RDBook: Whither the Religious Left?

[Despite the similarity in name, Religion Dispatches is not affiliated in any way with Mr. Clarkson’s book, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America — ed.]

Although many in the mainstream media have been writing the Religious Right’s obituary for several years, it’s probably more accurate to say that the movement is undergoing significant changes. During an appearance at this year’s National Religious Broadcasters conference, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, raised questions about the future of the conservative Christian movement that he helped shape. “The question is,“ Dobson said, “will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who’s going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today?“

With the deaths of two movement icons, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Dr. D. James Kennedy, new and younger Christian evangelical leaders are stepping up to the plate, some bringing with them what appears to be a broader and more inclusive agenda. There is even talk about a revivified Religious Left. Thus far, most of that talk has centered on the outreach efforts to evangelicals being made by the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama.

Is there room for a Religious Left whose political principles, beliefs and activities extend beyond the boundaries of the center-left wing of the Democratic Party?

Religion Dispatches had the opportunity to interview Frederick Clarkson, the editor of the forthcoming, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (Ig Publishing, Oct. 1, 2008). The book, a collection of 19 essays, challenges the Religious Left to re-envision and reinvent itself. According to Clarkson, “the book is divided into three sections: the first includes several envisioning essays; the second, memos on fresh approaches to hot button issues; and the third, a set of essays about how to begin to think about doing politics differently and more effectively.“ The book, while “not intended as a manifesto, a platform or blueprint,“ said Clarkson, is more like the “application of jumper cables to start a necessary conversation.“

Contributors include former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges; Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Peter Laarman, head of Progressive Christians Uniting; Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (and a member of RD’s Advisory Council), Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, and Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The afterward was written by Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, and columnist for RD.

(Following the October 1st publication, the book will be launched on October 14 at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan, the oldest continuous congregation in America, going back, according to its web site, to 1628. The church features a dynamic, multiracial gospel choir that Clarkson says will perform. Far from a sleepy panel discussion, the church leaders in partnering with the publisher want an event that is more like a catalyst for a movement—and are exploring live-streaming the event on the internet.)

Clarkson was one of the first investigative reporters to look deeply at the Religious Right in the US. Often ahead of the pack he broke the story in Mother Jones of the rise of Christian militias years before the Oklahoma City bombing made them national news; he went undercover at the founding strategy conferences of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and revealed in Church & State magazine their plans to take over the GOP and establish theocratic politics and policies as a permanent feature of American public life; and in Salon he exposed the bizarre alliance between Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Sun Myung Moon in advance of the Million Family March, causing prominent political leaders and entertainers to avoid the event. He has also written extensively about anti-abortion terrorism in the United States.

In 1997, Clarkson wrote Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press), one of the earliest books about the conservative evangelical movement which has become an integral part of the American political landscape. More recently, Clarkson, along with blogger Bruce Wilson, founded Talk2Action, an interactive blog covering breaking news and analysis about the Religious Right and related movements and issues.

Raised in New England, Clarkson attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges where he majored in English. While in prep school during the Vietnam War, he encountered “a yellow covered book with big black letters on the shelf in study hall.“ The book was Gandhi’s Autobiography. “My eyes were opened about what it meant to stand up to the mighty British Empire that occupied his native India, as well as to apartheid in South Africa.“ Clarkson told Religion Dispatches that that chance encounter was his “opening into the world of politics and clashing religious worldviews as I considered conscientious objection to the war in light of my Christian upbringing and Gandhi’s powerful call to conscience.“

Clarkson has written for Salon, Mother Jones, The Nation, Ms., The Christian Science Monitor, Knight Ridder News Service, Sojourners, and Christianity & Crisis, then the leading magazine of progressive religion and politics, and he has been interviewed by many national and international media including CBS Evening News, ABC’s 20/20, the BBC (radio and television), and the Voice of America.

Through a series of e-mail exchanges, we discussed the current state of the Religious Right, the growing influence and media presence of Pastor Rick Warren, efforts made by the Obama campaign to court evangelicals, and how an authentic Religious Left can win a place at the table.

Bill Berkowitz: Rick Warren, the much celebrated and talked about pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, interviewed Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain on Saturday, August 16. Before and after the event, Warren’s Civic Forum received a lot of media attention. Many in the media have anointed Warren as representing the new face of Christian evangelicals; creating a new movement that not only distances itself from the old timers of the Religious Right, but one that is setting a new agenda for evangelicals. How do you view Warren’s work and where does he fit within the broad constellation of religious leaders?

Frederick Clarkson: Four years ago, Rick Warren wrote an inflammatory letter about the presidential contest to thousands of evangelical pastors. This letter revealed him to be a fierce partisan, who epitomized the worst aspects of the Religious Right. He declared five issues to be “non-negotiable“ and those they “are not even debatable because God’s word is clear on these issues.’“ These included abortion, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and euthanasia. He later said he regretted the letter but that he had not changed his views.

While he is a skilled showman, he is unable to sustain moderation in style or in substance even before a national television audience. His real self leaks out. At the Civic Forum, Warren highlighted the top two litmus tests of the Religious Right—abortion and same sex marriage, and described abortion as a “holocaust.“ Following this he called on his audience not to “demonize“ people with whom they may disagree—having just compared people who have a different view on abortion to the Nazis. In my view, Warren is an emerging leader of the Religious Right in transition, not of evangelical moderation.

Being different than Falwell and others of the Falwell generation, does not necessarily a moderate make. Warren acknowledges climate change, for example, but he is a fierce proponent of free markets—and so ideologically rigid that it is difficult to imagine him getting behind the kinds of solutions that could address what needs to be done. Similarly, he is so fiercely antigay, and supports African political and religious leaders who advocate criminalization of homosexuality, that it is difficult to imagine that the HIV/AIDS work for which he receives such plaudits can ever be successful as gay people are driven underground due to an atmosphere of persecution and fear—and out of reach of programs that might help.

As for how he fits in the wider constellation of religious leaders, as a disciple of the late guru of modern corporate management Peter Drucker (who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary) he is more about building a religio-corporate empire than preceding leaders of the Religious Right. Drucker was the theorist of the megachurch, applying business principles to the creation of religious empires. Meanwhile, Warren’s books read more like self-help books than dire warnings of Satanic or Muslim hordes that drive the work of say, John Hagee, and his ideology is about free market fundamentalism more than it is about overt religious and political triumphalism. This, along with an avuncular personality gives him an image of moderation that will fit more comfortably with the corporate wings of both major parties. Only a few years ago John McCain denounced Falwell and Robertson as “agents of intolerance“ while Warren claims both McCain and Obama as “friends“ and both immediately agreed to participate in Warren’s event. I think that they so willingly allowed Warren to function as a broker epitomizes the mainstreaming of the Religious Right in American public life.

BB: Organizers for the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama are putting a lot of time, energy and money into wooing evangelical voters. Obama has also met with a number of Christian evangelical leaders. Why such an accelerated focus on evangelicals?

FC: There is a theory based on some polling that the white evangelical vote is in flux and that it might be possible for Democrats to peel off some votes, especially among younger evangelicals. Other polls, however, suggest that this is wishful thinking. (There is evidence that the litmus test issues of abortion and marriage equality will keep few socially conservative voters from switching sides.)

I think for the Obama campaign, this flurry of activity is more about depolarizing the debate and reducing the demonization of the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate. Changing the tone of politics is good. On the other hand, I think this is also about marginalizing the role and voice of religious progressives, which is to say those who in past decades played decisive roles in stopping the war in Vietnam, pushing for African American and women’s rights, and much more. The Beltway Insiders would prefer not to have a resurgent Religious Left complicating things by making conservative evangelicals uncomfortable and perhaps more importantly, compelling significant changes in the way the politics and public policy industry does business. So I think a faux Religious Left is being manufactured as an official counterweight to the Religious Right in the media and as a sop to the actual stirrings among religious progressives.

BB: There has been some talk about a so-called resurrection of the “religious left“ in this country. What is the mainstream media referring to when it talks about a “religious left“? How do you see the development of an authentic “religious left?“

FC: The religious left ballyhooed by the media seems to consist of a few moderate evangelical authors, plus Jim Wallis, Rabbi Michael Lerner; some small Inside the Beltway organizations, and a gaggle of political consultants who advise clients on matters of “faith outreach“ and who advocate “dialog“ with conservative evangelicals. Whatever the merits of all of this, it is not always progressive, and usually has little to do with movement building.

An authentic and more politically dynamic movement needs multiple strongholds, sources of activism, and sufficient independence so that they can not only speak truth to power (as many are fond of saying) but have the capacity to seek and acquire enough power to be able to move politics far more substantially in the direction of a just society.

BB: Why Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America? Why put together this type of book at this time?

FC: The ancient rabbi, Hillel, writing for the ages asked, “if not now, when?“ and Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote about the “fierce urgency of now.“ These two great leaders each sought to teach us about our roles in the face of the great moral issues of our time. That said, religious progressives seem to be politically stalled, distracted, and lacking a coherent strategy and effective tactics. Therefore, it is safe for government officials to ignore them, and we can see the results on just about everything that really matters.

Both the secular and religious left have generally failed to learn any lessons from the tremendous successes of the Religious Right over the past few decades. And what lessons have been taken are too often the wrong ones. Several Dispatches contributors are exceptionally well informed about the Religious Right, and discuss what lessons can be drawn from the experience of this formidable movement—and rightly caution us about others. One of the themes that emerges in the book is that the religious left needs to reestablish a significant capacity for “organizing“ in the broad, social, political and electoral sense. It has been a key to successes in the past but seems to have been abandoned in favor of think tanks and public relations strategies.

As Marshall Ganz, formerly one of the top organizers with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union writes in the opening essay:

To find the courage, commitment, and hopefulness to face the challenges of our times, why would we turn to marketing mavens, management gurus, and niche strategists when our real sources of strength are in learning who we are, where we come from, and where we are going?

For those who really want to increase their capacity to prevent and to stop wars; to dramatically reduce poverty in its many dimensions; to generally achieve a far more just society and world than currently seems possible—it is time for a conversation about what is and is not working and to consider what might be done differently and to go out and get it done.