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Religious Left Says It Won’t Drop the Moral Mantle in 2014

The Rev. William Barber, leading a Moral Monday demonstration in July 2013. Photo courtesy of twbuckner/Wikimedia.

Faith leaders who sit to the left in American politics say they won’t let the religious right claim the moral mantle in the elections of 2014.

On Sept. 9,  they announced a new campaign to boost voter registration and encourage voters, particularly in poor and immigrant communities, to go to the polls.

On a conference call to reporters, Ted Strickland of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an ordained Methodist minister and former Democratic governor of Ohio, said he and others leaders will go door to door and church to church to press their message: that people of faith should pursue a public policy that is fair and just.

The Rev. William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” movement, which has long protested acts of the state’s conservative legislature, quoted Isaiah 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws.”

Who Would Jesus Execute?

RICHARD VIGUERIE is as responsible as anyone for the success of the conservative movement in this country. A pioneer in political direct mail, Viguerie has been involved from the radical edges of the Right in every Republican campaign from Goldwater to Romney; he's been called the "funding father of the conservative movement." He helped start hundreds of entities from Conservative Digest to Gun Owners of America, from the National Conservative Political Action Committee to the Moral Majority—spanning the political spectrum from Right to Far Right. Just before the 2012 election, he launched MyOwnSuperPAC because of "frustration at how weak and ineffective the Romney campaign's ads have been with its soft approach to Barack Obama—hardly ever mentioning Obama's radical, neo-Marxist vision for America's future," and insisting that "Obama is NOT failing. He's succeeding at doing exactly what he set out to do—and that's destroy capitalism and destroy the America you and I grew up in." So no one is going to mistake Viguerie for a squishy liberal.

And yet Viguerie's Catholic faith has led him to a surprising position on the issues of capital punishment and prison reform. The conservative icon talked with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in September about why he thinks an unexpected Left-Right alliance might turn the tide against the death penalty.

Jim Wallis: As you and I both know, we're often stuck in political straitjackets. There are issues that we could work together on, particularly as people of faith, that would help politicians do better than they sometimes do. I'd like to start with this: You've said that, as a Catholic, you're against the death penalty. Why is your faith as a Catholic central to this, and how has that turned you against the death penalty?

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It's Time to End the Death Penalty

I AM AGAINST the death penalty in principle. The deliberate killing of prisoners does not demonstrate our society's respect for life, which we are trying to teach—especially to those who violate it. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing. It's also easy to make a, yes, fatal mistake, as alarming DNA testing has demonstrated, revealing some death row inmates to be innocent. In addition, the death penalty is clearly biased against poorer people, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, and is outrageously disproportionate along racial lines. The facts are that few white-collar killers sit on death row, and fewer are ever executed. And there is no evidence that capital punishment deters murder; the data just doesn't show that.

At a retreat I attended a couple of years ago, conservative activist Richard Viguerie approached me and said, "Jim, let's do something together to really shake up politics." Viguerie had become a friend, so I asked him what that might be. "I am a Catholic," Viguerie said. "I am against the death penalty, and I think it's time for conservatives and liberals who agree on that to begin to work together." I was fascinated at the thought of unlikely partners helping to accomplish that together. So we have had several dinner meetings over the last two years with both conservative and liberal leaders—mostly people of faith—to discuss the issue.

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Nietzsche Dissects American Political Discourse

Political icon image, Gary Hathaway / Shutterstock.com
Political icon image, Gary Hathaway / Shutterstock.com

What if I told you that the political discourse in America has proven for decades what PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ phenomenon has proven recently? What do I mean? It is simply this: people can indeed get tirelessly excited about something that sounds good without understanding its contents. 

Like every election year, 2012 seems to have its own particular set of buzzwords and slogans. From “the forgotten 47 percent” to “you did build that,” those on the left and the right are each trying to infuse the political discourse with their own partisan lingo. But it’s time somebody put a stop to the hype and asks the sensible question: “What is the real meaning behind all of this?”

Truth is, both political parties have been directing their resources to highlight their differences more than anything else. They are platforms defined by contrast, not by real facts. This should lead us to raise the question that is usually unasked (and therefore unanswered) amid the consistent heat of the American political climate: “If the government is designed ultimately for the good of the people, is the political discourse today reflective of that goal?”

To this question, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche answers, “No.” 

Without A Prayer

In the summer of 2004, my dad had a heart attack. My sister and I flew home to Michigan immediately, and I stayed on to help my parents adjust to their new medication-filled and cheeseburger-free existence. On Sunday morning, I drove down leafy, tree-lined Penniman Avenue to the Baptist church where I spent my childhood. I wanted to worship with the people who had been my second family. Settling down into a cushioned pew, I felt as if I were finally catching my breath. And then I tuned into Pastor Mike’s sermon just in time to hear him declare that it wasn’t possible to be a good Christian and a Democrat.

The pronouncement knocked the wind out of me. My liberal politics were, after all, due in large part to the gospel lessons I had absorbed at First Baptist of Plymouth, over years of Sunday sermons, Wednesday-evening church clubs, youth retreats, and devotions. A painfully literal kid, I took seriously Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 on how to be righteous. That meant constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the “least of these,” that I might inadvertently have snubbed Jesus-in-disguise by failing to share my fruit roll-ups with a classmate who forgot his lunch. Over time this impulse developed into a more concrete political conviction that citizens—and governments—had a moral obligation to take care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized.

By the time I graduated from high school, however, those gospel lessons had been subsumed by a different kind of politics. An assistant pastor rebuked me for taking a course on Zen philosophy and the writings of Emerson. Anti-abortion messages found their way into the occasional Advent sermon. I heard less about the inherent failings of humankind and more about the moral turpitude of liberals.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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