Religious left continues to mull over its future

Billclinton_bostonAnd this just in from the “values” wars. Sen. Edward Kennedy has asked member of his staff to investigate how liberals can talk about God. They may even need to do a better job of talking about God on television and the Internet, in order to compete with those mass-media superstars Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Say what?

It is a bit hard to make sense out of the recent Boston Globe report by Glen Johnson, which ran under the rather weak headline, “From left, religious figures make a push.” The big news seems to be that (a) the religious left exists, (b) it believes that moral values affect topics other than gay rights and abortion, (c) that religious liberals are very, very mad about the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections and (d) they need another Bill Clinton who knows how to sin, confess and preach and sound like he knows what he’s doing.

Of course, regular readers of GetReligion, The Revealer or any major newspaper with a solid religion reporter already knew all of this. What is interesting about Johnson’s report is its clear assumption that the mainstream left is ready to get down to business and crack this God thing in time for the 2006 elections. I mean, brace yourself, they are holding conference calls about it.

It appears that the dreaded religious right is not going to quit on its own, even if its old guard has all but vanished from the national scene. The Globe report notes:

‘The religious right has been effectively organizing for 35 years, and as I always say, it took Moses 40 years to lead his people out of the wilderness, and it’s going to take us a few years more to catch up,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.

Edgar is part of a group that holds a conference call each Thursday to discuss the liberal response to national and world affairs, a telephonic gathering convened last year in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. . . .

Among as many as 40 people on the line any Thursday are Jim Wallis, who convened Call to Renewal, a faith-based response to world poverty; the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance; the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., pastor of the Riverside Church in New York; and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

There’s a lot more to report, including the interesting details about Kennedy’s staff plunging into research into how Democrats can get religion. It also notes some complex poll results that show just how small the true “values vote” impact was in the election. It was strategic, but small.

Meanwhile, one of the most outspoken voices on the religious left openly asked — once again — if progressives would be willing to make any kind of compromises in order to walk their talk on cultural issues such as abortion.

Wallis, who edits Sojourners magazine in addition to leading Call to Renewal, said the most urgent challenge for Democrats is to open up about their moral values, as well as their faith, where appropriate. Wallis said abortion offers one such opportunity.

‘They say, ‘Keep abortion safe, legal, and rare,’ but they do nothing but try to keep it legal; they do nothing to make it rare,” he said. ‘The Democrats ought to say, ‘Let’s work on reducing abortion rates, adoption reform, helping low-income women.’ We could work on that together, prolife and prochoice, and reduce the abortion rate in the process.”

Here is the question that I have yet to see asked in one of these valid and timely reports on the religious left. How many of these clerics represent denominations, churches or movements that are growing? The whole oldline world represented by the National Council of Churches has lost about a third of its members in the past generation or so and its membership lists contain a high percentage of older Americans. Meanwhile, the churches on the moral right are either holding their own or continuing to grow, especially in all of those red zip codes.

Meanwhile, the number of secular or post-Judeo-Christian Christian believers is rising — the segment of the population that I like to refer to as the Da Vinci Vote. However, these voters will not be found in the facing sanctuaries of the oldline world. You are more likely to find them at the multiplex or at the mall.

The problem for the Democrats is trying to find a message that appeals to those who cherish traditional religious values, while appealing at the same time to those who sincerely hate traditional religious values. That will be hard to do. Where is Oprah when you need her?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://gayspirituality.typepad.com/blog/ Joe Perez

    When you say that the problem for Democrats is appealing to religious conservatives “while appealing at the same time to those who sincerely hate traditional religious values,” this is, I think, a wee bit problematic. The Democrats will not win more elections by becoming more hateful and intolerant than Pat Robertson, et. al. The emergence of a new integral spirituality movement in recent decades with folks like Ken Wilber and Michael Lerner has already built the intellectual (and some of the institutional) foundations for a new spiritual left. I think the problem for Democrats is better put as trying to find an effective, spiritual, non-religious message that religious people of all persuasions can see as non-threatening. We must do this with a wide embrace of all folks who are sincerely searching and finding value, meaning, and purpose in their lives … with one exception: those whose religion is a mask for excluding, hating, and demeaning the humanity of others are NOT welcome in the big tent.

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    Yeah, we need to exclude all those excluders all the way.

    i think the issue of the legal redetermination of when human personhood needs to be addressed. I have my own proposal for how we may depoliticize and prevent abortion.

    http://wetzell.blogspot.com/2004/10/idea-to-help-depoliticize-and-prevent.html

    It also needs to be made clear that homosexuality is both chosen and not chosen. Both sides seem to stress the one or the other, when the evidence seems to support both as plausible.

    http://wetzell.blogspot.com/2004/10/why-i-oppose-naes-politics-of.html

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ Dwight

    Some comments

    *Given the relative invsibility of religious liberals in terms of the media, a spotlight on us is always appreciated. This is why I appreciate blogs like this one

    *Some of us in the mainline are socially liberal. It does not mean a lack of religious values, it means a different form of valuation is at work.

    *The question is not as much: how does one get religious right voters. It ought to be, how do we get moderate religious voters who are concerned about a range of issues and have some reason to identify with the ideas of a center left party.

    *I don’t think it’s an accident that as religion is generally identified with a particular conservative agenda that those who are social liberals end up fleeing the religion. There’s not much room given them within the church these days as the church trials in the mainline attest to.

    It’s not surprising to see two numbers: increased growth in evangelical protestant churches and a doubling of those people who do not identify with any religion. I think they go hand in hand in some ways.

    There is no third route, no way to mix their values and concerns within a religious context…at least not with the religion which is given media exposure, which occupies the public imagination these days.

    It’s unfortunate, for us on the liberal end who see our own denominations decline, not being a part of the public conversation, not even considered as one alternative out of this secular liberal vs. religious conservative dichotomy which dominates our public life.

  • Scott

    “Here is the question that I have yet to see asked in one of these valid and timely reports on the religious left. How many of these clerics represent denominations, churches or movements that are growing? The whole oldline world represented by the National Council of Churches has lost about a third of its members in the past generation or so and its membership lists contain a high percentage of older Americans. Meanwhile, the churches on the moral right are either holding their own or continuing to grow, especially in all of those red zip codes.”

    Have you ever considered the possibility that this is not an indication of Republican success in churches, but is evidence of the church’s (as a whole) failure to reach out to nonRepublicans? The twin rise of secularism and church Republicanism could result simply from nonGOPers feeling unwelcome in the American church of Bush. I know I pretty much stopped going when my church became an arm of the local GOP.

  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    If the Left isn’t doing anything about making abortions rare, then why did the abortion rate fall during the Clinton years … and why has it risen again since Bush took office?

    Also, I’m not sure what, exactly, stability or even shrinkage in population among mainline denominations has to do with the validity of their ideas. Being popular doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being right … or even with being coherent. I think Scott’s right, that we’re seeing in American churches what we’ve been seeing in Congress: a purge of the moderates on both sides, or at least creation of the conditions under which moderates feel obliged to leave.

  • Scott

    “Also, I’m not sure what, exactly, stability or even shrinkage in population among mainline denominations has to do with the validity of their ideas.”

    If I remember correctly, more Baptists die than get baptized – their growth comes from other denominations. Is that Baptist success, or just a reshuffling of the church as a whole where the conservative minorities in mainline denominations gravitate to a denomination where they are in the majority and thus in control?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Scott:

    That is an excellent point and one the Baptists often are slow to discuss. See this recent column that I did on that. Their situation is sad. The oldline’s situation is dangerous.

    http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2004/11/03/

    On your other point — traditional morality and theology is NOT a Republican property. The evidence seems to be that churches grow when they embrace centuries of tradition on these hot topics, such as salvation through Christ alone and on basic issues of personal morality. See the classic:

    http://webminister.com/barnes/book5011.htm

    But again let me stress: You are right that the allegedly conservative churches are not winning many non-believers. They win some, but that is not the norm and that is a scandal worth covering.

    But the oldline has, for its survival, depended EVEN MORE on members switching in from other church pews. The Episcopal Church, in particular, has seen WAVES of converts from other folds — while CONTINUING to decline in numbers.

  • Scott

    “But the oldline has, for its survival, depended EVEN MORE on members switching in from other church pews. The Episcopal Church, in particular, has seen WAVES of converts from other folds — while CONTINUING to decline in numbers.”

    It will be interesting to see if the ECUSA can become the liberal equivalent of the Southern Baptists. I’d be willing to bet more church ‘growth’ (defined as members, not one or two time visitors) comes from standing for _something_ (i.e. nobody regularly gets up early on Sunday to hear “maybe, maybe not, how should I know?”) instead of specifically being conservative.

    Besides, aren’t the Mormons outgrowing everybody?

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ Dwight

    tmatt

    If liberal religious thought has been a feature of the mainline for over this last century (anyone who could go back and time and visit with the folks at the U of Chicago Divinity School at the turn of the century would attest to this) why would such denominations only begin to experience decline in the 1960s?

  • Scott

    “If liberal religious thought has been a feature of the mainline for over this last century … why would such denominations only begin to experience decline in the 1960s?”

    Maybe they went from liberal to wishy-washy liberal, or went from Big Picture Liberal to “11 rounds of ammo in a Glock magazine is an abomination unto the LORD” liberal.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ Dwight

    Most of the liberal theologians today are descendants of the neo-orthodox, liberals before the 1950s used to be much more radical in their thinking in ways you’d never see much these days. One begins to notice the difference when one picks up a 1934 versus a 2004 issue of the Christian Century.

  • harris

    There seems to be an awful lot of confusion going on here, in particular there appears to be a confusion of correlation and causation, as well as conviction and culture.

    First, there is the correlation of weekly attendance at religious services and voting for the GOP (approx. 2:1). That it is across the board means there is something about going to services per se that urges the tilt — this is not about a specific conviction. What that means is that even in the pews of the ECUSA, the regular worshippers are tilting Red, independent of the denominational theology.

    The *behavior* of regular worship points to a culture vector for understanding the problem, as opposed to one based on conviction. Again, the actual data from the election lean this way. The GOP built its electoral case with the suburban and exurban voter — the same that share the evangelical culture celebrated in so much commentary.

    As a matter of faith, Scott has it exactly right: the issue revealed in the red-blue divide is not the need of the Dems to reach out to the religious, but for the faithful to witness to the secular. this is the boundary divide of the mission field. Politicized faith did not work for the mainline left, it is not likely to work for the Christian Right. A good case can be made that religiously, the political must die (cf. Jn 12:24)so the Gospel can take root.

    As a matter of practical politics, the reform of the Democratic Party will not take place in Massachusetts. Rather it is far more likely to take place in those boundary regions between traditional urban centers and the ‘burbs beyond, where practicing Democrats forge a language of hope and policy their neighbors can embrace.

    The Democratic Party needs hope. it will not, it has not found it among the secularists. In that light, the search by Sen Kennedy’s staff is not for some political tool, but for redemption itself.

  • Scott

    “What that means is that even in the pews of the ECUSA, the regular worshippers are tilting Red, independent of the denominational theology.”

    Until you have specific denomination numbers, I don’t think you can back that up. Really big numbers from Baptist and nonDenom churches could skew the overall result.

    “As a matter of faith, Scott has it exactly right: the issue revealed in the red-blue divide is not the need of the Dems to reach out to the religious, but for the faithful to witness to the secular.”

    As long as you accept ‘witnessing’ as not to mean preaching Republicanism (i.e. we _must_ convert them to the GOP so they’ll come to church) and accept nonRepublicans as they are.

  • Scott

    Harris, are you willing to give up preachers spouting Republicanism? I had a ‘lesson’ once at church that alternated between “spiritual warfare” against Islam and every lie Bush told about Iraqi WMD. Will you give up lessons like that up and accept people in your church who think Bush lied us into an unnecessary war for his own selfish needs, or will ‘converting’ them from their low opinion of Bush be a priority?


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