03 July 2005

Hey, We Have Faith, Too

"What do you mean 60% of those who say they attend church at least once a week voted for Bush?" "The second election in a row you say?"

These words, or ones very similar to them, must be streaming from the mouth of democratic operatives everywhere. So much so, that liberal organizations of faith are sprouting like recently irrigated seeds longing to be sown. The troubling part is that these organizations are doing exactly what they accused Christian conservatives of over the past decade.

Joseph Loconte opined nicely in his piece posted on Friday, July 1, 2005.
They're the furious faithful--the growing number of religious liberals incensed by the political influence of Christian conservatives. Last week another organization joined their ranks with promises to "reclaim Christianity" and challenge the association of vital religion with conservative politics. As far as Patrick Mrotek, founder of the Christian Alliance for Progress, is concerned, the gloves are off: "We can no longer stand by," he announced at a Washington press conference, "and watch people speak hatred, division, war and greed in the name of our faith."

With a membership of perhaps 6,000, the Christian Alliance for Progress qualifies as the organizational equivalent of a megachurch--but not much more. Nevertheless, its policy goals are ambitious, ranging from debt forgiveness to universal health care. It proffers an agenda "founded firmly on the teachings of the Gospel." Some students of the Gospel may be surprised at how neatly such an agenda fits the Democratic Party platform: The alliance supports stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion; it opposes the Bush tax cuts, plans to privatize Social Security and the war in Iraq.

To take things a step further, using the alliance'’s own words, "“We insist that dismantling environmental laws and programs, measures that seek to protect creation and make it safer for our children is immoral and is a violation of our Christian duty."
Every few years, it seems, another progressive group arises to contend with the political clout of Christian conservatives. The list includes the Interfaith Alliance, Call to Renewal, Soulforce, Let Justice Roll (run by the National Council of Churches), the Clergy Leadership Network, Faith Voices for the Common Good and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Most religious progressives, whatever their doctrinal differences, believe that the Democratic Party must attach spiritual values to its political agenda. Democratic leaders seem ready to heed the call.

Last summer the Center for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff, gathered 400 clergy and scholars at a "faith and policy" conference in Washington. Then came George Bush's re-election, made possible by church-going voters, and suddenly the "faith factor" gained new cachet among Democrats. Earlier this year, for example, Hillary Clinton told supporters in Albany that "religious and moral values" could help discourage teenage sex. In March, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi formed a working group to design a "faith agenda" for her party.

Add to this list one Howard Dean. The Episcopalian-turned-Congregationalist DNC chair is now quite fond of quoting scripture. Dean, who is attempting to re-build his image from that of a man that told the California Democratic Convention in March 2003, “I don’t want to listen to fundamentalist preachers anymore” to one who states “It is a moral value to walk with the least among us. Those moral values are consistent with Democratic values, with American values, and they are sorely lacking with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who preach one thing and are hypocritical. We need to kick the money changers out of the temple and restore values to America again!"

Former Interior Secretary James Watt had an interesting take in a recent piece in the Washington Post.
The religious left's political operatives have mounted a shrill attack on a significant portion of the Christian community. Four out of five evangelical Christians supported President Bush in 2004 -- a third of all ballots cast for him, according to the Pew Research Center. Factor in Catholics and members of other conservative religious communities and it's clear that the religious right is the largest voting bloc in today's Republican Party.

The religious left took note. Political opportunists in its ranks sought a wedge issue to weaken the GOP's coalition of Jews, Catholics and evangelicals and shatter its electoral majority. They passed over obvious headliners and landed on a curious but cunning choice: the environment. Those leading the charge are effective advocates: LBJ alumnus Bill Moyers of PBS fame, members of the National Council of Churches USA and liberal theologians who claim a moral superiority to other people of faith.

Their tactics are familiar. I encountered them more than 20 years ago as President Reagan's secretary of the interior, when I clashed with extreme environmental groups adept at taking out of context -- or in some cases creating -- statements that, once twisted, were attributed to me as if they were my religious views.

Now political activists of the religious left are refreshing those two-decades-old lies and applying them with a broad brush to whole segments of the Christian community: "people who believe the Bible," members of Congress and "Rapture proponents." If these merging groups -- the extreme environmentalists and the religious left -- are successful in their campaign, the Christian community will be marginalized, its conservative values maligned and its electoral clout diminished.

Last December Moyers received an environmental award from Harvard University. About three paragraphs into the speech, after attacking the Bush administration, Moyers said: "James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, 'After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true -- one-third of the American electorate if a recent Gallup poll is accurate."

The Religious Right was popularly portrayed as a chief supporter for Republican efforts to curtail filibusters against President Bush's judicial nominees. But the Religious Left was just as outspoken in supporting filibusters, even while hypocritically chastising Senate Republican leader William Frist for supposedly injecting religion into the issue.

Characteristic of the Religious Left's vituperations was a letter of protest to Senator Frist from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

"The rhetoric that some people of faith -- Republicans, conservatives, or fundamentalists -- 'have it right' and all other people of faith have it wrong not only is self righteous, but inappropriately polarizes people of faith for political purposes," said Bishop Mark Hanson.

Hanson accused Frist of "political manipulation" for allegedly judging the faith of some based on their politics. But only a month earlier, Hanson was questioning the faith of President Bush and his supporters based on the administration's budget proposals, which reduced the rate of increase in some social welfare programs.

"The Administration's proposed federal budget priorities stand in contradiction to the Biblical tradition," Hanson adamantly declared in a March 8 statement. Bush's proposals must be condemned because of the religious obligation to "name injustice and immorality when it threatens God's mission in the world." There could no compromise, Hanson insisted, because "the Biblical standard is irrefutable."

Religious Left activists have wielded often harsh religious rhetoric in their political crusades for decades, dating back to the Vietnam War, usually without much media attention, much less criticism. But even the mildest religious rhetoric from conservative activists excites dread of "theocracy," as Religious Left activist Jim Wallis described conservative religious support for conservative judges.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE National Council of Churches (NCC) led the way in excoriating the ostensible threat of theocracy posed by President Bush, Senator Frist and conservative religious people who support Bush's judicial nominees.

"Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic," intoned Bob Edgar, the United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman who heads the chronically left-leaning NCC.

According to Edgar, "to brand any group of American citizens as 'anti-Christian' simply because they differ on political issues runs counter to the values of both faith and democracy." Of course, he did not name anybody who had branded him as "anti-Christian." Sanctimoniously, in a press release, Edgar said he would be praying for Senator Frist and his religious allies, so that the Lord will "change their hearts" and prevent them from committing the nation to a "destructive path."

Edgar bemoaned that Frist's anti-filibuster campaign had dangerously detoured through "church-state territory." He did not explain how this differed from his own NCC activism to use religion for a wide array of liberal causes, from anti-U.S. military efforts, to opposing welfare reforms, to pushing for increased environmental regulation.

So distressed were Edgar and other Religious Left organizers about Frist's 4-minute address in April to a Family Research Council teleconference that they organized their own conference call with journalists. Normally, the NCC gets little media play. But this time, it got front-page coverage on the New York Times.

According to the Times analysis, Frist potentially was "violating the principles of his own Presbyterian church" by seeking support from religious conservatives. "Elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith," the article quoted Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Cliffton Kirkpatrick, a conference call participant, as saying.

Even while condemning religious conservatives, Religious Left groups were trying to mimic their populist success. The NCC's Edgar said his office had sent 44,000 faxes to Capitol Hill in response to the controversy over Bush's judicial nominees. The lobby offices of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Methodist Church also joined in.

"Most alarming has been the abuse of religious claims by those seeking to eliminate the filibuster," complained the UCC's "Take Action!" website, which ominously referred to the "troubling civil rights records" of several Bush judicial nominees. "Misusing faith in this way is reprehensible," agreed United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler about Senator Frist, even as Winkler urged liberal Methodists to lobby in favor of filibusters.

For the Religious Left, as for religious conservatives, the judicial fight has been a political organizing tool. The NCC's Bob Edgar told Religion News Service he wants to redefine "moral values" to include liberal perspectives on poverty, the environment and health care. According to Edgar, the NCC wants to reach "middle-church, middle-mosque, and middle-synagogue," with a message that transcends "fear, fundamentalism and Fox News."

But Edgar and other Religious Left activists resorted to fear and religious zeal when, in March, they condemned President Bush's budget proposals. "Jesus makes clear that perpetrating economic injustice is among the gravest of sins," intoned their joint ecumenical statement signed by the officers of five mainline Protestant denominations. As words of warning to Bush, they cited the Gospel of Luke's reference to a rich man in Hell crying out for mercy after a life of indifference to the poor, and they urged church members to "do justice" by "opposing this budget."
Senator Frist never implied anyone might go to Hell because of their votes on President Bush's judicial nominees. Damnation is apparently a penalty only for opposing liberal political causes.
Look Howard, your party has spent an awful lot of time and money telling people religious that they are kooks, fringe elements and zealots. You have your altars: the abortion table, the stoop where you continue to preach victimization and it's-not-your-faultism, union halls and all the other places where you wage your war of words.

There is plenty of room in my pew, c'mon and have a seat, but only if you realize that we all sit for the same reason -- it's called faith.

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