. It is time to work for common ground on some of our most critical issues. There is a compelling vision we can address to the many Americans who are actually more “purple” than “red” or “blue.” What could evoke their convictions, reflect their values, summon their commitments, and change America? What would a broader and deeper moral politics or values politics begin to look like?
To ground that new politics, we need a better understanding of the role of faith in public life. Political appeals—even if rooted in religious convictions—must be argued on moral grounds, rather than as sectarian religious demands, so that the people, whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don’t get their way just because they are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be a Judeo-Christian country). They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good—for all of us and not just for the religious. Clearly, the work to be done includes teaching religious people how to make their appeals in moral language and secular people not to fear such appeals will lead to theocracy.
This kind of effort could result in a new political agenda that doesn’t fit the standard right/left battles of American politics and is more consistent with our deeply held values. That new agenda would be good news for the majority of American who are alienated by the political extremes and are hungry—not for a soulless centrism—but for a new moral center in our public life.
A NEW INITIATIVE launched this fall by Third Way, a strategy center for progressives, is an important step toward just such an agenda. In a paper titled “Come Let Us Reason Together,” it proposes “a framework for bridging the cultural divide that has existed between many progressives and evangelicals … through creative thinking and a principled dialogue.”
As a foundation, the paper proposes three “basic principles as a first step” to bridge the divide over the role of religion in American public life. “First, respect for religious beliefs and religious diversity is vital for a healthy society. Second, religion plays an appropriate public, not just private, role in American life. We affirm the important role of religion in informing many people’s public interactions and shaping their views on government and policy. Third, all citizens have a constitutionally protected right to articulate the religious or moral basis of their political views in the public sphere, and protecting these expressions does not conflict with a commitment to the non-establishment of religion. … we further affirm that no religious citizen operating in the public sphere should be expected to act as if their faith did not matter to them.”
While evangelicals and progressives have identified common ground on issue like poverty, climate change, and eliminating HIV/AIDS in Africa, the heart of this paper takes five cultural areas that have been the most divisive and identifies common ground that can lead to further dialogue and even partnerships.
On gay and lesbian issues, a shared commitment can be made to the principle that human dignity is innate, whether ultimately based on a belief that all are created in the image of God or an intrinsic feature of our shared humanity. From this comes an affirmation that protecting the human rights and dignity of all people is an American tradition and a high moral calling.
On abortion, both progressives and evangelicals can “agree that given the high number of abortions that occur every year in America, we should join together to reduce the need for abortion throughout the nation.” The “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act” produced common ground with proposals to prevent unwanted pregnancies and support women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term.
On embryonic stem cell research, common ground centers on ensuring moral and legal boundaries regarding the treatment of human embryos. Reproductive cloning should be banned, and no person or company should be able to own or sell a human embryo as a commercial product.
Policies to put in place moral and legal safeguards for children’s access to inappropriate material on the Internet and protect them from sexual predators can attract widespread agreement.
Finally, there is agreement that there is a real problem in fathers abandoning their families. Proposals to both increase personal responsibility and support government policies that can assist low-income fathers in fulfilling their responsibilities are areas for developing consensus.
ONE OF THE MOST significant results of the initial stages of this project is the range of people who have endorsed it. They include Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed, Randy Brinson of Redeem the Vote, Rev. Bob Roberts of Northwood Church, Paul de Vries of New York Divinity School, David Gushee of Mercer University, Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League, and Cedric Harmon of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Tony Campolo of Eastern University, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners board chair Brian McLaren, and I also endorsed the project.
The paper concludes by noting: “In order for this paper to bear more fruit, both progressives and evangelicals will need to continue the hard work of reasoning together. We do not conclude that these conversations will be easy or that the paper’s proposals in themselves will resolve all the real disagreements and tensions on cultural issues. But we believe that the gap need not be as wide and the mistrust need not run as deep.”
I believe that progressives and evangelicals are people who care deeply about the justice and health of our society, and potential alliances between us on key issues could provide a genuine convergence for the common good. I look forward to the continuing of this project and the “hard work of reasoning together” in further conversations.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.