The Two “Religious Lefts”

By Dennis Sanders | Related entries in Religion

Jim Wallis. Photo courtesy Sojourners.

Even though I’ve been involved in mainline American Protestantism for about 15 years and now, and I’m an ordained pastor of one of those mainline Protestant denominations, my roots are grounded in the traditional Black Church and Evangelicalism. In many ways, I classify myself as a “Liberal Evangelical” a mixture of conservative theology and liberal social action.

Slate has an interesting article on two strains of the so-called “religious left.” One is led my Michael Lerner, who leads the Jewish magazine, Tikkun and the other is Jim Wallis who heads Sojourners magazine. The writer talks about how these two social movements could affect the Democrats in 2008. Here’s the writers take on Michael Lerner’s recent gathering of religious liberals:

There was a strong Christian presence among the 1,200 attendees at the NSP conference, but it leaned heavily toward liberal denominations. Quakers and Unitarians outnumbered Evangelicals and Catholics. They were joined by scores of liberal Jews, fewer Muslims, and a sprinkling of Buddhists, Sufis, Baha’i, Wiccans, Native American shamans, and various metrospiritual seekers. Even secular humanists were welcomed.

Together the attendees all prayed in concentric circles, sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” (with the line “and no religion too” tastefully amended), and meditated while eating vegan boxed lunches. At times they seemed like a flock of black sheep. My breakout group of eightâ€â€?led by a stunning Jewfi woman (Jew + Sufi = Jewfi) in ventilated Crocs sandalsâ€â€?included Unitarian and United Church of Christ pastors, a retired scientist looking to marry faith and reason, and a gay former Christian fundamentalist turned theatrical performance activist. Everyone was highly motivated, but I couldn’t help wondering: How big can such a constituency be?

Lerner is undaunted by such concerns. His vision for the NSP is intentionally quixotic, and he doesn’t expect to sway elections anytime soon. In fact, he’s positively phobic of short-term thinking lest it compromise his vision. That vision, in Lerner’s words, is “a new bottom line in American society” whereby policies and institutions are “judged efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring.” The conference’s Spiritual Covenant with America included more concrete proposals on everything from corporate responsibility to foreign policy and the environment. But its scattershot approach puzzled some attendees. I tagged along with one on a Capitol Hill visit at which he handed the list to his Congressman’s staffers and urged them to “just pick one thing, I don’t care what it is. ”

While Lerner is dealing with the more abstract, Wallis is more pragmatic. He wants to affect a change in the heart that will translate to the ballot box:

Wallis, on the other hand, is more focused. He wants to influence two voting blocs that will be critical to the 2008 election, moderate evangelicals and Catholics. His plan is to focus on poverty, an issue he believes all Christians can get behind, rather than ceding the floor to gay marriage and abortion, which the religious right uses to estrange Christians from the Democratic Party.

Wallis may be on to something. A 2004 Pew poll found that most evangelicals support increased spending on anti-poverty programs, rigorous environmental protection, and the fight abroad against HIV and AIDS. Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals (which represents some 45,000 churches and 30 million members nationwide) and the Evangelical Environmental Network have become increasingly vocal in their support of these Democrat-friendly faith issues.

Wallis’ conference this week, Pentecost 2006, will bring hundreds of Christian activists to Washington to promote a Covenant for a New America aimed at eradicating poverty at home and abroad. Unlike Lerner’s conference, Wallis’ isn’t going to be dominated by the liberal fringes: Among the speakers are Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas, two of the most prominent voices on the religious right.

I think if the Democratic Party is interested in getting back some of these moderate evangelicals, they would be wise to follow Wallis and not Lerner. Lerner’s path is one that I’m familiar with. I’ve been part of and seen religious coalitions of the left and center that tend to be fuzzy minded and in the end, rather in effective to the onslaught of the far right. However, I think Wallis’ track is more in line with past movements like the civil rights movement of the last century. Wallis and many like him are more interested in dealing with the issues at hand; combatting poverty, dealing with HIV/AIDS, and tackling global warming. Wallis’ movement also could even change the Republican party as well. There are many religious Republicans who care more about the “least of these” than they do about gay marriage. Notice that among the speakers at Wallis’ conference is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a very fundamentalist Republican who nonetheless is interested in issues like HIV/AIDS and Darfur. Lerner’s view is basically a nice gathering of liberals who like listen to each other and sing “kum-ba-yah.”

American Evangelicalism has never been monolithic. The problem is that for far too long, the Pat Robertsons of the world have been the loudest voices. There has long been a stream of evangelicals who believed in social change, but they have not attracted the attention of the wider public. I believe that will change.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 27th, 2006 and is filed under Religion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “The Two “Religious Lefts””

  1. ford4x4 Says:

    Together the attendees all prayed in concentric circles, sang John Lennon’s “Imagine� (with the line “and no religion too� tastefully amended), and meditated while eating vegan boxed lunches.

    Sounds like quite a party. I don’t think I would’ve fit in, though.

  2. kim Says:

    I suppose I could classify myself as a member of the religious left and I’ve been observing Jim Wallis and this movement for awhile now. I agree that Wallis’ approach is more effective in reaching out to middle of the road religious types but, as long as they can help it, the Republicans are trying to make sure that the votes cast at the ballot box come down to one issue: abortion. And while most of the religious left is anti-abortion without necessarily being pro-criminalization, the Republicans are working to equate any vote for Democrats as a vote for aborted babies. Regardless of consensus on issues like poverty, the real obstacle to forming a coalition among American evangelicals is moving beyond this one polarizing issue.

  3. Meredith Says:

    I really hope that some of these other issues like poverty, hunger and the spread of disease become more of the focus of politics in the near future. However, I am skeptical that the same old issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, will remain at the forefront because that’s they way republicans win elections, and they know that.

  4. Lonely Federalist Says:

    However, I am skeptical that the same old issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, will remain at the forefront because that’s they way republicans win elections, and they know that.

    Not to sound all rules-lawerly and “well not EVERY republican thinks that way”, but I’d warrant to say that there are a lot of other folks like me who fall to the right of the political spectrum that are pro-choice (at least up to the point of viability) and pro-gay-marriage (or at least not con).

    Getting through Iowa and New Hampshire is all it takes these days, though, and those folks you’re painting in your picture are the ones who come out in droves to vote in the primaries. The same is true of the left, as well…it’s the “red meat base” that determines the parties’ candidates.

    I find it so maddening that the primaries are over after two states. The whole national dynamic, with these same two parties, could be so completely different if as many folks that participate in the general election were to help craft and mold their parties in the primaries, not just the rabid few.

    So your point still stands (I just wanted to put my own asterisk next to it, hehe).

  5. amba Says:

    Superb post, Dennis, and good advice.

  6. Jeff Says:

    Like Kim, I would classify myself as a member of the religious left, but I am a pro-life lefty. She validly points out that Republicans have emphasized abortion to the exclusion of many, but so have Democrats. Witness the struggle organizations such as “Democrats for Life” have experienced in getting greater recognition within the Democratic Party; witness the refusal to allow pro-life Democrats from speaking at the Democratic National Convention.

    If the Democrats were to make progress on this issue, they could forge a majority to last dozens of years because it would unite conscientious religious people. Had President Clinton outlawed partial-birth abortion (a barbaric procedure opposed by the vast majority of Americans) when he had a chance, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000. Clinton’s overture would have been just too good for a left-leaning pro-lifer to resist.

    I guess I’m hoping that Jim Wallis’ efforts do two things: warm Republicans to the plight of the poor and warm Democrats to the plight of the defenseless.

    I can’t resist:

  7. Lewis Says:

    I don’t quite understand how liberal democrats developed a rabid fear of Christians. You certainly see all kinds of negative comments about “evangelicals”. Pat Robertson may be one but he certainly doesn’t define what they are.

    Go visit the poorest places in the world and you will probably find more Christians actively involved in helping the poor and needy than you will the so-called progressive types (with the notable exception of Brad and Angelina). The evangelical community is very active with many missions in these places. I know of tiny little country churches that send substantial funds overseas to support these efforts and the totally dedicated Christians that live there and do all the hard work. You have to respect that.

    There is a slight problem. The most important part of all this is to spread the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ. Some may call this brainwashing. But from what I’ve seen, it is the power of Christ that not only gives the selfless missionaries the will to bear the horrors of these places but also to completely change the lives of destitute people they try to help.

    You can’t take the Gospel out of what they do. It just won’t work. So I say to the more liberal democrats, stop fearing something you don’t understand. Embrace it instead. Judge their work honestly. I think you will see that we have much in common. But liberal democrats cannot expect only the Christians to give in order to close the big gaps. They are going to have to make an effort too.

  8. probligo Says:

    “…sang John Lennon’s “Imagineâ€Â? (with the line “and no religion tooâ€Â? tastefully amended)… Sacrelidge!!! That would be like me singing one of the less polite versions of “God Rest ye, merry gentlemen”, or even “Ave Maria” in church!! But I jest, truly!

    On a more serious note -

    “There has long been a stream of evangelicals who believed in social change…” What manner of social change? More religion in government? One religion in government?

  9. Jasper Says:

    Remember though — one aspect of conservatism in general in the US that most people agree with (in theory) is smaller government, and that private individuals (and/or companies) can do work better and more efficiently.

    “Government programs” to fight poverty are doomed to mediocre success at best — far better to encourage private individuals and charities to do more of what they do: donate their resources to good causes. Government programs will almost *always* be prone to abuse, management issues, and waste; it’s the nature of bureaucracy.

    I’m a Republican, but I give to deserving charities as often as I can. The cumulative effect of these $35 and $40 checks is important.

    Besides, there’s no real sacrifice (or nobility) to forcing-*others*-to-give-to-charity (viz higher taxes on “the rich” to pay for social programs).

    The notion that conservatives need to “pay more attention to the poor” is absurd. Everyone wants to help the poor to some extent; the question is what the best way to do it is: Goverment programs or private works?

  10. Meredith Says:

    I have to say that you are probably right about Christian missionaries. I grew up Catholic, attended Catholic school through college, etc., and they have always encouraged service within the community. It’s hard to argue with the fact that Christians have always been on hand to help out poor and underserved communities. I guess the only problem I have (and maybe this is just a misconception on my part) is that the purpose of the helping is to convert people to Christianity. I guess I just don’t understand why we can’t go help people just to help them and not worry about what religion they practice. I doubt that Christians would appreciate it if the tables were turned, and in order to receive help, they had to listen to Muslims or Lutherans or whomever trying to convert them. After all, don’t all religions pretty much claim that their’s is the correct one? How does one really know whose is the right one? I’ll bet that the non-Christians the Christians are trying to convert have been told that they have to be of that particular faith in order to reap the rewards of the afterlife. I think it would be a pretty troubling position to be in.

  11. Jeff Says:

    Meredith, you’re absolutely right! I was raised in a Christian home myself and it always seemed to me that Christian love and generosity had strings attached: “we feed you or build schools for you, etc., but we expect you to convert.” I think that’s lame and it’s thrown me for a loop a few times.

    However, over the past few years, my wife and I have been introduced to a group of Christians (aka, a local church near our house) that really seem to love and serve people just to love and serve them. The message we hear in the sermons is that they love and serve for one reason: because Jesus did. Whatever change it causes in the lives of the recipients is not their concern. If people convert, fine; if people become more generous people, great; if they live more peaceful lives, good. But, the point is to be faithful to the model outlined in scripture by sharing grace, mercy, and generosity; the point is not to work to get people to believe a certain way.

    This approach has revolutionized my wife’s and my faith.

  12. Justin Gardner Says:

    The message we hear in the sermons is that they love and serve for one reason: because Jesus did. Whatever change it causes in the lives of the recipients is not their concern. If people convert, fine; if people become more generous people, great; if they live more peaceful lives, good. But, the point is to be faithful to the model outlined in scripture by sharing grace, mercy, and generosity; the point is not to work to get people to believe a certain way.

    That sounds awesome. So glad you found them.

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