Arguing Liberally: Rift in Religious Coalitions Goes Public

If you like food fights, religious progressives have, of late, been providing pretty good entertainment. From the Huffington Post to Street Prophets to the Washington Post’s On Faith web forum to this magazine, the eggs and tomatoes have been flying back and forth. Last week, the brouhaha achieved mainstream recognition in the form of an article in U.S. News & World Report by Dan Gilgoff.

On one side are staff and affiliates of a small clutch of Washington-based agencies and initiatives, well-connected to the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration, dedicated to the proposition that the culture wars can be ended and a liberal agenda advanced by creating a broad common ground on which people of faith can join hands. I’ve called them commongroundniks—doing the clergy work of the Democratic Party.

On the other side is a miscellaneous but bloggily-connected array of would-be rabble-rousers who believe that the commongroundniks have compromised their progressive souls by reaching out to evangelicals and other religious conservatives at a time of progressive triumph. Call them the prophets; Amoses, self-appointed to descend from their sheepfolds to denounce injustice and ferret out hypocrisy among the powers that be.

Thanks to the likes of author Frederick Clarkson and pastor-blogger Daniel Schultz, the commongroundniks have come to be known as the Religious Industrial Complex (RIC). Based on size alone, that’s ridiculous—paid staff probably doesn’t number more than a couple of dozen—but there’s no question that they constitute something of an interlocking directorate. The important thing to recognize is that they are a fundamentally political enterprise, a counterpoise to the religious right, invented for that purpose.

Their story begins five years ago, when it began to dawn on Democrats that they had a problem not just with white evangelicals but with religious voters generally. Exit polls don’t lie, at least not about the fact that by the 2000 election, 60 percent all respondents who said they attended religious services once a week or more regardless of faith were casting their votes for Republicans in presidential and congressional races.

This God gap had been on the rise over the previous decade but being slow on the uptake, Democrats didn’t hear the wake-up call until 2004. That was the year a plurality of voters cited “moral values” as the most important issue in their vote. It saw the God gap at its zenith. After the smoke had cleared, Howard Dean, the newly minted head of the Democratic National Committee, acted on the knowledge that the absence of religion from electoral politics in his native New England was not exactly the rule elsewhere in the country. As part of his 50-state electoral strategy, Dean began meeting with religious leaders.

Meanwhile, shrewd heads in the party’s back offices bethought themselves of ways to address the problem. Among the shrewdest was John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House and founder, president, and CEO of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank founded in 2003 to advance the liberal cause. “He’s Oz,” said one commongroundnik.

Faith in Public Life, one of the premier agencies of the RIC, started as a CAP project. On the Catholic side, Podesta helped set up Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Together they represented a new style of religious organizing on the left. But how new?

Early in the 2004 election cycle, I spoke to a group of old-style progressive religious leaders—mainline Protestants for the most part—whose war stories went back to the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. Their model of activism was to hold press conferences, organize clergy, and issue statements of concern, but they wanted to know why the press wasn’t interested in them the way it was in the religious right. The answer, I said, was that the religious right had an army and a ground game for rounding up votes—which they did not.

The RIC represents a range of efforts, some more overtly political and some less, designed to advance the common cause. These range from the “culture program” of the secular think tank, Third Way, to the Matthew 25 Project, a political action committee launched last year by Mara Vanderslice, who had a short, unhappy career as head of religious outreach for John Kerry in 2004. Other religion-savvy operatives include Burns Strider, a former aide to Nancy Pelosi, who conducted religious outreach as a top aide in the Hillary Clinton campaign and then founded a political consulting group called Eleison, which helps Democratic candidates work the religion angles.

Then there’s Sojourners, home base of the social justice evangelical Jim Wallis, who, having been disappointed by George W. Bush, now seems to have decided that while God was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, he himself was pretty close to the latter.

The challenge for the Democratic Party is to figure out how to woo religious voters beyond its dependable minority blocs: Jews, African Americans, and Hispanic Catholics. The GOP fixed on white evangelicals, and managed to turn their churches into institutions of political organization and mobilization.

Among white voters, the Democrats have to work the angles. In the Catholic world, it’s necessary to operate behind the backs of hostile bishops. Catholics in Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates the cause of social justice as a tried-and-true faith tradition. Catholics United, a 501(c)(4), is more overtly political, taking up cudgels on behalf of, most recently, the nomination of Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Obama.

The object of the Catholic effort is simple. In the commongroundnik view, perhaps 10-20 percent of Catholics voters would like to vote for Democrats but can’t bring themselves to because of abortion. The object of the exercise is to ease their way into doing so, via “common ground” legislation like the Ryan-DeLauro bill, which offers a range of social services to make it easier for women in need to carry their pregnancies to term.

But, while white Catholics are swing voters susceptible to courting, white evangelicals are less so. And what has gotten in the craw of the progressive prophets is the amount of energy that the RIC has spent trying to line them up. Back in 2007, Third Way issued “Come Let Us Reason Together,” an invitation to evangelicals that was repeated again this year with a Come Let Us Reason Together Governing Agenda. Last summer, Faith in Public Life seemed more interested in reaching out to evangelicals like Rick Warren than in summoning the progressive faithful.

And, most annoyingly, Barack Obama has himself seemed more than happy to adopt the RIC’s approach to life. Why go to Saddleback Church rather than a Riverside, say, to debate John McCain? Why invite Warren to give the inaugural invocation? Why let a self-professed pro-lifer like Jim Wallis serve as the Great White Liberal Hope?

The answer is simple. That’s where the voters are. It’s not just the 10-20 percent of Catholics who may be ripe for the plucking, but the evidence from the last election is that young evangelicals too are susceptible to the Obama appeal.

The bottom line is that the religious left is short of troops. To be sure, prophets aren’t supposed to need followers—though from time to time they can find themselves at the head of a movement. The real trouble is that mainline Protestantism—which once supplied cadres of liberal enthusiasts—is drying up. Once, the mainline was a robust force on the religious landscape with numbers comparable to Catholicism and evangelicalism. Now, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, it has shrunk to just 12 percent of the adult population, and that population is significantly older than the other major religious streams.

For all that, the prophets are there to serve their usual purpose—chiding and poking and raising hell.

On Monday, the White House rolled out the balance of the last 10 names on the advisory council of its re-christened Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFANP). These did not include yet another two prominent evangelicals, as had earlier been reported, but a goodly host of mainline leaders: the new president of the National Council of Churches and the head of the Disciples of Christ and the former United Methodist pastor (and current Religion Dispatches advisory council member) who heads the Religion and Faith Program of mainstream gay rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign.

OFANP’s job goes well beyond its Bushian predecessor to include just about every kind of religious input imaginable in an American presidential administration—including international interfaith activities. Its advisory council, which according to news reports enjoyed a great love-in these past two days, really is the White House priesthood. Keep your eye on them, prophets!