Common Ground: Winning the Battle, Losing the Culture War

Even before Obama’s call for dialogue on abortion, I had started a conversation with some of my colleagues inside the Beltway whom I had criticized for the way they were seeking “common ground” with religious conservatives.

As journalist Sarah Posner observed, the debate had evolved into “confusion over labels” such as “leftist,” “progressive,” and “centrist” that obscured important issues. I apologize for lacking both clarity and charity in what has become an acrimonious debate. Chalk it up to retrograde TMS (Testosterone Madness Syndrome), the root cause of most Internet flame wars. There is unfinished business on this topic for the religious left, however, and it needs to be explored before we reach out to find common ground with opponents of abortion.

The debate on the religious left needs to be shifted to focus on simple strategic questions: What will move our society toward increased social and economic justice, ecological balance, and peace? What will ensure moving a human rights framework forward? What will protect the basic rights of women, gay people, and secularists who are targets of Christian Right wrath?

Let’s approach this question by looking at a detailed list of players:

  • The Christian Right
  • Republican Party—Palin wing
  • Conservative evangelicals
  • Republican Party—moderate wing
  • Moderate evangelicals
  • Democratic Party—centrists
  • Left-leaning evangelicals and people of faith who oppose reproductive choice and gay rights
  • Democratic Party—moderates
  • The Obama administration
  • Progressive evangelicals
  • Left-leaning evangelicals and people of faith who support reproductive choice and gay rights
  • Progressive people of faith
  • Democratic Party—progressives
  • Progressive secular political activists

Coalitions have formed to mobilize and recruit various constituencies from the above list. After an election this happens all the time; nothing wrong with coalitions. It is the nature and direction of these coalition efforts that has generated this dispute over strategy and tactics. I will label the two sides in this debate Progressive Idealists versus Progressive Pragmatists to avoid confusion over terminology. Previous articles and posts on Religion Dispatches and other Web sites chronicle the back and forth in much detail. The Progressive Idealists include folks involved with Talk to Action, Street Prophets, and national groups defending reproductive choice and gay rights. This is the coalition I work within.

The Progressive Pragmatists include folks involved with Faith in Public Life, the Center for American Progress (and its Faith and Public Policy program), and others.

Another group, Third Way, describes itself as “progressive” but actually is part of a network of Democrats pulling the Democratic Party to the political right. So I am concerned when Progressive Pragmatists decide to join tactical coalitions with Third Way consultants. Why do it? What’s the advantage?

Those of us in the Progressive Idealist coalition have already been denounced in the national media as being rigid and uncompromising, or recruiting an “ever-shrinking cadre of ideologically pure, litmus-tested allies.” I don’t agree with that assessment, and don’t think it is fair.

I cannot find any evidence that among the Progressive Idealists there are significant voices suggesting progressives or the Democratic Party should avoid reaching out to evangelicals and conservative people of faith. Nor are there leaders of the Democratic Party who oppose organizing among people of faith or who are hostile to religion. This myth is most significantly promoted by Jim Wallis (without any documentation), who uses it to posit himself as a player inside the Beltway. Progressive Idealists are critical of Wallis because of his firm opposition to abortion and his hostility to gay rights. At Talk to Action where I blog, we take the position that progressive people of faith agree on three issues which for us are settled questions:

  • Separation of Church and State
  • Reproductive Choice
  • Gay Rights

I am sure the folks at Faith in Public Life and the Center for American Progress also support these core values, so it is beneficial to reframe the debate as being one about strategy and tactics. Progressive Pragmatists talk about seeking a broader agenda that moves away from the culture wars. I’d like that as well.

So why are Progressive Pragmatists (known for their history of working with Progressive Idealists) uncritically joining this effort developed by Democratic Party “centrists” who openly talk about moving the core of the Democratic Party to the political right? It just does not make sense.

The Backstory of the Debate

Some of us in the Progressive Idealist coalition are trying to build a more robust religious left. Our voices, diverse and sometimes contradictory, are compiled by Fred Clarkson, who edited Dispatches from the Religious Left. In December of 2006 on Talk to Action, Clarkson warned of what appeared to be attempts by Democratic Party centrists to urge Abandoning Core Principles in the Interest of Political Expedience.

I had blogged on Daily Kos and Huffington Post about reports in the summer of 2007 from progressive activists warning of Democratic Party spinmeisters telling people to not emphasize Separation of Church and State, Reproductive Choice, or Gay Rights. I wrote a post, “For Progressives who Vote Democratic but Value Human Rights,” arguing that “Human Rights are Not Political Commodities:”

We understand that the same First Amendment that guarantees separation of church and state guarantees the rights of Christian conservatives to defend their views in the public square, and to seek redress of grievances through a variety of political and social channels. In recent months, however, we have seen indications that some in the leadership of the Democratic Party, and some of its candidates for public office, are seeking the votes of Christian conservatives by suggesting there is room to compromise on reproductive rights and gay rights.

I first became alarmed about Democratic Party backpedaling on these issues when Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic Party, came to the 2007 Daily Kos conference in Chicago. Before a crowd composed primarily of progressive or left-leaning Democrats, Dean spoke of reaching out to evangelicals mentioning just one name: the Rev. Rick Warren. While Warren may, as he appears, be a nice guy, he is certainly not a progressive. He is at best a moderate (with some baggage about gay people, especially in Africa). A buzz went around the conference typified by blogger Pam Spaulding who wrote: “I respectfully refuse to consider women’s rights and gay rights as a commodity to be traded for votes from evangelicals.”

Fred Clarkson, “Pastor” Dan Schultz and I began alerting our readers on Talk to Action and Street Prophets to the perils of election-cycle political compromises that threaten the core values of the progressive community. Others posted similar concerns. When we saw our allies among the Progressive Pragmatists appear to jump on the bandwagon of the backsliding wing of the Democratic Party, we were flabbergasted. What happened to the progressive coalition I thought we were building together? I felt as though I’d just been tossed out of the lifeboat.

Sorting Out the Issues

There are at least three intertwined issues in the ongoing debate:

  • Adopting the Christian Right Frame
  • Stepping on the Toes of Existing Allies
  • Errors in Analyzing Evangelical Voters

As social scientists from Erving Goffman to Charlotte Ryan to George Lakoff have pointed out, if you adopt the frame of your opposition, you are likely to lose more than you gain.

Instead of embracing the Democratic Party platform and its call for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, there is an ongoing effort by some pragmatists to reach out to people of faith by adopting the Christian Right frame of reducing the number of abortions.

This shifts the debate from a framework of human rights for women to a narrower Christian Right framework of labeling abortion as a problem to be solved. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies will also reduce the number of abortions, but this tactic also functions as an umbrella, sheltering issues such as access to contraception, sex education, and prenatal care for pregnant women who choose that path.

We are talking about shifting the frame to gain a political advantage. That’s what the Christian Right has foisted on Democratic centrists—a rigged frame. The Christian Right goal has been abortion reduction for decades. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform developed by Team Obama is framed as reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Big difference.

Frames are not enough, however; you also need resources and movement allies.

Stepping on the Toes of Existing Allies

One of the lessons I learned working with progressive feminists such as Jean Hardisty, Suzanne Pharr, and Loretta Ross is that in any short-term tactical campaign, it is vital to inspect whether or not your plans will damage the long-term strategic interests of existing allies. All of these women have helped build successful campaigns to challenge the Political Right on gender issues—especially the Christian Right.

Posner encapsulated the main problem: “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 public promotion of “abortion reduction” as a necessary “compromise” to end the “culture wars” not only undercuts my work and the work of groups such as PRA, NARAL, and NOW, but it also happens to be unnecessary to attract evangelical swing voters for the Democratic Party.

Errors in Analyzing Evangelical Voters

Polling data on shifts in evangelical voting patterns did not spring forth full blown from the 2004 political campaign; social scientists have been analyzing this data for decades. From their work and other social science data, we can pinpoint at least three serious analytical errors in the current Democratic Party campaign to woo the Christian Right.

First, it is not the 15% of the electorate identifying with the Christian Right who are swing voters. Nor is it black evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Most white evangelicals do not consider themselves part of the Christian Right. While many white evangelicals tend to vote Republican, a substantial number are independents or tend to vote Democratic.

Highly respected demographer John C. Green (a Senior Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), along with his band of merry social scientists, have found that the swing voters are culled from the large of group of white moderately- to mildly-conservative evangelicals who respond to clearly-articulated policy positions by Democratic candidates.

What are these concerns? Primarily it is the economy; but also poverty, war, corruption, the environment, education, health care, and more. Green and colleague Geoffrey C. Layman concluded after a major study of voting demographics: “The cultural wars are waged by limited religious troops on narrow policy fronts under special political leadership.” These facts are neither new nor news except, perhaps, inside the Beltway.

“White evangelicals are the most likely to have social issue priorities,” Green explains. The way voters concerned about values lean in any specific election after weighing social and economic issues “may simply be differences in values prompted in large measure by campaigns where the GOP stresses morality with success and the Democrats fail to stress the economy effectively.”

Looking at this in the other direction, it is clear that strong Democratic Party positions that stress community values as intertwined with social justice trump Christian Right campaigns against abortion and gay rights, even within the evangelical community. There is no need for Democrats to compromise on issues that reflect basic human rights. And to do so is morally wrong, even if it is pragmatically expedient.

Second, if you only look at exit polls from 2004, it looks like Obama racked up significant gains among religious voters. Exciting news! Let’s exploit this trend? Sorry. If you compare Obama’s tally with those of the campaigns from 1980 to 2000, there is little significance to the numbers. There are a few anecdotal blips, but there is no trend. Kerry was an unusually miserable candidate, and his numbers were below those from other years. If you look at trends since 1972, we can see blips for Carter (Born-Again) and Reagan (vehicle of the New Right); but since Reagan, the numbers do not suggest that compromise with the Christian Right even makes pragmatic sense—much less moral sense. I have explored these God Gap demographics in detail.

Third, while younger evangelicals don’t trust the older Christian leaders, there is no convincing evidence that they will shift to the Democratic Party. It is far more likely they will pull the Republican Party back toward the center. In any case, they are not going to be impressed by outreach to Christian Right leaders. Younger evangelicals are more tolerant of people who have had abortions or who are gay, but available evidence suggests they still see it as a sin and will joyfully join campaigns to eradicate these problems in the name of Jesus.

Next Steps Forward

This is more than just a squabble over who among the religious gets to claim the name progressive, it’s a struggle over whether or not the Obama administration will follow the path blazed by community organizers seeking social, economic, and gender justice. This will not happen unless there is sufficient pressure on them to do so. Social movements pull political movements toward them, not the other way around. I want to make it clear that my criticism is not aimed at President Obama, nor the Obama administration. It is aimed at right-leaning centrist groups such as the Third Way and the Democratic Leadership Council who claim the term “progressive” while undermining and defaming its proud traditions. I write for the Progressive magazine. We think the term “progressive” has real meaning, and scoff at attempts by Inside the Beltway players to transform it into a re-branded code for backsliding Democrats.

Compromise implies both sides give up something. It is never a good idea to start out a negotiation by giving the other side everything they want at the beginning. The Christian Right wants “abortion reduction” because they want to deny women the right to choose abortion as an option when they become pregnant.

The goal of groups such as the Third Way seems to be garnering votes from relatively conservative Christian evangelicals. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to Christian evangelicals and people from other faith traditions; I have been doing it for 30 years. But as an active member of the Christian Left who spent over a decade as a community and labor organizer, I see a problem. As progressives, we should be reaching out to people of faith, including evangelicals, but we need clearer criteria to determine who we seek to work with.

If one wants to work in coalition with Christian evangelicals, perhaps it would be better to start by talking with Progressive Idealists, the religious left, and a variety women’s rights and gay rights activist groups to line up our support. Then together we can analyze the source of the ideological opposition (in this case the Christian Right) and develop a counter-frame. Finally, we can reach out to moderate and mildly conservative evangelicals using our counter-frame in a way that emphasizes common interests.

These interests include stewardship for the environment, paving a road to peace in the Middle East and around the world, denouncing political corruption, raising up the impoverished to full employment and a living wage, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, and protecting the weak. These are our moral issues, and they are moral issues for most evangelicals as well. We can build a coalition around these issues, and agree to disagree on abortion and gay rights.

But do not assume that Political Idealists who are religious or secular will remain silent when we fear we are being asked to retreat from supporting Separation of Church and State, Reproductive Justice, and Gay Rights.

Some of us have “framed” our colleagues as “centrists” in a way that was hurtful. Sorry—we will try to be nicer. I have tremendous respect for Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Jennifer Butler, and I beg them to ponder the possibility that the bandwagon they’ve leapt on may be taking them for a ride to a destination they will come to regret.

Can we please take out our strategic road maps and together plot a new course?