Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Is the religious left finally responding?

All too often, religious partisans in this country are equated with conservatism by pundits, journalists, bloggers, and even the averagely religious. This is mainly because in the past two decades, most of the Christian activity in politics and social activism has come from the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, both of which are strongly conservative organizations. Furthermore, these organizations, although at all times numbering just a fraction of the religious community have presented themselves as the representatives of Christian values in America. In the past decade especially, the Christian Coalition and the Republican party have presented a united front with respect to their goals for social regulation. This is exemplified in the Ralph Reed/Jack Abramoff relationship. It demonstrates that the Republican party is very strongly influenced by the Christian element within it.

All of this should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to politics at all in the past decade (or even in the past 6 years, with the victory of George W. Bush propelled by a huge evangelical turnout in support of him). What many tend to forget though, is that Christians made an even greater impact in the past in the Civil Rights era, when they represented liberal interests. For example, to quote Wikipedia, in his March on Washington, MLK brought out between "200,000 and 500,000 people". There is also the example of the Prohibition movement, something that does not fall under the category of either liberal or conservative by today's standards. The point of all of this is that religion is not necessarily aligned with any particular political orientation. It seems that, at long last, a new religious left is arising to begin to challenge the religious right.

With a faith-based agenda of their own, liberal and progressive clergy from various denominations are lobbying lawmakers, holding rallies and publicizing their positions. They want to end the Iraq war, ease global warming, combat poverty, raise the minimum wage, revamp immigration laws, and prevent "immoral" cuts in federal social programs.

Not only that, but I'm sure you've heard of recent intra-denominational conflicts over gay marriage and gay clergy. Obviously there are people who feel strongly on both sides of the issue, but what a lot of people overlook is that it means there are a lot of Christians who support the ideas of gay marriage and gay clergy. Here's one such proponent.

Some, like the Rev. Robin Meyers of the United Church of Christ in Oklahoma, marry gay couples and seek to reduce abortions while rejecting calls by the right to outlaw them.

"I join the ranks of those who are angry because I have watched as the faith I love has been taken over by fundamentalists who claim to speak for Jesus but whose actions are anything but Christian," declared Meyers, who has written a new book, "Why the Christian Right is Wrong".

Democratic leaders have become more outspoken on the topic of religion recently, notably Barack Obama.

Rising Democratic star Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said it is imperative for his party that fellow Democrats seek to counter the influence of the religious right.

"If we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons will continue to hold sway," he said at a June conference.

Reaching out to religion is a new strategy for Democrats. Or at least, a return to the days when people talked openly about their religion in reference to their politics. In the 2004 election, one of the biggest differences between Kerry's and Bush's campaigns was Bush's use of his religious beliefs to curry favor with voters while Kerry remained largely silent about his beliefs. One of the most telling statistics that came out is that the more someone went to church the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

I'm not sure what kind of percentages of churchgoers would call themselves conservative or liberal, but while I might believe that the conservative portion is larger, I would still think that the liberal side would still be pretty large. There are quite a number of churches more oriented towards social justice than so-called "family values", and the social justice agenda is almost always associated with liberal politics. Plus which, there are some who just don't like the kind of intolerance that the religious right and the Republican party represent.

"The religious right intends for you and I to live in a country where church and state are united -- where only their interpretations of biblical law dictates the law of our land," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister in Washington who heads The Interfaith Alliance which seeks to maintain the constitutional separation of church and state.

Xanthippas found a blog post by a Quaker who talks about his problems with evangelicals. He brings up an article entitled Jesus Is Not a Republican by Randall Balmer. A good summary would be this passage here:

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 enraged 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. Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens.

This is probably not the way the religious right would characterize itself, but it is how many have come to see it, which is why there is a growing backlash on the left side towards what they see as a very un-Christian program. I think this passage hits the nail on the head:

A number of people have asked me what the religious right wants. What would America look like if the religious right had its way? I've thought long and hard about that question, and the best answer I can come up with is that the religious right hankers for the kind of homogeneous theocracy that the Puritans tried to establish in 17th-century Massachusetts: to impose their vision of a moral order on all of society.

This may or may not be exactly what every member of the religious right desires, but it's certainly what they would get if they had their way. I've known enough evangelicals to be sure of that. I suggest reading the rest of Balmer's article, which is an excerpt from his forthcoming book. He is himself an evangelical Christian who opposes the agenda of the religious right.

The point is, despite their arguments to the contrary, conservative Christians do not have a monopoly on what it means to be Christian, nor do Christians necessarily fall in with them simply because they're all Christians. Although the religious right has been growing for more than twenty years, only in the past six years have they wielded any power effectively, which is why the religious left has taken so long to organize. Ironically, conservative evangelicals have spurred this opposition by claiming a monopoly on morality. I would not advocate that the Democratic party should simply use their Christianity as a mere bargaining chip to lure more liberal Christians to vote for them. I would, however, say that a sincere and honest dsicussion where Christian liberals argue for their fundamental beliefs would go a long ways towards combating the ideas propounded by Christian conservatives that the Democratic party and liberals in general are nothing but atheists who are waging war on religion. Besides which, Christians who feel that upholding their beliefs about social justice require them to side against the Republicans shouldn't have to look askance at the Democrats and wonder what they've gotten themselves into.

1 comment:

Xanthippas said...

I'm glad you included an excerpt of Balmer's article. It's hard to imagine how evangelicals could so strongly identify with the Republican party with so little apparent cognitive dissonance, when Balmer-himself an evangelical-finds almost nothing Christ-like in the policies that the evengelical right and the Republican part are so strongly advocating and instituting.

You speak of a religious left...wouldn't it be an achievement someday to speak of an evangelical left?