The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish would tell us what page the story was published the way does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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  • Steve

    I am interested in how both the “Religous Left” and the “Religious Right” define themselves. Is it based on theology or politics?

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    The Washington Post story says “But Bakker, who has attended several rallies against the Iraq war, said she now regards poverty, peace and the environment as important spiritual issues ignored by the religious right.”

    I know lots of people on the religious right (conservative on social issues) who work daily to end poverty, bring about peace, and protect the environment.

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  • dk

    So you think it’s fair, accurate, and balanced to assume the correctness of the idea that frames these kinds of stories, i.e. that there are basically only “two sides,” and that the political spectrum is this unilinear, two-sided thing?

    Re. the earlier discussion of this and the idea that fair, accurate, and balanced means giving groups like Nazis “equal” regard in the media, what does GR make of this story:

    TV reporter calls talk with racist a blunder:
    Don Germaise rues his decision to exchange interviews with a white separatist.

  • dk

    PS–”The Religious Left Online” (trackback above) does not find this site balanced, accurate, or fair: “Daniel Pulliam at GetReligion takes a cynical and snarky take–which has lately become the hallmark of GetReligion bloggers…” I’d say that describes the previous post on Dan Brown (and many others). I don’t have a problem with it, because I tend to agree with GR’s slant. I just think it’s dishonest for Tmatt and Mollie here to pretend that GR is really about being fair, accurate, and balanced. GR is mostly fair, generally accurate, and biased–but not in a bad way at least as far as I’m concerned. (Most of the time.) But neither do I expect or presume to demand that any media should uniformly reflect my biases (then there would be no reason for debate) just as I don’t presume or expect that any media can be bias-free.

  • tmatt

    I think we are pretty open about our religious points of view.

    If we snark, we are trying to state our views strongly.

    Please cite an example of Dan Brown snark IN THAT POST’S comments section.

  • Ken Shultz

    “There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.”

    I suppose there are differences between some liberal and conservative denominations, but I find the differences between liberals and conservatives within the same denomination much more interesting.

  • Mollie

    1) I may be snarky and cynical — but those words don’t describe Terry or Daniel well.

    2) DK — I’ve asked you and others have asked you to be specific when you’re repeating your daily complaints. Please do so. We love comments and criticism but it helps no one to be imprecise, vague or non-specific when being so negative.

  • tmatt

    Oh, I snark. I snark about Dan Brown for sure, because I think he avoids questions and is now blowing smoke all over the place, for financial reasons, to hide what he believes.

    This is a blog. We get to write in a style that is pushy. It’s our blog.

  • http://n/a Greg

    What is amusing is the idea that the religous left is emerging. What are the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches but the religious left? Many established Christian demoninations are old time religous left. The religious right is a rather tepid, johnny-come-lately response to the whole sale politicization of the Gospel by the so called mainline Church.

  • dw

    I do feel like Daniel is being snarky, and overly so. That you can actually a voice of the Religious Left in the din surrounding the Religious Right is something. And in the din I’m including all the scaremongering from people who don’t get the Religious Right. Yes, the Religious Left isn’t chock full of abortion-hating Southern Baptists, but they’re finally getting a word in.

    That said, the WaPo is really, really overselling this idea of the Religious Left. They see a blade of grass and think a full-on European garden is popping up. This is a movement without form, organization, leadership, or even a movement.

    In the last few years, though, I have seen evangelicals in my part of the country starting to talk about the Religious Left. I mean, geez, I go to a raging Evangelical church where 50% of the congregation voted for Kerry. But it’s not a movement. It’s an amorphous concept that newspaper writers can mine once a year for an easy byline.

  • dk

    If you can’t understand what I wrote, how can I make it any clearer?

    I keep saying you’ve got a clear slant, certain overlapping biases, and a specific agenda which you often express in a partisan manner to an implied partisan audience. Sometimes you’re very one-sided and even polemical. This is advocacy and partisanship. Yes, this is very open and admitted. It is a blog, it contains snark–so what is the problem? Well it is not a picture of what you purport to want to see in the MSM–it is a picture of what you rather dislike in the MSM. Doesn’t that seem a little contradictory, or do you see it as a counter-balancing act? If the latter, doesn’t that suggest there is no such thing as balance then, just a series of conflicts between incommensurate “worldviews”? You could have Tmatt and Barbara Ehrenreich write point-counterpoint columns on a right-to-life issue, but you can’t get a single reporter to chanell both of them and write a coherent news feature.

    Though you don’t spin it this way, I understand you want to get the MSM to cover religion-related stories in a way that is more agreeable to your own views and associations by giving them more and better treatment than they often get. Obviously this has a political and persuasive dimension; such coverage would likely lend greater credibility and support to religious conservatives (excepting the evil and supposedly unrepresentative pat robertson). You might say this is not your primary goal, just a nice possible side-effect. You’re just after “better journalism,” and you’d be perfectly happy if that meant more coverage of revolutionary and hate groups. Or so says Mollie. (See Homophobia post comments.) But that is just to inform the public and “reach” the hate groups and revolutionaries with…what exactly? That’s the point where GR’s self-understanding as a project seems to collapse.

    I think your goals are perfectly fine, but you constantly make the case that they are not chiefly or substantially political (in a broad sense), and that yours is simply a quest for “accurate, fair, and balanced” journalism. That is true as far as it goes–newsrooms that are more representative of the culture would be more to your liking, but as I see it this would have little to do with fairness, accuracy and balance. It would be a majoritarian system that favors larger groups. Stating this as your goal avoids the problem of truth as something that has no necessary relationship to balance, or majority or minority views. Yet religion or Christianity, at least as you all seem to understand it, entails the embrace of the problem of truth or the scandal of particularity/particular truths. You can’t then just step into a zone of “public neutrality” or “fairness, balance and accuracy” in which you pretend truth is not relevant.

    I’m with those who say shut out the homophobes and nazis. But I also say if you’re a homophobe or nazi, you better find a way to beat those who would shut you out–possibly by playing the “fairness and balance” card and exploiting those who believe that thin creed. (Again, see my link in the earlier comment.) That’s all there is. Conflict. Partisanship. We call it participatory democracy.

  • tmatt


    Same thing again. We have bad motives for wanting the MSM to do coverage that allows competing voices in the public square to be accurately quoted.

    “That is true as far as it goes—newsrooms that are more representative of the culture would be more to your liking, but as I see it this would have little to do with fairness, accuracy and balance. It would be a majoritarian system that favors larger groups. Stating this as your goal avoids the problem of truth as something that has no necessary relationship to balance, or majority or minority views.”

    I have absolutely no idea what this statement means. Do you basically want a press made up of tiny advocacy publications with atomized readerships that are never exposed to each other’s views? You want a European press?

    Oh, is Pope Benedict a homophobe or a Nazi? Who gets to vote?

  • dk

    I have never said anything along the lines of you “have bad motives for wanting the MSM to do coverage that allows competing voices in the public square to be accurately quoted.” I have said you have motives to get better and more favorable coverage of certain competing voices with which you have a personal association. I have never said that is a bad thing. I think that is fine and what happens anyway. What I criticize is your consistent denial that this is in fact the case. You do not coherently articulate how particular commitments and motives can coexist a “fair, accurate, and balanced” (non-advocacy) journalism that most people will see as such.

    What I want has never been an issue I have raised, and your “European press” remark is a caricature and canard. Yeah, I want the American press to be like the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

    I think we already have a press made up of advocacy publications with large to small readerships that are exposed to each other’s views inside and outside those niche publications.

    There are some problems with that system, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, something the press itself can change much, or anything new or avoidable in fractious pluralistic societies.

  • Scott Allen

    Steve asked “how both the ‘Religous Left’ and the “Religious Right” define themselves. Is it based on theology or politics?”
    No one subsequently addressed his question, although we did witness a back-and-forth between dk and the authors of this blog about who is the most fair of all…I’ve gotta agree with TMATT who said “We get to write in a style that is pushy. It’s our blog.”
    But returning to Steve’s question, it would be interesting if dk or the blog’s authors would provide a definition of the Religious Left and the Religious Right. I tend to believe the labels “Left” and “Right” are imported from, and are the mirror-image of, political positions in the broader American political landscape. Now, I know this is an easy and obvious definition, so if anyone’s still reading this thread it’d be interesting to get some feedback.
    For the record, I don’t think Religious Right views itself as such. I hear the labels “conservative” and “liberal” used by church members in regard to both theological and political realms.

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