The Nation surveys the pew gap

nation_aug30When thinking about favorite sources for enterprising religion reporting, GetReligion does not normally turn to The Nation — although that magazine does collect its sporadic religion coverage on this accessible page.

All the more reason, then, to praise a report by Eyal Press that appears in the Aug. 30 issue and covers one of GetReligion’s favorite hobby horses: Closing the ‘Religion Gap.’

Press consults the usual sources, including Jim Wallis, John Green and Amy Sullivan, but goes beyond the “Bulletin: Democrats are Christians Too” tone, and argues back in a refreshing way.

Consider, for instance, how Press contrasts remarks by Alphonso Jackson, the Bush administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, with those of Wallis. He begins with Jackson’s remarks at Pentecost 2004, an event sponsored by Call to Renewal:

But when Jackson told the audience that being poor was merely “a state of mind” and that the best thing government could do was stay out of the way, the reaction was chilly. As his speech drew to a close, few clapped. One man stood up and, shouting across the room before Jackson could reach the exit, asked what the Bush Administration was doing for people like the woman he’d met by chance that morning on the street, a mother who worked as a prostitute at night because she didn’t earn enough to support her family from her daytime job. “Well, I would say to you that you should ask a different question,” Jackson replied. “What are you going to do for her?” Here was “compassionate conservatism” distilled to its essence. The audience responded with a cascade of hisses and boos.

By refocusing the debate about values away from what happens in the bedroom and toward issues like homelessness and poverty, strategists like [Tom] Perriello believe progressives can reclaim the moral high ground in American politics while mobilizing religious activists to advance concerns they share. At the Call to Renewal conference, Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners, echoed this line, arguing that unlike inherently divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a campaign against poverty could unify Christians “across political and denominational lines.” It’s an inspiring thought, although in reality such a campaign would likely fracture along familiar political lines. For as Jackson’s speech showed, framing poverty as a religious issue can as easily buttress a conservative agenda as a progressive one.

It is, by the way, baffling that a reminder of each individual believer’s call to make a difference in suffering people’s lives would meet with such hostility at a gathering of justice-loving Christians. Of course individual action cannot meet every need. Does that mean it’s an offense worthy of hissing and booing to say that a Christian should make a personal sacrifice to help a woman enslaved by poverty and prostitution? What does it say about Christians — left, right or center — when they think first of the government, rather than the church, in fighting poverty and oppression?

Press also meets Ron Sider, who is a familiar name to reporters seeking evangelicals who care about social justice. Sider delivers a remark that even nonmembers of Call to Renewal could find entirely orthodox: “”I don’t think God is a Marxist, but frequently the Bible suggests that people get rich by oppression or are rich and don’t share what they have — and in both cases, God is furious.”

Green offers this honest observation: “The Democrats would be in trouble if they tried to be a purely secular party . . . but they would also be wasting their time trying to woo the most traditional religious voters, because they are firmly Republican, and they would have to give up a lot to go for them.”

But the most engaging section of his essay comes when Press interacts both with Brenda Peterson, the Democrats’ short-lived strategist on religion, and with Amy Sullivan:

“The tradition of the political left seems to be to only listen to people of faith if they are African-American” and to dismiss everyone else, complained Brenda Peterson, who was recently named director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party, a newly created post. A similar view was expressed by Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, in the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine Blueprint. Talking about faith and values only in front of minorities is “not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one,” she wrote.

It’s a fair point. But it would also be condescending — and quite possibly foolish — for John Kerry to counteract this perception by peppering his speeches with biblical references and talking effusively about his faith on the stump. Kerry is, by all accounts, a sincerely religious person, a former altar boy who briefly considered a career in the priesthood and who regularly attends Sunday mass. But he is also someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs close to the vest, regarding faith as a personal matter that deeply marks his character but does not predetermine how he makes his decisions in office.

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  • Will Linden

    Poverty is “a state of mind” is a notion associated with the Religious Right (TM)? Isn’t this the old New Age line that “We create our own reality” and (a shtick associated with the notorious Airplane Game) we are not well-off because we are stuck in “poverty consciousness”?

  • ath

    Will Linden seems to want to spin this anti-rightward (note his introduction of the TM). Yes, Jackson has probably been affected by the pop rhetoric but also yes, conservatives, especially religious ones, are likely to consider “the renewing of your mind” essential to deal with poverty. And isn’t it the Deconstructionist Academic Left (TM) who would maintain that everything is relative? The woman working as a prostitute in the inflammatory anecdote might be in absolute terms the richest person in a third-world village.

    And isn’t it true, only an on-site individual bringing love and wisdom is likely to be able to help her find alternatives. Does the questioner really want the government to start investigating her situation, including whether her children are properly cared for?

    Incidentally, as a rhetorical matter, could someone comment on the device of these undocumented, pathos-generating, factually-sparse “just-so” anecdotes that surface in argument to prove “you’re wrong and heartless and your policies stink”?

    Anyway, I like the analysis here and appreciate how seldom there are cheap shots.

  • Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Doug asks: “What does it say about Christians — left, right or center — when they think first of the government, rather than the church, in fighting poverty and oppression?”

    I think an anthropologist from Mars might hypothesize that it says Christians, like most people, recognize that they are bound to one another and that they create collective organizations (is there any other kind?) to address their concerns. That organization may, like Jackson, dedicate itself to reminding everyone of personal responsibility, or it may collect and distribute funds in ways that would be impossible for individuals. There is absolutely nothing unChristian about either option, and it is just about always a combination. “Christians” who get radical, come-outer ya-yas from dismissing “government” as somehow separate from themselves are denying basic aspects of creation. And that’s NOT very Christian.

    Note to Ath, who writes: “Isn’t it the Deconstructionist Academic Left (TM) who would maintain that everything is relative?”

    Nope. Not in the least. You need to read original sources in full, not conservative summaries of the work. I’m not defending the “deconstructist academic left” — a largely mythical beast — just suggesting that you read the ideas of those you’d probably claim to be its advocates — Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, John Milbank. Not one of them would agree with your statement and its implications, and they’ve all written extensively to that issue.

    Come out, come out, bitter would-be Christians, and join the world God gives you!

    (Half tongue-in-cheek.)

  • William Meisheid

    >help a woman enslaved by poverty and prostitution

    Interesting use of the term slavery. The question was loaded and since he was leaving he gave a quick response. If it had been asked earlier he might have asked about the truth of the assertion, which if the person had done their Christian duty and engaged that woman, that could have been assertained. Questions like what was her regular job that it didn’t provide for her. What other jobs did she try to get. Why prostitution?

    Sound bites like that question are only useful as emotional bombs and the proper answer IS to ask what is true and why and how she arrived at that situation before anything else is considered. That is, if the question was real or or a ploy, since it was perfectly setup to create that specific reaction.

  • andrew

    Another similar piece found in a magazine that rarely–if ever–gets religion. She interviewed Jimmy Carter.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    That church sign on the cover of The Nation: Is that a picture of an actual sign in front of a church, or was that a staged photograph? I live in Cobb County, Georgia, where churches routinely have American flags waving out front (along with banners like “We Support the Federal Marriage Amendment”), but I’ve never seen a church with a sign quite that blatantly partisan.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    It’s definitely staged, Darrell. Witty but staged.