What Liberals Want: A Response to Susan Thistlethwaite

The following post uses terms that have, for better or worse, become shorthand for describing different groups within the Democratic-leaning religion community. “Progressive” refers to groups like Faith in Public Life, Third Way, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, et al, while “Liberal” or “Religious Left” refers to a loose grouping of writers, like the author of this post, “Pastor” Dan Schultz of Street Prophets, RD contributor Peter Laarman, Fred Clarkson (editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left), et al. — ed.

I just read a provocative blog post about the differences that have emerged among faith based supporters of a public policy that is focused on economic and social justice and respect for human rights. Susan Thistlethwaite, a respected academic theologian, early on assumed a measured and positive role in the post-2004 effort to catalyze a religious voice that, as she puts it, could counter the religious right and influence public policy that had moved the “center to the right, especially by manipulating so called wedge issues like homophobia and abortion.”

Thistlethwaite is now concerned that “some self-identified liberals are charging that especially some newer, progressive organizations are really ‘centrists’ in disguise.” She notes that such a charge from a liberal is not a compliment. I will use her terms liberal and progressive in this piece although I am sure she and I agree that the labels are imperfect. And, indeed the battle of words has been at times intemperate. The Thistlethwaite liberals have been prone, to put it politely, prophetic lightening bolts flung at the “progressives.” Peter Laarman’s invocation of Jesus’ condemnation of the “lukewarm” in these pages is a prime example. The progressives have had bigger fish to fry and tend to treat the liberals with disdain. It’s sort of the way the Business and Professional Women’s Club saw the National Organization for Women or how the NAACP saw SNCC in the 60s.

Poorly handled disagreements within movements are nothing new; in my humble opinion, disagreements among the progressive, liberal, and centrist wings of religion are especially poorly handled. We don’t like conflict, especially in the family. We can stand up to Bush, but not to each other. There is that moderate element of dysfunctional family, hurt feelings, ego tripping, and clericalism that goes on. We can’t face each other. And so Thistlethwaite holds forth in “On Faith” but does not pick up the phone and call Peter. And Peter in turn rails against Wallis who in turn ignores everyone he does not think is more powerful than he (there I just did it; I was nasty).

Thistlethwaite suggests that the differences are actually about strategy. Liberals demand complete agreement on all issues to work with others on one issue. Progressives want to reach out to moderates and evangelicals on an issue by issue basis and at least try to build bridges on the larger divisive issues. I am not sure she correctly understands what liberals want. In order to understand that, it would be necessary for liberals and progressives to engage in reasonable sustained, respectful dialogue. We are told that some progressive religious leaders have invested that time in dialogue with more socially conservative religious leaders and that it has resulted in more respectful relationships and support for some progressive goals around poverty and the environment. That is a good thing.

Perhaps if progressives and liberals actually engaged in face to face sustained dialogue, open to discussing both value and strategic differences we might understand each other better. I am sure that each “side” will point to the other as the obstacle. It is not clear that either side is really interested in listening to the other or willing to change at all.

Progressives have achieved a certain public standing and by their participation in electoral and partisan politics have the attention of political leaders. Talking to those who are batting at them from the left is a waste of time. Liberals, hold more sway in the academy and are far less concerned with access as a route to achieving social change. We do have different theories of change. For liberals social transformation occurs at the margins, not in the center of power. The center has no stake in real change which challenges their privilege. That does not mean we hate the powerful; it just means we are more satisfied when we work with the powerless. It also does not mean that no one should work with the powerful but it is important to remember how seductive that place can be.

This is not to say that there is not a place for both strategies. But the respect Thistlethwaite asks liberals to show to progressives is one that is not present on either side. A fair minded critique would acknowledge the mutuality of the problem.

More importantly Thistlethwaite begs the question. Is the problem primarily strategic? Have progressives drawn any issue lines? They are not working with the far, far right. Not with the Family Research Council, or Focus on the Family or that ilk. Would they make common ground or cause with these groups or leaders who held similar views? If it were 1958, would religious leaders who were racist as opposed to sexist be appropriate partners on health care? On the other hand, liberals have not eschewed single issue alliances in which differences on other issues bar a full scale partnership. We have worked with environmental groups, even when their positions on population control disturbed us or the lack of a justice frame that honored the needs of people of color was problematic.

The fact of the matter is that there are very serious value differences among the various parties to both liberal and progressive religious advocacy. We have different bottom lines. Thistlethwaite speaks of the danger of common ground resulting in a lowest common denominator value base, promptly moving on as if it is a given that this has not become a problem. Some of us think it has.

The fact that one can talk to those one disagrees with seems more important than what one agrees on. As a result, those for whom common ground is more important than some core values are able to accept an abortion rights strategy rooted in the idea that abortion is wrong rather than in the belief that women’s moral agency is a central religious tenet that must be articulated. It does not seem important in this common ground effort to avoid reinforcing the notion that abortion is sinful. We see people we know to be staunch advocates of same sex marriage mute on the topic because some evangelical is now willing to say civil rights for gay people is OK. This disturbs us. We do not understand. Are these acceptable compromises?

It seems to me that one could applaud the independent decision of social conservatives to support civil rights for glbt persons without having to sign on to “statements” and then applaud ourselves. We can work for some common things but we need not work the room on the same day and arrive on the same train. We can respect even those who disagree with us, but we don’t need to sleep together.

Thistlethwaite closes her piece with a call for both liberals and progressives to “make room for a diversity of opinion on how best to effect the change we need.” She asks “if we can’t honor diversity aren’t we betraying the fundamental principle of historic liberalism?” I would suggest that a core of historic liberalism is found in engagement between those who share history and common goals. I have long admired the relationship of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Their modus operandi is a near perfect example of how liberals and progressives can stay in the same room, argue forever about their differences, write and organize differently, have different strategies and respect diversity. It is rooted in talking to each other, not writing about each other.

So Susan, can we talk?