Battling for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Image: Lorie Shaull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Just one election cycle ago, the Democratic Party hung its godless head, beaten into submission by the religious right and a small group of Democratic activists. Democrats, the mythology went, were anti-religion or, at best, clumsy when talking to religious people. The religious right embraced that myth and sought to reinforce it, to cement its own monopoly on the newly-minted electoral prize of the “values voter.” The Democratic activists, many of whom were evangelical and resented both being lumped in with the religious right and feeling ignored by the Democrats, sought to remedy what they believed to be a persistently losing campaign strategy by refashioning how their party did religion.

No longer, proclaimed one member of Congress at a fundraiser for the Christian political action committee the Matthew 25 Network this summer. No longer do Democrats look down at their shoes when they talk about their faith.

The Making of the “Religious Industrial Complex”

Eyes aimed upward, the loudly faithful Democrats have achieved a lot in four short years. The party launched a Faith in Action initiative and hosted, for the first time, a faith caucus at its convention. Under the leadership of then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic caucus organized a Democratic Faith Working Group, which meets regularly with religious constituencies to craft policy.

Operatives and advocates sprang up to offer advice on how to win over religious voters. Amy Sullivan, an editor at Time magazine, published The Party Faithful, both a castigation of Democratic elites for allegedly failing to understand or connect with religious voters and a blueprint for electoral outreach. Mara Vanderslice, the former director (and critic) of John Kerry’s religious outreach opened Common Good Strategies to advise Democratic candidates on faith outreach, before founding the Matthew 25 Network, which supported Barack Obama. Burns Strider, the Pelosi aide who helped launch the Faith Working Group, went on to become the religious outreach strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and runs his own consulting firm, the Eleison Group. In 2007, Religion News Service named him, Sullivan, and Vanderslice among the “twelve most influential Democrats in the nation on faith and values politics and issues.”

While the Democrats have come a long way in four years, Strider said, those efforts cannot match decades of organizing. “We’re going to see continued ‘bringing into the fold’ faith organizing within campaigns and within the party,” he told an audience at the National Press Club last month.

In the think tank world, the liberal Center for American Progress set up a Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, which for a time housed what later became the nonprofit Faith in Public Life (FIPL). With former Democratic party staffer Katie Paris leading its media outreach, FIPL is in the forefront of those shaping the media narrative about the new religious landscape: religious voters are no longer shackled to a “narrow agenda” of abortion and gay marriage, and are voting on a “broader agenda,” including poverty, the environment, and global HIV/AIDS. The Take Back America conference, the annual policy confab sponsored by the progressive think tank Campaign for America’s Future, began regularly featuring a faith in public life panel, often showcasing the political talent that had lambasted the Democrats for allegedly ignoring them.

By 2008, the constellation of organizations and initiatives that had cropped up inside the Beltway began cultivating the public personae of a new generation of religious leaders. Pastor Dan Schultz of the Street Prophets blog calls this constellation the “religious industrial complex.” Within this constellation, many believe, is the new generation of “broader agenda” religious leaders who hold the key to electoral success: swing Catholic voters, weekly churchgoers, and evangelicals.

Still, despite post-election cheerleading from FIPL and others that Democrats had narrowed the “God gap,” it is not at all clear from polling data that the new “faith-friendly” Democrats were responsible or whether it was simply the longing of the electorate as a whole for, well, change. As Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, wrote on his blog, the bump in support for Democrats among frequent, and less-frequent, church attenders dated back to the 2006 midterms and has remained steady ever since. In other words, both groups trended Democratic in a period when the popularity of George W. Bush and his party had plummeted.

The frequent church attenders and the heretics could have been reacting to the same Obama quality: his facility for framing morally complex issues in an ecumenically spiritual way. Who’s to say that the frequent churchgoers responded to “God-talk” or religious outreach, as opposed to the candidate’s way of speaking which so clearly distinguished him from the hairsplitting, technocratic Kerry, whose defeat was frequently blamed on a reluctance to talk about his Catholicism?

Regardless of the unproven electoral benefits of Democrats flaunting faith, all these efforts have had another outcome: elevating the profiles of a “new generation” of “centrist” religious leaders.

Is the Religious Left Getting Left Behind by the Beltway Constellation?

We live, of course, in the age of the celebrity preacher. In this world there is no better measure of a man of God than his book sales and pew attendance. When I’ve asked insiders like Strider or Jennifer Butler, FIPL’s executive director, who the prominent figures in new face of religious America are (and, moreover, in the wake of Obama’s election, who will get their phone calls returned from the White House) certain names keep cropping up. Pastor Rick Warren, who sees no daylight between his views and James Dobson’s, but who, according to Sullivan’s book, former-DNC-chair Terry McAuliffe blasphemously didn’t know; Jim Wallis, best-selling author and activist who lambasts the religious right for its petty intolerance and the left for “not getting it”; and Joel Hunter, the Florida megachurch pastor who infamously turned down a stint as the president of the Christian Coalition, and author of A New Kind of Conservative.

FIPL has taken a lead role in promoting the “broader agenda” of some of these evangelical leaders. No longer interested in fighting the so-called “culture wars,” these leaders say they will de-emphasize their opposition to abortion or gay marriage and work to alleviate the suffering of HIV/AIDS in Africa (Warren), combat poverty (Wallis), and fight global warming (Hunter). Obama has embraced these leaders, too, praying with Hunter on election night, visiting Warren’s church and praising him, and making pivotal appearances at events with Wallis.

Yet, while these leaders have taken on issues outside of abortion and gay marriage—not a new development, incidentally, for mission-oriented evangelicals—and claim to tamp down the divisive rhetoric on those issues, each remains wedded to core religious right beliefs. Warren and Hunter supported the same-sex marriage bans on the ballot this year in their respective states (California and Florida). Warren has argued that homosexuality disproves evolution and has compared pro-choice advocates to Holocaust deniers. Although Wallis has been at the forefront of promoting the “abortion reduction” agenda as “common ground” he says everyone can agree on, he remains opposed to reproductive choice.

By rejecting the so-called “culture wars,” the “broader agenda” evangelicals and their Democratic allies imply that there is something inherently unseemly about advocating for reproductive or LGBT rights. The American Prospect’s Ann Friedman has rejected the use of the term “culture war” as a descriptor for the quest for LGBT equality because “the very act of invoking the term ‘culture war’ signals that we think something is controversial, when in fact, equal rights should be the furthest thing from it.” This is a secular viewpoint that is mirrored in progressive religious thinking. “Anytime someone calls them [abortion and gay marriage] hot button or wedge issues my back goes up,” says the Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. “It sounds like, oh, yeah, we don’t need to worry about women and gay people.”

The Religious Left Groundswell

Haffner was critical of the choice of hosts for the presidential faith forums—one, held at Messiah College in April, was organized by FIPL, which pushed for Warren to hold the second at his church in August. Haffner objected that Messiah College’s Web site directs students to “reparative therapy” to “cure” homosexuality, and posts other anti-gay materials, though by the time she brought her concerns to FIPL’s attention, the forum was “a done deal.”

Haffner questions the choice of Messiah or Saddleback, Warren’s church, for the presidential forums, in order to appeal to conservative white evangelicals. “Why not go to a Riverside Church or a St. John the Divine, or John Buchanan’s big church in Chicago, or City of Hope in Dallas, which is a gay-friendly church, with seating for 4,000?”

“There’s a tremendous need,” Haffner added, “to recognize that there are progressive religious leaders who stand and support sexual justice. There is a tremendous need for somebody besides white men to represent the progressive religious voice.” Haffner’s position is not without a groundswell of support in faith communities; more than 2200 ordained clergy, for example, endorsed the Religious Institute’s call for marriage equality, and more than 3000 religious leaders have endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, which calls for comprehensive sexuality education, full inclusion of women and sexual minorities, and reproductive health and justice.

The religious left is still struggling to find an organizing and base-building model, while the center-right continues to dominate the conversation and capture the attention of politicians. A new book, Dispatches from the Religious Left, edited by the journalist Frederick Clarkson, attempts to start the conversation—though by its own admission it’s merely a start, not a blueprint.

Part of that start, of course, is debunking the notion that the centrist evangelicals represent a religious left. In his essay, “Who’s God? Faith, Democracy, and the Making of an Authentic Religious Left,” the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, an associate minister at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan, critiques the idea that Wallis represents the religious left or even the prophetic tradition of social justice:

Despite his popularity, Wallis and his Sojourners/Call to Renewal organization do not engage or take seriously the discourse of those it claims to serve—i.e. the poor—a discourse which is best embodied by the radical tradition of African-American religion. Wallis’ inability to claim the radical politics of the prophetic tradition serves to undermine the stated mission of his working, thereby limiting his capacity to articulate the development of an authentic Religious Left. Indeed, Wallis publicly argues against the organization of a Religious Left, arguing instead for a “moral center.”

Wallis, Sekou told me recently, is “not Machiavellian, but he’s situational. He emerges at a moment when a right-of-center religious discourse has more salience.” Rather than focus on reaching out a helping hand to the poor and lecturing them about personal responsibility, Sekou envisions a religious left organizing model to “create a space whereby the poor can speak for themselves,” which sounds like Obama’s earlier work as a community organizer. As a politician, Sekou says, Obama “is catering to this [right-of-center discourse] and putting it in progressive drag… if his agenda does not lift up the masses of the people, his presidency will prove to be ornamental and betray the prophetic tradition that elected him.”

Sekou says a religious left “won’t emerge out of beltway think tanks but on the ground.” Such a movement would be, as Dan Schultz puts it in his essay in Dispatches from the Religious Left, “damnably disruptive.” Clarkson adds that, “indeed, the prophetic voice is not necessarily ‘on message’ or a ‘team player.’” But declining to be a team player for a political party is one thing, and having a team to field is another. As Sekou put it, “shut up and organize!”