A Letter to the Religious Left on the Victory of Obama

Dear Religious Left,

Congratulations! Your dream candidate just won election with a 365-162 electoral vote drubbing of his opponent. And his support wasn’t just wide, it was deep; he won the popular vote by 8,000,000 while 262 of his electoral votes came from states which he won by ten points or more.

Yes, That One did pretty well this year, and according to many commentators, it’s in large part thanks to you, America’s progressive believers. So where are you going now? Disneyland?

That probably depends on who you decide you are.

The problem, as the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty points out, is that the electoral results were downright ambiguous. Evangelicals moved a little, but not a lot. Catholics moved some although, says Marty, the Catholic vote really isn’t a single bloc anymore, and even the white Catholics put standard social litmus-tests like abortion pretty far down on their list of priorities. Mainline protestants were as confused as ever.

In fact, only a few groups showed clear results one way or another. White evangelicals went for McCain in roughly the same proportions they did for George W. Bush. Black Protestants went for Obama to such a great extent that McCain’s purported support from this group could only be termed “theoretical.” Religiously unaffiliated voters and members of smaller religious communities voted for Obama overwhelmingly.

All of this should lead honest political analysts to one conclusion: President-Elect Obama has put together a winning coalition whose religious boundaries are complete gibberish. We can’t really say much of anything that Obama did with the “faith vote,” other than not winning the Religious Right.

This, naturally, will lead to a great deal of confusion. You, America’s Religious Left, have some decisions to make about who you are and where you want to go.

If I might make some suggestions?

The New New Deal

Do you think of yourself as representing the American public at large? Then Gather together around necessary economic reforms, what we might call President Obama’s “New New Deal.” In a recent Democracy Corps exit poll, voters listed economic concerns as three out of their top four reasons to support Obama. Focusing on economic justice in the spirit of fairness and equal access to opportunity is consistent with Old Testament ethics. It is also likely to be a winner for a renewed Religious Left in that it allows you to play at the heart of a broad coalition.

/images/managed/Story+Image_pastordan_731.jpgA word of caution, however. The economic agenda endorsed by voters is not identical to Jim Wallis-style poverty relief. We may have entered a new period in American politics, but we’ve hardly made it to the promised land. Economic policies pitched to the benefit of “all” are more likely to gain support than those perceived to play favorites.

Anti-Gay Resolutions

If you understand yourself as rooted in tolerance, Pursue the repeal of California’s Proposition 8.

At first glance, this might seem like nothing but trouble for a new Religious Left. You are, after all, made up of elements that span from secular white social liberals to highly religious black and Hispanic social conservatives. No other political coalition in America covers that much ground. There’s already bad blood developing between the GLBT community and minority voters, who are—fairly or unfairly—being held responsible for Prop. 8’s passage.

But you’re going to have to learn to live together while honoring the divergent interests of your members. Taking on the despicable, un-American Prop. 8 might go a long way toward reassuring various partners of the arrangement’s workability.

Imagine, for example, the power of moderate evangelicals denouncing the ways in which Prop. 8 singles out a class of people for less-than-equal status, even as they disagree with same-sex marriage. Or imagine the GLBT community delivering support for economic development projects to be delivered through churches in minority neighborhoods as part of a trade-off. Or again, imagine—miracle of miracles—a Religious Left that could recognize a legitimate interest for secular voters in not having public policy driven by the theological positions of the Catholic church and the LDS.

Compromise will not come easily in these matters, but that’s no reason for you not to try. The more creative partnerships that can be established, the longer the overall progressive coalition can be sustained. That helps everybody.

Abortion Compromise

And that leads us to our final, and most difficult, suggestion. If you want to recognize all sides of your coalition, Find a way to live with both sides of the abortion debate.

Now, I am not suggesting some kind of phoney-baloney “compromise” on the abortion issue. Hell, I’m not even suggesting that opponents on either side of the question quit going after one another with hammer and tongs.

But just as there is no denying that several elements of Obama’s winning coalition are staunchly pro-life, there is also no denying that other parts are equally staunchly pro-choice, as is the president-elect himself. In one way or another you, O mighty Religious Left, are going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat by encompassing equal and opposite poles within yourself. Concretely, that means reducing abortions without appearing to give up on fundamental rights.

To pull that off, you’re going to have to decide that you are both pro-choice and pro-life, and interested in working on shared goals. I will be the first to admit that I and some of my friends will not make that task easy. But your movement must be more than just my voice, more than just the voice of my “co-belligerents,” if it’s going to stick around for a while. It is an enormous and thoroughly necessary task. In terms of sheer impossibility, you might just as well declare that America’s future depends on the election of a skinny black kid from Hawaii with a funny name.

Oh, wait.