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Vital signs

July 14, 2006
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Last week, CBS Evening News ran a short feature about the “emergence” of a religious left. It must have been the very one Jeff Sharlet mentioned in the essay I linked to last weekend. Sure enough, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo were interviewed (and there was a fleeting appearance by Robert Edgar, of the National Council of Churches) and were described as the left’s “own Evangelical leaders.” Apparently, a religious left will only make sense to mainstream media if it matches the right, evangelical for evangelical.

The story declared that the religious left seeks “the same political muscle as the Conservative Christians.” Hmmm… Is that actually what we seek? I keep mulling this over. Yes, we seek to redirect a legistlative agenda that has abandoned the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the earth that surrounds and sustains us. Is it the same thing?

In Sharlet’s essay, he refers to the “religious left of the moment” as “tepid,” and suggests that it is too willing to conform to media expectations about its shape and priorities:

Another common mistake made by a media in search of the new religious left is its insistence on finding the color purple — that is, some ostensibly innovative blend of “red” and “blue” values, “fresh” ideas. Again, much of what passes for the religious left complies, declaring, like Michael Lerner of Tikkun, that by mixing more religion into the public sphere we’ll alchemize a whole new liberalism.

The religious left, he says (if I’m condensing him fairly), will not be viable if it simply tries to make itself the leftie equivalent of the religous right.

The folks who are looking for that, or perhaps hoping for that, are – I think – missing the point, and it leads to dashed expectations and grave warnings of our impending demise. John Aravosis has decided that the religious left is too disorganized and politically unsophisticated to counter the right. Adele Stan says that growing divisions within the Episcopal Church will kill off the fledgling religious left for good:

Ever since the rise of the religious right, liberals have longed for a religious counterpart on the left. But that notion was always dubious, and the recent turmoil within the Episcopal Church should put it to rest for good. Without the wholehearted participation of the mainline Protestant churches, there can be no religious left remotely comparable to the Christian right in Protestant-dominated America. And churches in the throes of schism hardly have the wherewithal to marshal their resources in the service of battles in the secular political arena.

But she says that’s OK, because

In seeking to create a counterpart to the religious right, we tried to force our values through a narrow hole.

In essence, we bought into the religious authoritarianism of the right, inferring that moral authority proceeds only from religion. In this, we have sold ourselves short.

Liberal values represent the essence of the world’s great religions. At the root of all of the great faiths are fundamental beliefs in compassion, justice, love, and charity. We have the right — dare I say the duty? — to express ourselves as moral agents without the imprimatur of ecclesiastical authority.

Would I be out of line, here, to remind folks that the religious left is not trying to organize in order to lend “ecclesiastical authority” to liberal politics, secular or otherwise? The religious left has been coalescing and naming itself because many people of faith want to proclaim that their values are not represented by the obsessive, hateful, militaristic, prosperity-gospel politics of the religious right, particularly the Christian right.

That’s why I started this blog, that’s why abc joined me in it, that’s why many of you read it – and read others like it. (Allow me to refer you, for the umpteenth time, to this terrific essay by Anna Quindlen.) It turns out, of course, that those sentiments are being felt by a lot of people, including some who formerly aligned themselves with the religous right. Randall Balmer, for example. Excerpts of his new book Thy Kingdom Come (which I’ll be reading next) are available here and here. That ChronEd excerpt is no longer available without a subscription, but here’s a “byte,” in which Balmer discusses the fruits of the marriage between the Christian right and the GOP:

And what has the religious right done with its political influence? Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party – and I’m aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals of the religious right – the purpose of all this grasping for power looks something like this: an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enranged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us.

It would appear that the excesses of the right might be wearing a little thin. Amy Sullivan and EJ Dionne, Jr. have both written about subtle-but-important shifts away from the extreme right by a number of prominent evangelicals. As Dionne, Jr. sees it:

The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American religious story of this decade. The evolution of the evangelical movement should not be confused with the rise of a religious left. Although the margin of the Republican Party’s advantage among white evangelicals is likely to decline from its exceptionally high level in the 2004 election, a substantial majority of white evangelicals will probably remain conservative and continue to vote Republican.

But the evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the fights against AIDS and human trafficking. Among the most prominent advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose Driven Life.”

In the meantime, Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (and a self-described “Ronald Reagan movement conservative”), has been a leader in urging evangelicals to make environmental stewardship a central element of their political mission.

Call me crazy, but when staunch evangelical leaders are beginning to worry about “leftie” issues like global warming, AIDS, and poverty, and an organization like the Institute for Religion and Democracy (discussed momentarily) devotes itself entirely to destablizing liberal Christian institutions, that tells me the religious left is not as near death as some apparently wish.

I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Jeff Sharlet means when he says the religious left needs solidarity. We may marvel at the lockstep unity between the Christian right and the Republican party, and the political effectiveness of their unison. But we shouldn’t aspire to it. For one thing, the left has a hearty regard for religious pluralism, which will by definition breed variety and dissent (dissent being a good thing, signalling independent thought) in our positions and priorities. Party loyalty and uniformity has led the Christian right to stake out some jaw-dropping positions that toe the Bush administration line, but would seem antithetical to their own aims, and in some cases, the Gospel itself. In Amy Sullivan’s article, she tells the remarkable story of a Bible-in-public-schools bill in Alabama. Republicans there opposed a bill authorizing an elective course on the Bible to be taught in public high schools, because it was sponsored by two Democrats! Randall Balmer discovered that the Christian right could not bring itself to oppose torture because that would put them on the wrong side of the Bush administration:

The torture of human beings, God’s creatures – some guilty of crimes, others not – has been justified by the Bush administration, which also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law that emanates from the nation’s capital these days make Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster.

Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization’s position on the administration’s use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who professes to hear “fetal screams” could possibly countenance the use of torture. Although I didn’t really expect that the religous right would climb out of the Republican Party’s cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.

I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration policies. “It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush Administration,” the reply from the Family Research Council read, “that torture is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data.” The Institute on Religion and Democracy stated that “torture is a violation of human dignity, contrary to biblical teachings,” but conceded that it had “not yet produced a more comprehensive statement on the subject,” even months after the revelations. Its president worried that “the anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed exclusively at the Bush administration,” there by creating a public-relations challenge.

I’m sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations challenge.

Can you imagine the religious left uniformly defending the Dems who voted for the invasion of Iraq, or who rubberstamped the president’s “PATRIOT” Act, simply because it was the party line? Coincidentally, just this week, the IRD issued a statement chastising other evangelical leaders for signing a declaration opposing the use of torture (hat tip to Americablog):

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), based in Washington, DC. Tooley says he has reviewed the declaration issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and has noted the document does not say anything about torture in places where it really occurs. That causes him to question the group’s motive.

“If this group were genuinely interested in torture, of course they would be addressing those regimes that actively and deliberately do practice torture rather than focusing exclusively on the United States,” he comments. He says he detects a “double standard” in the campaign against torture. “[It] is primarily a creation of the religious left and whose interest is not so much in torture, per se, but about opposing U.S. foreign policy.”

Tooley goes on to warn said evangelicals that they are repeating the mistakes of the religious left:

“A growing number of evangelicals are ultimately repeating the same mistakes that mainline Protestant church leaders first started making 50, 60, 70 years ago,” he states. As a result, says Tooley, those denominations suffered deep theological divisions and great declines in membership.

Wait a second, now… Where have I read something like that recently? Ah, yes, in an angry screed LA Times editorial by Charlotte Allen. In “Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins” she declares:

Embraced by the leadership of all the mainline Protestant denominations, as well as large segments of American Catholicism, liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church.

Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, all the mainline churches and movements within churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.

Allen ticks off her list of liberal Christian sins (which include using feminine imagery for the divine in the liturgy, openly and earnestly debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, and — apparently a long-held grudge — ordaining women) and assures us that these are the reasons for declining membership in mainline Protestant churches:

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

Allen salivates with gleeful anticipation over the threatened schizm in the Episcopal church – also the fault of liberal Christianity, of course.

So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program — ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth — or die. Sure.

The column is peppered with faulty logic and faulty history, but I’ll refer you to I am a Christian toofor a thorough rebuttal.

Allen’s editorial also rang a bell, or should I say, a “death knoll”… Awhile back (I’ve intended to link to it for weeks), Father Jake had an important post about the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s war on mainline Protestantism. He included excerpts of a discussion on Air America, exposing the IRD’s efforts and sources of funding, and he linked to an excellent diary on Daily Kos, “Summer ’06 Battles Could Tear Apart Liberal Churches.” Not surprisingly, the IRD has invested heavily in destabilizing the Episcopal church, and will be ringside for the implosion:

Many believe a schism in the Episcopal Church USA and the worldwide Anglican Communion is inevitable after this summer. If it does occur it will not be about homosexuality or Gene Robinson or the blessing of same-sex unions. It will have been planned, plotted and engineered by the IRD and its very rich, ultraconservative henchmen (some women, but mostly men) who have targeted the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Episcopal Church for nearly 25 years. Sexuality was just a hot-button issue the IRD could exploit along with “radical feminist theology” and what the IRD judges to be an abandonment of “biblical Anglican theology.”

For a movement that strikes many as irrelevant and disorganized, we sure seem to bother the likes of the IRD. Ah, but the article by Amy Sullivan, “When Would Jesus Bolt?”, shines some light on this puzzler. Sullivan explains:

Nationally, and in states like Alabama, the GOP cannot afford to allow Democrats a victory on anything that might be perceived as benefiting people of faith. Republican political dominance depends on being able to manipulate religious supporters with fear, painting the Democratic Party as hostile to religion and in the thrall of secular humanists. That image would take quite a blow if the party of Nancy Pelosi was responsible for bringing back Bible classes—even constitutional ones—to public schools.

The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it’s really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map.

[snip]

That’s why, insiders say, the word has gone forth from the Republican National Committee to defeat Democratic efforts to reclaim religion. Republicans who disregard the instructions and express support for Democratic efforts are swiftly disciplined. At the University of Alabama, the president of the College Republicans was forced to resign after she endorsed the Bible legislation. A few states away, a Missouri Republican who sponsored a Bible literacy bill came under criticism from conservatives for consulting with Brinson and subsequently denied to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that he had ever even heard of Brinson. But as for [(evangelical activist and occasional Democratic consultant) Randy] Brinson himself, he’s already gone. “Oh, they’re ticked at me,” he says. “But it’s because they’re scared. This has the potential to break the Republican coalition.”

Wow. So then, it’s not so much about deep religious convictions and moral values, afterall? It’s more about winning and keeping power? I’d like to think that the Christian opponents to the Alabama Bible bill, for example, had sinking feelings in their stomachs, pangs of regret, as they lined up to voice opposition to a measure any one of them would otherwise have supported. And that some on the Christian right are sickened and frustrated by the gag order on torture. But that’s the price of allegiance to the GOP and RNC, I suppose. Why does the phrase “Faustian bargain” keep coming to mind?

The religious left will not survive – in fact, would not deserve to survive – if it adopts the tactics of the religious right merely to advance an alternative vision. So it’s not going to “look” the way a lot of people expect it to look, which means it’s going to be declared “dead” or “dying” as often as it is declared “new” or “emerging.” But it clearly speaks to a need, or organizations such as the IRD wouldn’t be working so hard to torpedo it. As Sullivan notes in that article, “Despite all of the punditry about a ‘God gap’ at the voting booth, this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates than any other time in the past few decades.” Two and a half dreadfully long years ago, that made the difference between a Kerry administration, and another Bush nightmare. Need I say more?

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