A NETWORK FOR RENEWAL
On May 18, after the Christian Coalition released its Contract With the American Family, NPR's Alex Chadwick asked the executive director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, what his organization hoped to accomplish over the next five to 10 years. Reed replied,
"What we aspire to be is a permanent fixture on the American political landscape for people of faith, just as the Chamber of Commerce is for business, or just as the AFL-CIO is for union workers, or just as the Veterans of Foreign Wars are for veterans."
Then Reed defined what he meant by "people of faith" as "those with devout faith, those who have sought to elevate a sense of civility and a sense of values in our society, those who attend church or synagogue and who testify to a religious commitment." That's a pretty big group. It represents most people I know. Reed says he desires to give us all a "voice in government." The problem is that many people who fall into Mr. Reed's definition of "people of faith" don't want to be politically represented by the Christian Coalition or the Religious Right.
Out of that concern, a network representing alternative voices to the Religious Right began to form several months ago. More than 100 Christian leaders from a diversity of traditions joined in a call titled "The Cry for Renewal" that sends a clear message to the nation's media and political leaders: Let other voices be heard.
On Tuesday, May 23, a delegation representing that broad group gathered in Washington, D.C., to meet with the press and the political leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The group was led by evangelical Christian leaders to correct the media-created public impression of a monolithic right-wing evangelical juggernaut. There was a wonderful and complementary unity in our voices, and together the message was very clear.
Many who spoke have been doing the things we testified to long before the Religious Right grabbed the nation's microphones. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, was there, and he has probably done more to promote evangelical social concern than anyone else. So was Tony Campolo, the popular evangelist who believes people are converted to Jesus Christ in order to make a difference in this world, and not just to prepare for the next one. Eastern College president Roberta Hestenes and InterVarsity's Steve Hayner represented the concerns of a new generation of evangelical leaders, and the Reformed Church in America's new general secretary, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, showed how a new generation of mainline Protestant leaders is anxious to build bridges across old chasms.
James Forbes, senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, brought the poetic and pentecostal power of the black churches, while Eugene Rivers and Ray Hammond from Boston's Ten Point Coalition carried that authentic message from the streets. Margaret Cafferty, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, voiced the conviction of 80,000 Catholic women religious who teach the children, run the soup kitchens, and bind up the wounds of those who suffer from callous public policies. And Jim Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee explained in his slow Southern drawl why he "gets irritated" when right-wing Christians claim to speak for born-again Texas Baptists like himself.
It was a great day and the phone hasn't stopped ringing since. The press coverage was extensive and fair. So far, stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlanta Constitution, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Phoenix Gazette, The Charleston Daily Mail, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and U.S. News and World Report, just to name a few. Syndicated stories in the Associated Press, Knight Ridder, and Newhouse News carried the message to hundreds of smaller town newspapers around the country.
National Public Radio's Morning Edition carried the story and covered it throughout the day. NPR's Fresh Air, ABC radio, CBS radio, AP radio, CNN radio, UPI radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, and scores of other interview and talk radio shows, both secular and Christian, carried discussions on religion and politics in the days following. NBC Nightly News and CNN carried stories, and more extensive TV follow-up coverage was planned for the next several weeks by all the major networks.
THE MEETINGS our delegation had with both Republican and Democratic political leaders were much more substantive than we expected. We said that religious conviction must not be manipulated for partisan purposes, and that we seek an honest dialogue with political leaders about holding the process more accountable to moral values.
We pushed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey on their lack of alternative strategies and resources for local communities in the face of massive social cutting at the federal level. We pressed House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and his congressional colleagues on the need for a new approach at the community level beyond just defending current social programs. And we got into a very good discussion with Sen. Bill Bradley about the need to reinvigorate the "civil society" with new public-private partnerships. All day we spoke of the need for what I had called at our press conference a "new politics of civility, compassion, and community."
Gingrich was both challenged and interested. He asked for a continuing dialogue and offered a more substantial, two-hour discussion this summer. Gephardt wants the same thing and Bradley wants to convene a dialogue with several senators on what it would mean to create new approaches for rebuilding local neighborhoods around the country. The hunger and need for a new political conversation beyond liberal and conservative, Left and Right, was apparent in all of our meetings. The White House asked for a meeting a week later, also on the subject of politics and values.
We were disappointed that Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition was the only person who turned down our invitation for a meeting, because our group sincerely wants a more civil dialogue between Christians on these matters, after so much divisive and polarizing religious political talk. Since May 23, the Christian Coalition has been pressed by the media and others to respond to this broad and significant group of church leaders offering an alternative voice to the Christian Right.
Christian Coalition leaders are now being much more careful to say who they speak for and who they don't. They are claiming now to be bipartisan ("We work with both political parties"). And they are being challenged heavily on their silence on issues of justice for the poor and their lack of involvement and representation of African Americans, after such a strong witness from black and white clergy who spent the whole day defending those whom Jesus called "the least of these" from political assaults.
WE WANTED to accomplish three things. First, we hoped to raise up a clear, public, and visible alternative voice to the Religious Right. That finally happened. For the first time, the press got it: They were truthful and honest in their coverage, they didn't write us off as "liberal left" groups, and they promised to cover the wide range of voices more faithfully on politics, morality, and religion. Also, the political leaders on both sides of the aisle got it too. Republican and Democratic members of Congress said they welcomed our voice as new and fresh and were glad that we are now in the mix.
Second, we wanted to speak to the possibility and necessity of a new kind of politics-a community-based, values-centered, and solution-oriented approach that goes beyond the old categories of liberal and conservative. The press picked up some of that, and the political leaders understood what we were saying. Their desire for more dialogue indicates their interest.
Finally, we wanted to bring together a new network of spiritual and social concern across the life of the churches. We succeeded in doing that with the widest coalition that people have seen for some time. "The Cry for Renewal" brought together conservative evangelicals and pentecostals, black church leaders, Catholic bishops and women religious, and the heads of most of the Protestant churches. As Wes Granberg-Michaelson said at the press conference, "This is a real Christian coalition."
Representatives of the Renewal network met together at the end of the day to plan the continuing dialogue with political leaders, and to discuss the possibility of a fall retreat for all the statement signers to talk about next steps. We also committed ourselves to foster a "progressive evangelical" presence at national Christian gatherings, to work to encourage a new religious student movement of volunteers for the nation's cities, and to stimulate and support the kind of community-based politics that we were advocating all day. Many feel it is time to mobilize our own constituencies.
We agree with the Religious Right that the crisis we face is a spiritual one. Most of the social and political issues we face have a moral core. That is why the solutions of partisan politics won't be enough. We also said in Washington that the alternative to the Religious Right is not the Religious Left. It's time to transcend the old polarities of our public life. It's time to call for an ideological cease-fire for the sake of our children. We need something deeper now-a politics more prophetic than partisan and more spiritual than ideological.
Like the prophet Nehemiah, we stand ready to help "rebuild the wall" (Nehemiah 2:17) that has crumbled in so many of our communities. But for that to work, the political will, moral resolve, and human and economic resources must be there to do the job. No one from the private or public sector can be allowed to opt out. In Washington, on a sunny spring day, we said, "Let the building begin."