Dispatches From the Beltway: Horton Hears Progressive Religion

For much of the last two decades, voices that are both progressive and religious have been like the “the Whos” in Dr. Seuss’ classic Horton Hears a Who, yelling “We are here! We are here! We are here!” just to be noticed. This is how Rev. Tim Ahrens described it in an interview I conducted with him last year about the founding of We Believe Ohio in 2005 (for the full interview see my forthcoming book Progressive & Religious). But in just a few short years, the Whos have indeed been heard.

We Believe Ohio has grown from a few religious leaders responding to a single e-mail into a broad organization that includes more than four hundred pastors, priests, rabbis, cantors, imams, and other religious leaders all over the state. These religious leaders have come together in an unprecedented way to reclaim a progressive voice for religion in the public square.

The growth of We Believe Ohio contrasts sharply with the fate of Rev. Russell Johnson, a fundamentalist megachurch pastor who had one of the biggest megaphones in Ohio in 2004. With his 2,000-member Fairfield Christian Church, Johnson ridiculed the early participants of We Believe Ohio, joking that their combined congregations could fit into a phone booth. Along with Rev. Rod Parsley—the movement’s bombastic mouthpiece who called on Ohio Christians (who he called the largest “interest group” in the state) to “lock and load” to defeat the “hordes of Hell”—Johnson was the force behind the so-called “Ohio Restoration Project,” an attempt to recruit “patriot pastors” to register one million “values voters.”

But by late 2007, Johnson had fallen. The pinnacle of Johnson’s work turned out to be supporting the failed bid of Kenneth Blackwell for governor in 2006. And he found himself in a swirl of controversy: the IRS placed a lien on him and his wife for failure to pay $22,269 in income taxes and penalties from 2002 to 2004; his church and the school and hotel it owns showed a net operating loss of $1.5 million for its fiscal year ending in June 2007; official complaints were filed against his church for violating its tax-exempt status in backing Blackwell’s campaign; and although neither he nor the church officially cited problems with his leadership, Johnson resigned his post as pastor in October 2007.

In the meantime, Ohio Christians clearly voiced their preference for a candidate that shared all their values rather than a candidate running on a narrow divisive platform of opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Blackwell was handily defeated by Ted Strickland, a Methodist minister who stumped as a “Golden Rule Democrat” and who, as a senator, insisted on paying for his own health coverage as long as his constituents were not covered. According to the 2006 NEP exit polls, Strickland gained fourteen points among voters who attended religious services once per week or more, compared to support these voters gave Senator John Kerry in 2004. And voters, including a majority (51 percent) of weekly church attenders, overwhelmingly supported a long-overdue ballot measure to increase the minimum wage.

Especially since 2006, I have been struck (and heartened) by the contrast in the energy, new ideas, and accomplishments among progressive religious groups and the flagging, tired efforts to trot out the same old lines among the religious right. Just two more examples hammer this point home. First, it is worth noting that the once-formidable Christian Coalition, founded in 1989, has virtually imploded. By 2006, its $26 million budget had shrunk to $1 million, and it was $2 million in debt; and its state chapters have been steadily folding or disassociating because the group has become so associated with a narrow, divisive agenda—an agenda of which Americans, including evangelical Americans, have grown weary.

Second, progressive religious voices have moved from being reactive to proactive. In 2004, progressives were on the defensive, having been largely caught off guard by the successful (and distorting) “values voter” campaign. Three of the largest groups on the religious right—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Focus on the Family (FOF) and its associated Family Research Council (FRC)—jointly launched this strategy as the “I Vote Values” campaign on April 15, 2004. This coalition effort involved mirrored websites, with SBC hosting ivotevalues.com and FOF/FRC hosting ivotevalues.org. The fact that progressives are still fighting off the misleading stereotypes of “values voters” in the media is testimony to that effort’s relative success.

But since 2006, progressive religious voices have begun to organize and are now proactive, forcing the right into reactive mode. During this extended presidential campaign season, progressive religious groups have organized prominent presidential forums to address a broad range of issues about religion in public life. In June 2007, Sojourners convened top Democratic presidential nominees Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama (Republican candidates were invited but declined) at its Pentecost 2007 conference, where prominent faith leaders asked questions of the candidates. And just last month, Faith in Public Life convened the Compassion Forum at Messiah College, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (John McCain was invited but declined) fielded questions from a diverse group of religious leaders about a wide range of compassion issues that cross ideological lines such as poverty, AIDS, climate change, abortion, genocide in Darfur, human rights, and torture. Both of these events were prominently carried on CNN and stimulated a national conversation about faith and politics. When the Compassion Forum aired, it was the highest-rated program in cable news in all demographics for the night with nearly 2 million total viewers.

These lively and broad-ranging events contrasted sharply with the Values Voters Summit III put on by the Family Research Council (FRC). Although the Republican field showed up, the television media coverage was not as substantive, and the conversations were on the whole constrained to demonstrating how each of the candidates could outdo one another on the narrow issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

The sea change is captured in FRC President Tony Perkins’ response to the Compassion Forum. Despite the fact that the Compassion Forum was hosted at an evangelical college (Messiah College) and that prominent evangelicals such as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals were on the Compassion Forum Board (Perkins himself was invited but did not respond), Perkins issued a lengthy statement decrying the event.

Perkins asserted:

The bulk of last night’s program was taken directly from the playbook of the Religious Left, focusing not on the issues closest to Christians’ hearts but on climate change, AIDS, and global poverty…. Our priority as Christians should be as those of the Founding Fathers; protect the sanctity of human life, preserve marriage, and defend religious liberty.

This statement of strained logic (e.g., I’d love to see the links to the founding father’s statements on abortion and same-sex marriage) is clearly a statement of desperation, of someone sensing the lengthening shadows as the sun sets on an era of dominance. It also lays bare FRC’s underlying motivations as being about power instead of principle. Rather than celebrating the application of faith by religious Americans to the full array of issues (after all, religion is supposed to inform all of life) Perkins instead argues to narrow Christian interests to issues that can be used for organizational and partisan gain. This contrast also points to the promise of a new day: the rise of progressive religious voices will not mean an equally polarized and politicized religious left to oppose the religious right. Rather, this new era promises to shake up old ideological alliances in order to support public religious engagement that transcends partisan politics and bring us together to work for the common good.