Faith in Public Life Responds: Common Ground Gets Results

Faith in Public Life takes a bridge-building, results-based approach to faith and politics. Our model differs from that of the religious right, which openly embraces extreme partisanship and exerts influence by stoking conflict and dividing the electorate. These contrasting approaches yield different fruits: cooperation and progress in our case, polarization and stagnation in theirs.  

In order to make progress on issues of justice and compassion, we often bring together people who don’t necessarily agree on everything but can work together on issues of mutual concern. Sarah Posner’s recent Religion Dispatches article, “Battling for the Soul of the Democratic Party,” casts doubts on the efficacy of this approach, despite our record of results.  

FPL is a nonpartisan organization that has helped usher in significant progress within the faith community on issues ranging from climate change and comprehensive immigration reform to abortion and LGBT rights. The coalitions we have helped forge around these issues are ideologically diverse, as we don’t think disagreement on some issues should preclude collaboration toward shared goals on others. In fact, we believe that working with diverse partners maximizes our ability to achieve progress.  

To take one example, the Compassion Forum brought together conservative, moderate and progressive religious leaders to ask Secretary of State-designate Clinton and President-elect Obama about issues like climate change, poverty, and Darfur, as well as abortion. After the election ended, a retrospective analysis by the AP characterized the Forum as one of a paltry few campaign events that offered substantive questions about how candidates’ religious beliefs shape their approach to policy. Jacques Berlinerblau of Newsweek/Washington Post’s On Faith, an associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and self-identified agnostic, asserted:  

Faith in Public Life is setting an agenda and it is doing so with a “Big Tent” philosophy of letting different religious Americans bring their concerns to the fore. Last night a theologically diverse group of preselected clergy asked questions about euthanasia, environmental concerns, poverty, AIDS, the relation between science and faith, and so on. In so doing, they broadened the issue palette pertaining to religious politicking considerably. This is where Faith in Public Life is making a major contribution to national discourse. All of this was done—note this—without castigating or excluding secular Americans.

Just as we work to elevate a broad agenda of issues that are bridging ideological divides, we directly engage historically contentious ones such as abortion and LGBT issues in new ways. Posner’s contention that “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” does not reflect our approach to these issues.   

Last year we helped build the coalition that endorsed Third Way’s report, “Come Let Us Reason Together” which included representatives of both progressive groups, like the Human Rights Campaign and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and evangelicals, like Joel Hunter, David Gushee, and Jim Wallis, in favor of abortion reduction policies that include not only support for pregnant women, mothers, and children, but also medically-accurate sex education and improved access to contraception. The report also advocates for the recognition of the rights and inherent dignity of LGBT persons. Our collaboration with Third Way is ongoing and will further expand our involvement in these issues.    

Posner dismisses Joel Hunter’s efforts to broaden the evangelical agenda by pointing out that he still opposes same-sex marriage, and she writes off Jim Wallis’ work to promote common ground on abortion by noting that he remains opposed to abortion rights. This criticism ignores the point of common ground and the significance of their efforts. Upon the release of “Come Let Us Reason Together,” E.J. Dionne, noting Hunter’s opposition to gay marriage and belief that the rights of gay and lesbian couples should be protected, wrote: “That doesn’t settle the gay-marriage issue, but it would lead to a more—dare one use the word?—Christian approach to a matter that has bred so much anger.” When FPL ran Christian radio ads in November calling for common-ground solutions to reduce the number of abortions, including preventing unintended pregnancies, pro-choice RH Reality Check observed,  

A notable shift has occurred in the political discourse about abortion this year. After decades of bitter partisanship and nasty wedge politics surrounding the highly controversial issue of abortion will this election cycle be remembered as a turning point for the politics of abortion?   

That sounds like progress to us.

Working with people who don’t agree on every issue but are committed to addressing causes of common concern strengthens the movement to advance the common good and diffuses polarization. Forgoing cooperation on issue X because of disagreement on issue Y squanders opportunity for progress. We must not make ideological purity the enemy of the common good.  

Many of our partners remain steadfast in their work on justice issues in spite of great criticism from their own communities. When Richard Cizik began to focus on climate change, some conservative religious leaders called for his removal as vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals; he is under attack again for speaking in support of civil unions last week. David Gushee and Joel Hunter have taken considerable heat from evangelical peers on issues ranging from climate to torture to abortion reduction. But in addition to generating criticism, by taking these stands these leaders encourage others to join their cause—from evangelicals across Middle America to members of Congress with significant evangelical constituencies.  

One point of agreement we have with Sarah Posner is the importance of organizing. Community organizers effect change by forming new coalitions and building bridges to help ordinary people influence policies that impact their lives. That’s why we organize and support religious coalitions in Colorado and Ohio, work with congregation-based community organizing groups like Gamaliel and PICO, and took out ads thanking community organizers after Sarah Palin disparaged them on the campaign trail.  

We are committed to our model, but we recognize that our approach is not the only one that can be productive, and we applaud the prophetic work of others working toward justice in their own ways. Promoting justice and the common good is an enormous effort that requires diverse initiatives from a broad range of actors, and we are proud of our work and grateful for the diversity of our movement.