The status of religion in politics

obamaDid a Democratic version of Mike Gerson start working for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.? I ask the question because his speech earlier this week at the Call to Renewal conference is about the best attempt to articulate the struggling movement known as the “religious left.” Not that it was that impressive. It’s about time a Democrat came up with something beyond the talking points on religion and its involvement in the public square.

In the meantime, Slate is all over the crack-ups of both the “religious right” and the “religious left.” But more on that later. Here is the Associated Press version of the Obama speech:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people,” and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

“Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters,” the Illinois Democrat said in remarks to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty.

OK, enough of that. It’s a relatively bland AP report on what seems to be just another speech. But it seems to be more than that. It’s time for some analysis. First, read this column by The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne, who gushes that Obama’s talk will ultimately be seen as a “road map for Democrats struggling to speak authentically to people of faith.” Um, haven’t we heard the term road map before?

Andrew Sullivan chimed in here with regards to the little-noted comments by Obama on abortion and his own past statements. To me they are some of the most revealing elements of the entire speech, and something that most reports are missing. They are definitely worthy of discussion, but not for now. Back to Dionne, who leveled his own criticism at the AP for missing key aspects of the story:

Here’s what stands out. First, Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief. “Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts,” Obama declared. “You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it.”

In an interview yesterday, Obama didn’t back away. “By definition, faith admits doubt,” he said. “Otherwise, it isn’t faith. . . . If we don’t sometimes feel hopeless, then we’re really insulating ourselves from the world around us.”

On the matter of church-state separation, Obama doesn’t propose some contrived balancing act but embraces religion’s need for independence from government. In a direct challenge to “conservative leaders,” he argued that “they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.”

It’s always easier to write about a speech a few days after it was given, isn’t it?

For another second-day story on the speech, check out this commentary by the WaPo‘s Dana Milbank. He makes an interesting comparison of Obama’s current status with that of George W. Bush’s political standing in 1998. There’s also some quality color commentary from the events surrounding Obama’s recent speech.

clintonSen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also made a big speech on religious issues, but as the lack of media coverage and blog buzz shows, she is not quite as in touch as Obama. She actually had a nice touching story to share, but perhaps it’s her failure to concede issues the way Obama did that puts her one notch below her Midwestern colleague?

While those in the “religious left” camp rally to Obama and, to a much lesser extent, Clinton, the movement is showing signs of cracking just as it discovers its leader.

Martin Edlund’s in-depth report in Slate on Michael Lerner, editor of the interfaith magazine Tikkun, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical editor of Sojourners, is a rather devastating piece for those hoping for a convergence of religious lefties and a rather sober wake-up call to those of us who have had to rely on the Post‘s coverage of the movement:

Lerner and Wallis often get lumped together, and frankly, the religious left has been so marginal until now that it hasn’t much mattered. The confusion is understandable. Both are veterans of the student movements of the 1960s who have been agitating ever since for a progressive politics consistent with their reading of scripture. They more or less agree on the big liberal faith issues, poverty, pacifism, the environment. After the 2004 election exposed a yawning “God gap” favoring Republicans, both penned brisk-selling books, often jointly reviewed, that challenged the religious right’s exclusive claim to speak for people of faith and the Democrats’ reluctance to speak to them. More recently, they’ve each begun setting up congregational networks to promote their ideas and consolidate their influence, much as the fledgling religious right did decades ago.

But as their movement becomes a bigger target for the religious right and Republican Party they may have to start keeping their distance from each other in order to continue building it. …

This is a smart move because to succeed, Wallis needs to remain credible with evangelicals. His cozy relationship with Lerner and the [Network of Spiritual Progressives] crowd, on the other hand, risks making Wallis appear unorthodox by association. The criticism has already begun. A piece in the Baptist Press noted that Wallis attended Lerner’s conference and pointed to the choice of venue — All [Souls] Unitarian Church — as proof that liberals don’t understand “people of faith, in particular evangelicals.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, railed on his blog against efforts “to replace the Christian faith with an empty ‘spiritual’ shell” and directly criticized Lerner for his idea of universal “spiritual yearnings” that make no “reference to some specific truth claim.”

While the “religious left” struggles with its identity — and its very existence as a political force — the “religious right” is showing cracks as well. Not that this is news. A good reporter understands that the movement is anything but uniform in its beliefs.

This Slate piece by Russell Cobb, which is a review of Michelle Goldberg’s book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, echoes the previous piece and inadvertently borrows some of our own criticism of the mainstream media’s coverage of Islam as a monolithic force:

As evangelical Christians gain more political clout within the Bush administration, the ideological gaps between the factions of the Christian right are becoming more pronounced. It’s not just environmentalism. Even gay marriage, that touchstone of the religious right, is a source of internecine tensions. Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College — an elite breeding ground for conservative Christians — opposed the latest constitutional amendment against gay marriage because it didn’t go far enough in stripping gays of their rights. But the strains within the evangelical movement don’t get much play in the secular media. For liberals, there’s little difference between a Dobson, a Robertson, and a Cizik: They’re all wing nuts in flyover states with bad hair and a gay obsession.

The specter of an American theocracy, the title of Kevin Phillips’ broadside against the Bush administration, has obscured the signs of dissent in what can look like a Christian monolith. Michelle Goldberg, a Salon reporter and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, misses some of the signs, too, in her otherwise astute study. It’s not just that she blurs the more fringe personalities, lumping together conspiracy-minded nut jobs (like theocrat Howard Phillips, who believes that “enemies of Christ in this fallen world must be conquered”) with veteran conservative blowhards like William Bennett. As she describes how the Christian Right moved from the margins of acceptability to the Republican mainstream, she also overlooks generational tensions and large-scale dissatisfaction with the Bush administration among many conservative, white evangelicals (only 34 percent of whom, according to a June 6 Pew research poll, “strongly back” the president).

time cover of reedCobb takes Goldberg to task for failing to note the growing distinctions in the “Christian nationalism” movement (“In Kingdom Coming, Patrick Henry comes off as a boot camp for young culture warriors marching in lock step to a unified vision and lacking a basic grasp of critical thought”), citing the recent “controversy” at Patrick Henry College and the White House’s failure to implement its promised “faith-based” initiatives.

To wrap things up, Slate delivers what attempts to be the eulogy of the “religious right” in politics, stating that “the fears of a Republican party dominated by monolithic religious zealots are as overblown now as they were when Reed was on the cover of Time. Haven’t we read this piece before somewhere? Apparently, because the Republicans are headed into a period where their political ventures are not so victorious, they may be looking for another, um, passion:

But remember that in the elections of 1998, candidates backed by Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition did poorly. This may be why Reed sent Abramoff a letter days after the election saying he needed the lobbyist’s help making contacts because he was “done with electoral politics” and “I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” That was not a quote from scripture.

The article centers on Reed, who has been sliced and diced by World (why this publication has not been mentioned in coverage of the “religious right” is beyond me), and how conservatives are realizing that politics isn’t what Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson say it’s all cracked up to be. This may or may not be true, but I do believe the media have also failed to understand exactly what Falwell, Robertson, or Dobson are cracked up to be.

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  • boinkie

    The CNN article on Hillary’s speech is missing two words: God and Jesus.
    And there is no mention that poverty is often caused by single parent families, or by drug use…personal problems due to sin.
    Essentially, the religion boils down to use taxpayer money to help the poor…hmmm…didn’t LBJ try that in 1968?
    And thanks to LBJ, I went to medical school…so some parts of the program were good…

  • Larry Rasczak

    The Religious Left has always had a problem, because, for various historical reasons, the anti-religious Left has always dominated the left side of the political spectrum.

    Theologically this makes sense. Conservatism takes a rather dim view of human nature, and this fits well with the traditional Christian belief that we are all fallen creatures. At its core the Left believes (consciously or not) in the inherent perfectibility of society and of mankind. At its core the Left believes that if we can just redistribute enough wealth, mobilize enough protestors, bus enough kids, register enough voters, give out enough food/books/apartments/condoms/free needles etc. we can create a new Socialist man, achieve Peace in our time, win the war on poverty, make every child a wanted child, impose a nuclear freeze, end global warming, get the North Vietnamese/Khemer Rouge/North Koreans/Palestinians/Cubans/Soviets etc. to lay down their arms through unilateral disarmament, and generally create Heaven on Earth so everybody lives happily ever after. In short the Left thinks Man can redeem himself. If that is the case, then there is no need for God…. The messianic vision of “a better world through human political action” can easily become more seductive than the messianic vision of Paradise in the next life and redemption through the Messiah.

    (This is not to say the Conservatives are always right… it was the religous Left that pushed Abolition, Women’s Sufferage, fair Labor standards, and Civil Rights.)

    Sadly though, being an orthodox Christian, and an active member of the Left has become intellectually incompatible over the past forty years. There IS no “relgious Left” left. If the Democrats want a road map to speak authentically to people of faith, they need to start with a séance.

    I can say this from personal experience. My family started out on the Religious Left. My Mom was a delegate to the New Mexico State Democratic Convention in 1968 (she was for Hubert Humphrey). Our family supported Cesar Chavez, (I didn’t eat grapes between the ages of 4 and 13) and I distinctly remember my Mom making sandwiches to take down to the bus station for the “Poor People’s March on Washington”.

    We left the Left when Roe v. Wade came down. When it suddenly becomes legal to kill millions of your fellow citizens, other issues fade in significance.

    I don’t think the Democratic party understands the significance of Abortion. Take for example my Dad. He was born in the late 1920s. FDR meant that he and his siblings had food on the table. He fought in WW2. He was a yellow dog Democrat to the core. But he couldn’t honestly stay part of a party that supported Abortion. We were pro-life Democrats for a while, but by 1984 Mom and Dad were stuffing envelopes for the Reagan campaign. All of us kids were raised Democratic, but none of us vote that way anymore.

    Sadly the pro-Abortion/feminist lobby slowly took over the Democratic Party. (I remember when Dick Gephart was pro-Life!! He switched his principles so he could get a shot at the Presidential nomination… I think it was ’88, perhaps ’84. Say what you will about EMILY’S LIST, but they are very good at what they do. ) Pro-Life Democrats were drummed out of the party, and as pro-Life Democrats went from being an endangered species to being completely extinct, it became harder and harder for sincere religious people to stay in the Democratic Party. Those dinners where Democratic (i.e. pro-Abortion) candidates ate with the local Catholic Archbishop became more and more uncomfortable as time went on. The rise of homosexuals in the Party didn’t help any either. Neither did the Left’s (though not necessarily Democratic) crusade to remove prayer from school, Nativity scenes from public places, the Ten Commandments from courthouses, “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, and any mention of God from the public square. One by one, sincere Christians were forced to choose their allegiance, and over the past thirty years the majority of them have voted with their feet and become (often reluctantly) Republicans.

    This is a tragedy of Biblical proportions and I say this, as a right wing, pro-life, gun owing, red state, Texan. Neither party “owns” God. God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. The Creator of the Universe is not to be squeezed into our temporal political molds. The religious left was almost a uniquely American invention…(look at how the European Left is dominated by various flavors of Communist even to this day). It’s passing is a tragedy for us all, no matter where we are on the political spectrum.

  • Right Democrat

    In my view, the religious right and left are both wrong. One side focuses narrowly on a few moral issues and the other is focused on a social gospel.

    I don’t think support of abortion on demand and gay marriage is consistent with the Christian message. At the same time, I would hope that Christians might question support for economic policies that have led to greater concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of a few. The economic destruction of working and middle class families through corporate greed is most certainly a moral issue.

    Let’s hope that eventually Christians will put aside their partisan and ideological blinders and look at what is really happening to our society. We need to acknowledge that the religious right has raised legitimate concerns about the breakdown of the family unit and the impact of obscenity on our culture.

    Likewise, the religious left has called attention to the deterimental impact of the unregulated corporate greed on social stability and community. I think the religious left makes a good moral case for a focus on economic justice. If we look at the big picture, many of us may reach the conclusion that Christianity is neither left nor right.

    I happen to be a pro-life Democrat who believes in economic populism and an activist role by government in society. At the the same time, I realize that we have many sincere Christians are active in the process and hold a variety of political views. We need Christians involved in both parties.

  • Harris

    The real news about the Obama speech has been the discussion it has generated in the blogs. Significant for the number of comments (360+) has been Nathan Newman’s article Obama, Religion and the Blog Reaction at TPMCafe.

    It is also a mistake to confuse poltical positions of those on the left with their faith. Many, myself among them, enter politics because of values nourished by their religious faith. Much of the push back from the Call to Renewal types has less to do with the agenda of the religious left, than than with simply a desire to claim the legitimacy of one’s own religious commitment. For such, they find themselves caught between two communities who alike question the validity of their faith — the secular left and the religious right. Give that, is it any wonder that such an audience finds Obama’s words like water in a desert land?

  • BL

    This isn’t anything new for Obama. Did you not hear his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    My father was a 50 year member of the Democrat Party and a lifelong Catholic. But as the party decided to basically trash Catholic moral values to pander to the secular left using prominent Catholic heretical, self-serving frauds like Ted Kennedy–my father couldn’t bring himself to break with what he condidered the party of the great hero Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, most of my generation (and younger) in the family became independent or Republican. But before he died my father admitted there were virtually no Democrats here in Mass. he could stomach, especially the phony, elitist (lace-curtain) Catholics like Kennedy. and Kerry(and now the whole fanatically pro-gay, pro-abortion Democrat Party apparatus in this state.
    My concern is that–just as Kennedy and his fraudulent Catholic ilk–have become the major wreckers and destroyers of the legitimacy of the presence of Catholic morality in the public square, so might Obama do the same to evangelical Christianity on behalf of secular absolutists. What better candidate for those determined to destroy traditional Judeo-Christian morality in our nation than a
    prominent news blanketing politician who talks like a devout evangelical Christian, but is in the control of those who hate anything to do with traditional Judeo-Christian morality and is willing to vigorously trash it as in what the Kennedys do as secularist mouthpieces.

  • Herb

    I agree with “Right Democrat” — good post. As to conservatives taking a dim view of human nature, that needs to be heavily qualified. Reagan’s statement, “get government off the backs of the American people,” assumes that Americans are basically good and wonderful, and will intrinsically do the right thing for their fellow man. False assumption. The biblical view is that government is instituted by God to curb man’s immoral tendencies.

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  • Thuloid


    Reagan wasn’t exactly an anarchist, you know. Perhaps a more restrained reading of the assumptions behind his remarks is in order.

    As to the more general point about the conservative view of humanity, depends on the brand of conservative. Consistent advocation for a diminishing of government power does not necessarily correspond with optimism about human nature. Many would argue against too much government power on the grounds that governments are constituted by men (instituted by God or not), and thus are as subject to sin in all its forms as humanity at large. Conservatives are, of course, advocates for limited government; I don’t think this contradicts Paul in the least.

  • Herb


    You are right as far as you go; I was emphasizing one side of the truth; a side I fear gets too much overlooked. In my humble opinion, both the extreme right and the left have a naive view of human nature. Social gospel on the left, Adam Smith on the right. Neither does justice to the fact of human fallenness.

    I live in the South, where the general tendency seems to be, the less government, the better off we are. We will always just naturally care for the weak, just leave it up to everyone’s good will. I don’t buy that, even if it is on the free market.

  • Stephen A.

    Reading the points here, I get the feeling that the Democrats could make a great deal of headway by going into conservative churches and explaining that a lack of government – i.e. leaving it up to human nature for people to “do good” – is a false assumption, and should be examined, if not abandoned.

    This “Calvinist Strategy” may very well persuade some conservatives that moderate Dems have a point to make. Not being a Calvinist, I will be immune to that approach, but they can try it on others, certainly.

    Of course true political conservatism (as opposed to anarchism or libertarianism) sees a proper, limited role for government – not too large of a role, but not an absence of it, either: a balance, of which Reagan spoke. Many on the Right have lost all sense of that balance, and seem to find the need for rules and regulations only on very narrow issues. As for those on the moral left, their (to coin a term) “hyperCalvinist” interpretation of government oversight and human nature has long alarmed conservatives of all stripes.

  • Wintr’ymix

    Why do both Slate and Get religion miss the ghost in the response to this story? I mean this comment:

    A piece in the Baptist Press noted that Wallis attended Lerner’s conference and pointed to the choice of venue — All [Souls] Unitarian Church — as proof that liberals don’t understand “people of faith, in particular evangelicals.”

    So the conference was held in a church, BUT it wasn’t the right KIND of church. It was a Unitarian Universalist church. Somehow, this venue demonstratese that Lerner “doesn’t understand people of faith”.

    Since when are Unitarian Univerlists NOT people of faith? I think most Unitarian Universalists would be surprised to hear that assertion. I certainly am!

    I’m not surprised that Slate missed this ghost, nor that the main stream media missed it. But what is GR’s excuse?

  • Stephen A.

    Unitarian Universalists are clearly people of faith, but just not a faith that is in any way recognizable to the evangelicals the person was talking about.

    When it’s not at all uncommon to find atheist UUers, that location’s gotta be a problem when you’re aiming for conservative, Bible-believing Christians as a potential audience, don’t you think?

    I wonder, was the local Planned Parenthood office too small for the event?

  • Stephen A.

    National Review has taken a crack at his speech.

    “He is looking for the sweet spot between the hard-core secularist worldview of many Democrats and the tough-minded Biblical literalism of many Christians. If it’s triangulation, it’s also tightrope walking. For the sake of those hard-core secularists, he needs to offer solid, pragmatic reasons for cozying up to Christians. For the sake of the Christians whom he hopes to persuade to support Democratic political ideas, he needs to offer solid, credible assurance that his party will take their faith seriously — and is not being merely pragmatic.

    He woos the secularist side by reminding Democrats that there are so darn many of these committed Christian believers — 38 percent of Americans. They are organized, their church communities mobilize people, and they have access to a powerful way of speaking, which Democrats could use too. Religion, moreover, is a great motivator that could help capture elite opinion to support Democratic policies.

    These points could come off sounding cynical and manipulative: a Machiavellian counsel that Democrats need not miss out on the banquet. But Obama is aware of the danger of coming across as someone who simply wants to channel religious convictions towards a political agenda and he explicitly repudiates such cold calculation. He declares, “Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith.” And, borrowing a metaphor from [left-leaning evangelical] Jim Wallis, he compares such expressions to clapping off rhythm to the choir.”

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