It’s an old, old situation linked to Christian faith and politics.
People on the right side of the church aisle are accused of taking the Bible very literally when it comes to sex and salvation. People on the left side of the church aisle prefer to take the Bible literally on issues of social justice and the poor.
The reality, of course, is that Christianity has long offered rock-ribbed teachings on both sides of this equation. Sex outside of marriage? Sin. Ignoring the needs of the poor and the weak? Sin. The real debates, of course, are about how best to involve government in these issues.
So it’s no surprise that the Religious Right taught Republicans how to talk the talk on moral issues. And it’s no surprise that, at times, President George W. Bush tried to expand that message by learning to talk the talk on “compassionate conservatism” issues as well as those edgy wedge issues on sex and marriage.
And now it’s no surprise that Democrats are turning to Bible-friendly consultants to learn how to add some faith-based language on issues of economics, the environment, peace, justice, etc. And it isn’t a big surprise that Democrats are also trying to find a way to use different language on abortion and sexuality, even if there are no signs of compromises yet on the legislative front.
Bush tried to talk differently about poverty.
Democrats are now seeking a way to talk differently about moral values.
Journalists, of course, will have to cover all of this talk, talk, talk.
At the moment, the hot topic is the work of the new faith-based consultants — especially the liberal evangelical activist Mara Vanderslice and her Common Good Strategies consulting firm. Visit the firm’s website and you’ll find all kinds of mainstream coverage, but the recent David D. Kirkpatrick piece in The New York Times hits all the big themes:
Democratic officials in several states said Ms. Vanderslice and her business partner, Eric Sapp, pushed sometimes reluctant Democrats to speak publicly, early and in detail about the religious underpinnings of their policy views. They persuaded candidates to speak at conservative religious schools and to buy early commercials on Christian radio. They organized meetings and conference calls for candidates to speak privately with moderate and conservative members of the clergy.
In Michigan, they helped the state’s Democratic Party follow up on these meetings by incorporating recognizably biblical language into its platform. In Michigan and Ohio, they enlisted nuns in phone banks to urge voters who were Catholic or opposed abortion rights to support Democratic candidates, with some of the nuns saying they were making the case in religious terms.
The nuns are a nice detail, don’t you think?
In other words, the key is to find left-of-center evangelicals who are fond of moral nuances on sexuality and Catholic progressives who feel the same way. This is not a big shock.
So if you want to find people who lean left, speak softly on issues of sexual morality, yet continue to embrace the name “evangelical,” where would one look? How about the Sojourners community? Sure enough, that is where Vanderslice feels at home.
But first, she grew up in a liberal, secular mecca — the people’s republic of Boulder, Colo. — before finding God.
She joined an evangelical Bible study group at Earlham College, a Quaker campus in Richmond, Ind., and says she was born again one day while singing the hymn “Here I Am Lord.”
“God’s love was so much stronger than any of my doubts,” she said, acknowledging that like some other young evangelicals she still struggles with common evangelical ideas about abortion, homosexuality and the literal reading of Scripture.
She was baptized by full immersion in Rock Creek in Washington, D.C., while working with Sojourners, an evangelical antipoverty group. She entered politics by working with a group advocating debt relief for the developing world, once participating in a rally organized by a coalition that included the AIDS activist group Act Up.
Once again, there is nothing surprising here.
Note, however, the use of the softening phrase “common evangelical ideas” on issues of sexuality, when the points being debated have nothing to do with evangelicalism — but are conflicts centering on 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teachings in the East and, until very recently, all of the churches of the West.
And what about that “literal reading of Scripture” thing? Oh well, we are back into the same old divide, aren’t we?
This is an important story, but it’s also an old, old story and utterly predictable. The only real news is that the religious left is developing a more articulate evangelical wing.
But the hard issues will not go away, a fact that is obvious in this section of Kirkpatrick’s report about the work of Sapp and Vanderslice:
They persuaded candidates not to avoid controversial subjects like abortion, advising those who supported abortion rights to speak about reducing demand for the procedure. And they cautioned against the approach of many liberal Christians, which is to argue that Jesus was interested only in social justice and not in sexual morality.
“The Gospel has both in it,” Mr. Sapp said. “You can’t act like caring about abortion and family issues makes you a judgmental fool.”
Amen. That’s the heart of the story right there.