The Common Good

The Religious Left: It is Fruitful and Has Multiplied

Source: Slate
Date: April 5, 2006

Lo and behold, there is a religious left. The Catholic Church is helping to lead the fight against immigration restrictions. A week doesn't seem to pass without some group convening a conference on religion and liberalism. Last year, Rev. Jim Wallis' progressive manifesto, God's Politics, became a best seller; now Jimmy Carter's book attacking the religious right is on the list.

According to research by professor John Green, white religious voters made up 21 percent of Kerry's tally, compared to 11 percent for Al Gore in 2000. If you add African-Americans and Latinos, who as a group are also very religious and liberal, the religious left amounted to about 40 percent of the Kerry vote. Not surprisingly, the religious lefties are seething over the religious right's political dominance. But they're also frustrated by their secular ideological comrades. The political left "often sees religion not merely as mistaken but as fundamentally irrational, and it gives the impression that one of the most important elements in the lives of ordinary Americans is actually deserving of ridicule," complains Rabbi Michael Lerner in his new book, The Left Hand of God. "The Left's hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off."

While the religious left generally shares a disgust with the religious right and the secular left, in many ways they are not entirely unified. Here's a primer on the key factions.

Bible-thumping liberals: Many Democrats consider the term "progressive evangelical" to be an oxymoron. But that's ignorant. Instead, evangelicals break into three groups. The fundamentalists (think Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson) are solidly Republican and represent about 15 percent of the electorate. The moderates represent another 9 percent. They generally voted for Bush because they agreed with him on foreign policy and abortion and gay marriage. But the ones who cared most about economics preferred Kerry, a sign of how the Democrats could win over more of them. Finally, there are the liberal evangelicals, who make up about 3 percent of the electorate and tend to vote Democratic. They're especially concerned with poverty and the environment. All told, then, between 7 and 10 percent of the electorate are white evangelical Christians who either vote Democratic or could. That's a voting bloc equal in size to African-Americans.

The most important leaders of the Bible-thumping liberals are Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. (Disclosure: Both write for Beliefnet, the multifaith Web site about religion and spirituality that I founded and run.) Both sharply disagree with the Democratic orthodoxy in favor of removing religion from the public square. Wallis, Campolo, and their supporters like politicians who cast their policies in religious terms, for instance, by reminding us that the Bible urges a fight against poverty. As Wallis wrote, "[M]any of the most progressive social movements in American history - anti-slavery, women's suffrage, the fight for child labor laws and the civil rights movement - had overt religious roots and motivations." In some cases, the Bible-thumping liberals are pro-life; in other cases they support legalized abortion but want to reduce the number of abortions.

Pious peaceniks: This group is composed of white liberal Protestants, Catholics, Reform Jews, and an occasional Buddhist. Its members are carrying on the spirit of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s. They have mobilized in opposition to the Iraq war and have a strong interest in environmentalism and antagonism toward corporate America. Exemplars are Cindy Sheehan, the National Council of Churches, the Catholic Church, Faithful America, and the Christian peacemakers who camped out in Iraq as human shields. Some of the hostages who were recently rescued in Iraq were also part of this group.

Along with Bible-thumping liberals, the peaceniks joined and helped lead the effort to derail strict immigration reform. Unlike the Bible-thumpers, they tend to align almost down the line with secular liberals. They were, for instance, suspicious of Clinton's New Democrat philosophy, especially its emphasis on welfare reform and crime fighting, which they thought demonized the poor and minorities. And they tend to be pro-choice or silent on abortion.

Ethnic churchgoers: In this group are African-Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims, who together accounted for about 19 percent of the Kerry vote in 2004. Though they also opposed the Iraq war and share the views of other religious lefties about the importance of fighting poverty and protecting the environment, they differ from the other groups on abortion and, even more so, gay rights. Sixty-four percent of African-Americans oppose gay marriage. Analysts think this opposition accounts for the significant black support that Bush enjoyed in Ohio in 2004, which helped tip the state (and the election).

While many national black leaders support gay marriage, local black clergy have bristled at the comparison made by gay rights activists to the 1960s civil rights struggle. Black clergy also have been supporters of President Bush's faith-based initiative. And while many secular liberals mock or bristle at Bush's religious rhetoric, African-Americans polled on the topic have said they wished religion influenced the president even more.

Hispanic Christians shifted significantly to Bush during this election. If that trend persists, it will make the Democrats the minority party for decades. Bush got 45 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 compared to 30 percent in 2000. The big shift was by Hispanic Pentecostals (not Catholics) who are more socially conservative and evangelical. They liked Bush's conservative stance on abortion and gay rights and his patriotic idealism and rhetoric. Democrats now see an opening to win back some of these Hispanics by appealing to their pro-immigrant views.

Though the data is sketchy, voting experts believe Muslims went for Bush in 2000 because they agreed with his social conservatism, but switched to the Democrats in 2004 because of the Patriot Act. Like blacks and Hispanics, Muslims often like Republican values on social issues but look to Democrats to defend their civil rights.

Conflicted Catholics: Liberal Catholics are like liberal Protestants and Jews on poverty, war, and the environment. Slight differences arise around gay marriage and abortion. Though more pro-choice than Hispanics or blacks, liberal Catholics tend to feel guiltier about abortion. The real difference may not be in the policies they support - the majority want abortions to be legal but restricted, just like the majority of the rest of the population - but in their attitudes toward pro-life people. Liberal Catholics are less likely than secular liberals to hold pro-lifers in contempt. Even if they disagree with church theology and skip Mass, their religious background makes them respect the heartfelt nature of the anti-abortion position.

To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions. And even as they fight to keep abortion legal, the Dems shouldn't mock pro-life advocates as sexually repressed theocrats or describe abortion as merely a surgical procedure.

Religious feminists: This is perhaps the newest faction. In aiming to win for women the right to control their own bodies, feminism ran up against the patriarchy of many religious institutions. Some feminists, however see spirituality as an important part of their lives and have begun trying to bring faith into their movement.

Helen Hunt, a major feminist activist and fund-raiser, last year published Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance - with an introduction by Gloria Steinem, of all people - which claimed that feminism and spirituality have always been linked. Jane Fonda revealed in 2000 that she had been born again and believes her new Christian passion feeds rather than contradicts her feminism. "I think feminism is another way of teaching what Jesus taught, that we are all full human beings with the right to have our humanity seen and respected," she said in an interview.

The tricky part, of course, is abortion. Choice has been central to political feminism for decades, and it's not clear how religious feminists will react to Democrats' efforts to court Catholics and ethnic voters by promising to reduce the number of abortions.

In sum, though, after years of being fractured and relatively impotent, the religious left now seems organized and energized. Where abortion and gay marriage threatened to divide them a few years ago, opposition to the Iraq war and immigration restrictions now unite them. This is not necessarily good news for secular liberals, who tend to think that all the religious mumbo-jumbo entails a dangerous mixing of church and state. But they may swallow their distaste if they think it will help them win elections.

Addendum, April 7, 2006: Some readers have interpreted this line - "To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions" - as me advocating that the Democrats fib. I can certainly see how the line would be read that way! But I was intending to be sarcastic, taking a too-subtle jab at Democrats for their reluctance in the past to talk about reducing abortion as a goal. I don't actually advocate that they build lying officially into their strategy.