Liberal Activists Strive To Reclaim Faith

By Ori Nir

Published June 18, 2004, issue of June 18, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Vowing to break the religious right’s monopoly in harnessing religion to politics, hundreds of liberal activists — Christians, Jews, Muslims and others — convened in Washington last week for what they hope will be the kickoff of a new movement rooted in an historic tradition of religion-inspired American liberalism.

“We are not here to create something new,” said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton. “Instead, we are here to celebrate and renew a tradition that predates each of us but unites all of us,” he said as he opened the Faith and Progressive Policy conference, which his think tank convened. Liberal religious icons, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, forged a vision and program for politics of social justice long before the contemporary leaders of the religious right, such as Pat Robertson or Tom DeLay, rose to fight for their conservative values, Podesta said, adding: “That’s the real story of religion in American life, and we’re here to reclaim it.”

The task is an urgent one for the religious left. Polls show that people who regularly attend houses of worship are almost twice as likely to vote Republican and support the conservative agenda. The trend, known as the “church gap,” has been growing for a number of years and dwarfs the pro-Democratic “gender gap.” President Bush assiduously cultivates his conservative Christian and evangelical base, championing its initiatives, such as a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and funding its social-service institutions through his Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, a focus of his “compassionate conservative” agenda.

Given this climate, several panels — on the application of liberal religious values to the economic policy, to foreign policy and to environmental policy — attempted to examine just how the momentum of the religious left could be reclaimed. They discussed ways to reach out to candidates and to the media, highlighting the importance of interfaith action to avoid sectarianism. The conference’s organizers are also planning a series of lectures, public discussions and events on Capitol Hill.

But participants were hard pressed to come up with specific practical strategies for reviving their influence. As they lamented the left’s absence from faith-based politics, they accused the religious right of having distorted Christian teaching, but also blamed themselves for not advocating forcefully enough.

“Many of us feel like our faith has been stolen,” said Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners: Christians for Justice and Peace. “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American? It’s time for a rescue operation.”

Wallis and others acknowledged that the rescue operation will have to be fought uphill.

“The truth is that conservatives and right-wing people are on to something important,” said Rev. James Forbes, a preacher at Riverside Church in New York, who was the conference’s keynote speaker.

“In the spirit of reconciliation — way down the road — I want to acknowledge that the right has done a better job in the last 20 years than we have done in holding up their side,” he continued. The religious left, he said should not shy away from talking about religion with secular liberals.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, gave the conference’s opening speech. He commented that some of the religious left’s problems stemmed from confusion about the true nature of the constitutional wall separating religion and government in America. Church-state separation is mostly a “one-way wall,” Saperstein said, intended to block the government from hindering free practice of religion, but not intended to block religious consciousness and values from influencing public policy.

Although the conference was coordinated by Podesta’s tax-exempt organization, which is not allowed to endorse political candidates, the presidential race cast a large shadow on the large ballrooms of the Washington hotel. Participants harshly criticized Bush’s domestic policies, including his lack of enthusiasm for poverty-reduction programs and his opposition to living-wage legislation and universal health insurance. In a session on foreign policy, speakers criticized the war in Iraq and Bush’s tendency to refer to God when explaining his decision to depose Saddam Hussein. “God does not favor any one nation. All nations are equally blessed and equally judged by God,” said Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary.

Echoing one of the main themes of the conference, that the religious community ought to infuse values of justice and peace into America’s politics, Thistlethwaite told a story of a meeting between a group of religious leaders and President Ronald Reagan, who was much eulogized and buried last week. During his first term, she said, Reagan met with anti-war and social justice activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Reagan told Coffin that America couldn’t afford social programs. Coffin, quoting from the prophet Amos, replied: “Mr. President, it is my job to proclaim that justice shall roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and your job is to figure out the plumbing.”

Neither was the campaign of John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic who has been reticent to talk about how his faith has affected his politics, absent from the proceedings. During a question-and-answer session, a young woman rose and introduced herself as Mara Vanderslice, director of religious outreach for Kerry’s campaign, and asked the panelists for advice. Wallis’s recommendation was to invite religion into the discussion of public affairs. For years, he said, “Democrats made the mistake of restricting faith to the private sphere.” Drawing laughter from the audience, he went on mocking liberal Democrats, who seem to be saying: “I have faith, but don’t worry, it won’t affect me.” After the session ended, Kerry’s religious outreach director was circled by believers who volunteered advice as well as shoe leather in the service of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign.

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