The Gray Lady asks: Can the religious left compromise?

Baby1thumb_1_1Ever since the rise of the religious right, mainstream journalists have focused an extraordinary amount of attention on its growing clout in the Republican Party and its influence on public policy.

An important theme in this coverage has been the tension among cultural conservatives whenever they are asked to consider compromises on their hot-button issues, such as abortion and the redefinition of marriage and family. These tensions are highly newsworthy and have formed the backbone of reporter David Kirkpatrick’s "conservatives" beat at the New York Times.

Since 11/2, evidence has seeped into print that similar debates are beginning on the religious left. The big question: If the Democratic Party is going to try to "get religion" and stop attacking the hopes and dreams of the so-called "values voters," does that mean that the leaders of the true left are going to need to make some compromises?

Clearly, they do not want to compromise. When the right compromises on abortion — seeking a ban on partial-birth abortions, for example — leaders on the cultural left can, correctly, note that this compromise is a small step toward the distant goal of overturning legalized abortion. This is the old slippery slope argument. For the cultural left, any defeat for abortion is a compromise, since it has achieved its biggest legal goal — abortion on demand.

What motivation would a Democrat have for supporting compromise legislation on abortion, other than his or her own personal convictions? What if, out in the American heartland and Bible belt, it made sense to try to find middle ground, in order to survive politically? Like in Tennessee, for example?

You know that these questions are being asked, because Kirkpatrick has been asked to write about them. This is an important story and I urge you to read it all. Some people believe that the Democrats can solve the pew-gap crisis with a change of style and tone, but with no compromises in content or policy. There is no need to weaken the base, in other words.

"Our platform and the grass-roots strength of the party is pro-choice," said
Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of Naral Pro-Choice America. The party
needs more religious language, Ms. Cavendish said, but not new

Many Democrats agree. … "We would
like to see fewer abortions and we want our children to learn good values," said
Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, a Catholic who has led her
party’s efforts to reach religious voters and was chairwoman of its 2004
platform committee.

Democrats need to make the case that health care,
jobs and sex education can reduce the number of abortion procedures, even
without making them illegal, Ms. DeLauro said. At the same time, she said, they
need to emphasize the religious imperatives behind "pushing for real health care
reform, reluctance before war and alternatives to abortion, such as adoption,"
as she put it in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington signed
by dozens of Catholics in Congress in the spring.

Similar strategy debates, noted Kirkpatrick, are starting to break out on the hot-button issue of gay marriage. However, the abortion issue remains important to many Democrats on both sides of the debate. Here is another clip from the New York Times story:

Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, argued that in the pivotal Midwest
the appearance of inflexibility on abortion rights was a heavy burden on
Democratic candidates. Like most Democrats, Mr. Ryan said he supported the court
precedents establishing abortion rights, but he argued that the party should
relax its opposition to the partial-birth abortion ban, parental notification
laws and the bill making it a second crime to harm a fetus when harming a
pregnant woman. "In middle America, how do you argue that killing a
pregnant woman is not a double homicide?" he said. …

Pollsters say Democrats might well find fertile
ground among theological conservatives, if the party could get around those
divisive social issues and its secular reputation. Many conservative
Christians who vote Republican because of their views on abortion and same-sex
marriage are working class or middle class, and they often hold liberal views on
economics, social welfare and the environment, said John Green, a political
scientist at the University of Akron who conducts polls on religion and
politics. But to reach religious voters, Mr. Green said, the Democrats "have
their work cut out for them.”

And all the people said: "Amen." In fact,‘s editor in chief recently went on the record arguing that Democrats are kidding themselves if they think they can cut into the "values vote" simply by giving their party a theological tune-up. The headline said it all — "Democratic Faith Delusions: If all they do is dress up a liberal agenda in
Biblical clothing, they won’t succeed."

The good news, said Steven Waldman, is that the true, hard-core, conservative "values vote" flock is not that large a percentage of the American population. The bad news is that there is no way for the Democrats to discuss the real, live, issues they face — again, think abortion and marriage — without being asked to compromise to appeal to the mushy moral middle.

Long ago, noted Waldman, Sen. John Kerry voted for a ban on all abortions performed post-viability — that is, after the second trimester. This is an especially important vote since medical science continues to push that viability concept further back into the middle trimester. And in the future?

However, Kerry later voted against the partial birth abortion ban and he never articulated his stance on these issues as a candidate for the White House. Maybe his views hardened. But Waldman is convinced that he should have found some other moral or religious issue on which to compromise and move to the middle.

Perhaps … abortion wasn’t the right issue to highlight. Maybe it was violence and sex
on TV. Or maybe it was out of wedlock births. But to reach the mass of average
voters, liberals need to articulate their focus on some issues that resonate
with widespread concerns about the moral underpinnings of our society –
concerns that are not the exclusive province of religious conservatives. It’s
not just a matter of dressing up liberal ideas in Biblical clothing.

By the way, it would be wrong, wrong, wrong, if I did not note the wonderful headline on the New York Times report referenced above: "Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion." Obviously, we think everyone in mainstream journalism should Get Religion. It will be interesting to see if other mainstream newsrooms — even television networks — chase this important story.
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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.

  • Joe Perez

    Thanks for this roundup of stories on the ongoing dialogue over “moral values” within the Democratic Party. Until I read Waldman’s piece just now, I had no idea that Kerry had at one time opposed late-term abortions, and I count myself as a Democrat with that position.

    I do have one or two qualms with your post, Terry. First, you neglect to mention that on the very high profile gay issue of marriage, the mainstream Democratic Party has done NOTHING but compromise. Democrats from Clinton to Gore to Kerry have not backed supported equal marriage rights for gays; nor has the Democratic Party platform backed gay marriage. I think it’s a red herring to suggest that the Democrats haven’t compromised on gay marriage (“Clearly, they do not want to compromise” you wrote), when most have never supported gay marriage in the first place.

    Also, I note that your headline “Can the religious left compromise?” talks about the religious left, but most of the text and links talk about the secular left’s position on abortion. What is the stance of the religious left on abortion, and how does it differ from the secular left? I suspect that the religious left on abortion is moderate, not extreme, for that is my position and the view of many religious liberals I know. However, I don’t know of the research or surveys to back this up. Journalists would do well not to assume identity between the religious and secular left on issues like abortion, but to probe for differences. I’d love to see stories written on that topic.

  • Chris Walton (Philocrites)

    I’d agree with Joe that Terry glosses over differences between religious liberals and the secular left on their approaches to abortion.

    If we’re going to talk about the “partial-birth abortion” ban as a compromise position, I’d strongly suggest reading Amy Sullivan’s 2003 Washington Monthly article about the real compromise — a third-trimester ban with an exception for threats to the physical health of the mother — that pro-life and pro-choice ideologues nixed back in 1997. (

    It’s hard to perceive the “partial-birth abortion” ban as any sort of compromise for political conservatives because it sure seems to have been designed as a p.r. stunt. The sponsors clearly knew it would be overturned by the courts without an exemption for the health of the mother, thereby keeping their political movement roiling with indignation about “activist judges.” Kerry opposed the bill, he said during one of the election debates — how’s that for a high-profile part of the campaign? — because it didn’t include a health exemption.

    Which reminds me: The November Harper’s features a cover story about the history of the partial-birth abortion controversy.

  • tmatt

    Several comments:

    Joe is totally right about the fact that Clinton and others have compromised on gay rights — especially Clinton. But read the gay-press interviews with these Democrats and you see a basic endorsement of the “throught the courts” strategy. Compromise at the legislative level, not at the legal and court level. Still, the complexity of that issue is one reason I stayed with the abortion focus in the blog item. It also appears that the gay cause has gained clout at the institutional level since the Clinton years. Look at any major piece on fundraising. Even a quick read of the NYTs piece will show that this is where the party yields first.


    On the religious left, frankly, I have never seen much of a willingness to compromise on abortion. However, I am more than willing to look at other evidence. Groups such as Gays and Lesbians for Life are real, but small. Episcopalians for Life (to name one oldline group) is larger, but still quite marginalized.

    URLs for the pieces you mentioned would be great. Of course, any compromise that involves the word “health” is going to lead back into the legal quicksands — even if you add that word “physical.”

    I was talking to a liberal journalist the other day and we both agreed that it would be very interesting to see, oh, Lieberman and Santorum float the third-trimester bill again in the current atmosphere.

  • Wooderson

    I don’t understand the image you’ve posted for this story at all. What does a glob of tissues – a tumor basically – have to do with cultural values?

    Oh wait, I get it! It’s not a glob of tissues, it’s a choice! If you put your face really close to the screen you can just make out the little itty bitty text right next to the thing that kind of looks like a thumb that says “Just ignore me, I don’t exist until someone decides that they want me.”

    Whew. For a moment there I was confused. Now let’s get back to talking about the sexual proclivities of a small but highly motivated minority and their political enablers, shall we?

  • Jeff

    I agree that the Dems have their work cut out for them on the topics of moral issues like abortion and gay marriage.

    As a guy who [politically] leans to the left and is a Catholic, I refuse to vote for any pro-choice Democrat [or any other party].

    Surprisingly, there are a lot of pro-life Democrats – – who have been abandonded by their party.

    In the Times article, the writer states:

    “No prominent opponent of abortion has come anywhere near the podium of a Democratic convention since 1992, when abortion rights groups blocked a speech on the subject by Robert P. Casey, the governor of Pennsylvania and an observant Catholic.”

    So, where is the middle ground for Dems?