If the opening campaign ads from the Democrats and Republicans are any indication, it could be a long fall. The first attack ads hardly indicated the prospect of a civil discussion of the issues. The Republicans made great fun of a trial balloon sent up by Bill Clintons lawyer, who wondered if being commander in chief qualified the president as being on military active duty, thus forestalling the sexual harassment suit by Paula Jones. Active Duty! scorned the GOP ad, complete with pictures of Clinton playing golf and wearing sunglasses.
The Democrats jumped on Bob Doles decision to give up his Senate seat and leadership role to campaign full timesomething most people thought he should do. Bob Dole is a quitter, the silly Democratic campaign ad intoned. Yes, were really getting down to the vital questions here.
Each sides campaign strategy seems similartry to outrun your opponent to the political center while trying to scare the voters about the other side (i.e., Hes really a liberal./Theyre all right-wing fanatics. He has no character./He cant complete a sentence.) A substantial discussion about the values and policies that will best lead the nation into the future (especially about the best role for government) seems unlikely to emerge. Meanwhile, the children of my neighborhood (and many others) continue to be shot in the street.
WHAT ABOUT THE prophetic role of religion this election year? I was greatly disappointed by a letter from many mainline Protestant leaders defending President Clintons veto of the late-term abortion ban. Will the heads of the nations denominations ever criticize the Democratic president for anything? Will they acknowledge the moral tragedy of abortion (as some pro-choice advocates have begun to do) and make a serious public commitment to dramatically reduce the horrible number of 1.3 million abortions every year?
The mainline churches must also become more creatively involved in the fundamental question about the best role for government in alleviating poverty and violence. Those who rightly reject the conservative idea that churches and charities should displace any government role and do it all, must do more than merely defend the old welfare state. The churches should play a leadership role in forging new partnerships between the public and non-profit sectors to find desperately needed solutions. Both the Democrats and the Republicans will have to be challenged in order to do that.
Meanwhile, the Religious Right becomes more and more a power bloc in the Republican Party. Ralph Reed is merely a GOP strategist now, more like Bill Kristol and William Bennett than the leader of a Christian organization. He talks about the proper language for the Republican Party platform and who Bob Doles running mate should be instead of the meaning of biblical politics.
Yet the Christian Coalition still claims to be the political voice for people of faith, despite the growing chorus of Christians who say that Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson dont represent them. Indeed, Reed steadfastly refuses public dialogue with those who would offer a theological challenge to his politics, including the leaders of the Call to Renewal.
Several evangelical Christian leaders are now quietly re-positioning themselves away from the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition. When asked why, they point to how politicized the Religious Right has become. The Christian Coalition has just become far too partisan and ideological for many Christians, even conservative evangelical Christians. Even other conservatives, like Richard John Neuhaus, have begun to worry about their Christian politics.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that the Christian Coalition and its Republican Party allies have targeted some of the most respected and devout Christian lawmakers in the country, because those lawmakers dont agree with their right-wing politics.
The most respected evangelical Christian in the Congress may well be Rep. Tony Hall of Dayton, Ohio. Trusted by members of both parties, Hall is a genuine bridge- builder who convenes a weekly prayer meeting that draws people from around the city and across the political spectrum. Hall is pro-life and morally conservative on questions of personal values, but his ardent stance against hunger and for aid to the poor at home and abroad has earned him the opposition of the Christian Coalition.
Rep. Glenn Poshard from southern Illinois is a Southern Baptist elder and former Sunday school superintendent. While also conservative on many issues, Poshard opposed the Republican welfare bill last fall because he thought it was too hard on women and children. Though he supported this position by appealing to the Bible in his House speech, the Christian Coalition was very upset by Poshards remarks and indicated retribution. Rep. Marcy Kaptur is a lifelong Roman Catholic from Toledo, Ohio. Her evangelical Christian opponent has questioned whether she is a real Christian.
While these three members of Congress are all devout Christians, they also are Democrats, which is the problem for the Christian Coalition. Hall, Poshard, and Kaptur all report Christian Coalition activity against them in their districts.
ON SEPTEMBER 13, 14, and 15, while the Christian Coalition holds its Road to Victory conference in Washington, D.C., the Call to Renewal will host A National Forum on Faith and Politics also in the nations capital. While the Christian Coalitions gathering promises to be little more than a Republican rally, the Call to Renewal forum will be an opportunity to have real dialogue about the relationship between faith and politics.
Nationally known religious leaders are being invited who dont agree on everything, but who have important things to say about faith and political responsibility during this election year. Both Republican and Democratic leaders will be discussing politics and morality and the need for new solutions that lead us beyond our present impasse.
Leaders from the evangelical world, the Catholic Church, the black churches, and the mainline denominations will discuss their efforts to offer an alternative to both the Right and the Left and to create a movement for a new and more spiritual politics in this country. We will profile some of the most effective groups who are already doing that and providing critical leadership in areas such as transforming poverty, protecting the environment, healing our racial divides, rebuilding families and communities, and restoring moral values. And we will be uplifted by some of the best gospel music in the country.
Speakers will examine fresh ideas for forging new partnerships between religious communities and all levels of government, for the sake of our children and the poor. Members of Congress from both parties will reflect on the moral and spiritual challenges they face. Well hear from organizations that are already working to create a new politicsfrom the Christian Community Development Association and Bread for the World to the Childrens Defense Fund and the Ten Point Coalition.
Prominent journalists have been invited to discuss the role of the press in covering politics and religion. Well all have the chance to talk with other activists, organizers, pastors, and community leaders from around the country.
We invite you to come. We need you to come. This is a chance to vote with your feet. This is a chance to help raise an alternative voice. If we are in Washington in sufficient numbers, the media simply wont be able to cover the Christian Coalitions conference without covering the alternative voice.
This is a chance for you to help make sure that other voices will be heard during this election campaign. You can make a difference. Come to Washington on the eve of this presidential campaign to listen, learn, add your voice, and find the ideas and resources you need to bring home. If you are within driving distance, fill your car or vanbetter yet, rent a bus, or several. If you live farther away, make sure your community is represented by a delegation. Offer to form that delegation yourself and get the local support to come.
The September conference will be followed by regional meetings around the country. I have a new book being released in September by Delacorte titled Who Speaks For God?: An Alternative to the Religious RightA New Politics of Compassion, Community, and Civility. An excerpt from the book will appear in the next issue of Sojourners, and I will go on a 20-city tour this fall that will include town meetings.
We need your help for all of thiscome to the conference, help organize and support the regional conferences and town meetings in your area, use the new book and spread the message of an alternative, and raise up a clear voice in your community by joining the Call to Renewal. We know there is an alternative. Now its time to show the nation that there really is a new way beyond the Religious Right and the secular Left.