Democrats seeking God pros

OneNationunderGodCROSSIt’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.

0443The 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.

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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.

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  • Larry Rasczak

    “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. ”

    Tmatt, don’t tell me that you have fallen for the implied false dichotomy that caring about sex and salvation and caring about the poor are somehow mutually exclusive? This is illogical sophistry. The Fallacy of the False Dilemma. You are better and smarter than that Tmatt, I am suprised.

    The Democratic argument here is one of false dichotomy and moral equivelance; something along the lines of “Well they have their part of the Bible and we have ours; we’re just as holy, but way more cool and have funner parties.”

    It is of course false and illogical. First it assumes that the Right doesn’t care about the poor or practice charity. Take a look at any of the megachurches to see how wrong that is. (There were a lot more people down there cleaning up after Katrina that came from faith based charities than from the DNC, the ACLU, or People for the American Way.) Secondly just because you passed Econ 102 and are intelligent enough to see that Cabrini Green wasn’t a rousing sucess doen’t mean you “support poverty”. There are better ways to fight poverty than unworkable mega-bureaucracies filled with an otherwise unemployable liberal arts majors. Capitalistic and libertarian ideas, like the mirco-loans of the Grameen Bank, have done more to fight poverty than all the macro-loans the World Bank made to the Third World’s various Kleptocratic Presidents-for-life.

    I know plenty of people on the right side of the aisle that take the Bible literally on sex and salvation AND social justice and the poor. I know lots of people who voted for Reagan, serve in the Military, oppose abortion, oppose gay rights, and still give 10% of their income or more to the poor. One can support the NRA, ALL, and the Hefer Project all at the same time.

    In their rush to postition themselve as morally non-reprehensable the Democratic spin doctors are ignoring both logic and realtiy. First, by creating the above false dichotomy; supporting sexual morality and feeding the poor are not mutually exclusive. (In fact traditional sexual morality can be a big aid in getting out of poverty.) Secondly by ignoring the fact that supporting only the parts of the Bible your pre-existing agenda already agrees with doesn’t make you much of a Christian, no matter how many funny buttons you print up. Something about whitened sepulchres comes to mind.

    This is second rate sophistry. It is what one has come to expect from the professional spin doctors of the left.

  • Jerry

    Funny, I read Tmatt’s comment very differently as being pretty balanced. I guess it’s because I would substitute republican for democrat in several places in Larry’s comments “professional spin doctors of the right” etc. I’d go further and respond in kind but this is not the proper venue for left and right flaming each other with barbed remarks tit-for-tat, distortion for distortion, bias for bias.

    There are better ways to fight poverty than unworkable mega-bureaucracies filled with an otherwise unemployable liberal arts majors.

    There are better ways of fighting abortion than making it illegal and forcing women into back alleys again.

    Both sides are selective in where they would have big government: the left prefers government in economic matters and the right in social matters – increasing the size of government to set up a bureaucracy to give money to faith based charities and to try to control bad moral choices by outlawing the choice.

  • alison

    I think the source of the confusion is that Democrats talk about doing something about matters of poverty and social justice and the Republicans actually do something about it. I’ve seen or read different studies this year (one became an article in Time or Newsweek and another a program on 20/20 – I can look up the exact sources if you’d like). Must to their surprise, the conclusion of both was that conservatives far out-give their liberal counterparts. It is simply a myth that Democrats are more interested in the biblical demands of social justice than are Republicans. In my experience, conservatives want to include both biblical mandates – that of sin & salvation and that of social justice – the liberals want social justice to the exclusion of the other. Obviously, anyone can find an exception to the above comments if they want to (I know of a few), but the exception is simply the exception, not the rule.

  • Jerry

    It’s interesting how that myth has taken hold. The book “Who really cares” talks about religious versus secular giving habits not left and right. Comparing conservative believers and liberal secular people is conflating two different measurements. The review I read said that believers give more than secular people no matter what their place on the political spectrum. Amongst other findings “the least privately charitable group out there tends to be secular conservatives”

    It’s sad that the religion and politics have become so intertwined that it’s impossible for some people to separate them. Some automatically assume that religious people are conservative and secularists are liberal.

    Too often this false assumption has been made by people who try to speak for groups. Those “leaders” on the right and left falsely assumed that believers were only interested in gays and abortion. By dominating the news, those individuals misrepresented the situation and caused false dichotomies. People who seek to speak for a group of people should reflect the beliefs of that group.

  • Martha

    Once again, it’s the telling detail in the smallest phrases: “abortion rights”.

    Some of us are a bit unsure about that last bit, y’know, it being a ‘right’ on a par with ‘human rights’ such as freedom, shelter, dignity, the right to life, but hey, we’re the rednecked Neanderthals who grind the faces of the poor six times before breakfast, aren’t we?

    If a nun of whatsoever order rang up this bad Catholic trying to shill for a candidate pushing abortion ‘rights’, no matter how relgiously phrased it was, the phone would be hung up at warp speed.

    Oh, dear: the first day of 2007 and I can see this comment thread already degenerating into ‘pro-life/anti-abortion rights/pro-abortion/pro-choice’ morass once again…

  • Donna Marie Lewis

    >There are better ways to fight poverty than >unworkable mega-bureaucracies filled with an >otherwise unemployable liberal arts majors.

    >There are better ways of fighting abortion than >making it illegal and forcing women into back >alleys again.

    >Both sides are selective in where they would >have big government: the left prefers government >in economic matters and the right in social >matters – increasing the size of government to >set up a bureaucracy to give money to faith >based charities and to try to control bad moral >choices by outlawing the choice.
    Considering that the ‘choice’ involved in abortion is the taking of a human life without benefit of due process of law, and is therefore irrevocable, I’d say it would be rather more important than pretty much any economic issue. As Flannery O’ Connor put it, “You can’t be any poorer than dead. “

  • Stephen A.

    This reminds me of my liberal uncle at Christmas dinner telling me there was no liberal bias “at all” in the media. I didn’t have the heart to argue with him on such a festive occasion. So after noting that the Right has FoxNews and the WashTimes, the Left has all the rest, I just smiled a bit, condescendingly, and kept eating, rather than tear his argument to shreds just like the Christmas Turkey was being torn apart.

    The caliber of the Left’s consultants aside (and they leave much to be desired, esp. when the NYT calls one an “evangelical” who is closer to a UUer in her theology) the entire “we’ve got religion, TOO” argument is rather absurd.

    Few question whether political Leftists and their more “moderate” liberal brethren and sistren have a religion. It’s just that theirs is so much closer to the Secularist Ideal than that of the faith of many on the Right that it’s often hard to distinguish between the Left’s religion or the Secularists’ rejection of ALL religion.

  • Tom Schliessmann


    This post a number of times in speaking of sexual ethics condenses it to ‘moral issues.’ This seems to me to fall into the rhetorical trap that people have been in for a long time. Morality is what all of these topics are about, including the social justice issues. When people don’t remember that, we get unchallenged the often repeated “don’t legislate morality” phrase by people who then want to legislate other types of morality that fits into their ethical framework, while silencing those who have other agendas. The classic example of that would be those who tell others not to legislate morality by trying to limit or eliminate abortion AFTER asucceeding in legislating abortion as legal and then declaring that it cannot be touched as a legislative issue ever again.

  • Jinzang

    Few question whether political Leftists and their more “moderate” liberal brethren and sistren have a religion. It’s just that theirs is so much closer to the Secularist Ideal than that of the faith of many on the Right that it’s often hard to distinguish between the Left’s religion or the Secularists’ rejection of ALL religion.

    I think you’re overlooking that there’s more than one religion in this country. I’m Buddhist, and for reasons I’m not exactly sure of, politically Buddhists skew strongly to the left. And no one is likely to mistake a Tibetan Buddhist sadhana for a Unitarian service.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering that being passionately against abortion has been a mark of orthodox Catholic Christians for almost 2000 years–to see Catholic Democrats who are in favor of even partial-birth abortion presenting themselves as Catholic complete with making the sign of the cross very ostentatiously during public events (such as Pelosi in front of Ford’s body in the Rotunda)is enough to make one puke.
    All that they are doing is trying to create more apostate Catholics (since most Catholics have Democrat political roots) who will join the baby butchering brigade of which, by their votes in Congress, they have made themselves leaders.
    As for helping the poor–Republican policies, ideas, and programs have done far more to help the poor than the Democrats programs designed to create dependency on the government (and therefore dependency on them).
    For how many decades did Democrats promise drug benefits for the elderly but never delivered. Then the Repubs put in a new program that was trashed by the liberal media and Democrats creating fear about it among the elderly. But now a recent poll showed 80% satisfaction with it among actual users of the program.

  • Jerry

    I’m sorry to say this, but this blog is reading more like a freerepublic rant against those on the left rather than a discussion of how the media covers religion.

    Given the number of times people have mentioned abortion in this topic:

    There were times in the history of the Catholic church where abortion was not considered murder in early pregnancy. Abortion as murder has certainly been part of Catholic belief but not a universal part. One web site I found:

    St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in Western Europe, and returned to the Aristotelian concept of “delayed ensoulment.” He wrote that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion is not murder because no soul is destroyed

    Abortion, on the other hand, required a less serious penance. Theodore, who organized the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7 years to a lifetime of penance; abortion required only 120 days.

    Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening” – when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.

    St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an “animated” fetus as murder.

    Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal bull “Effraenatam” in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty. Pope Gregory XIV revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the “quickening” test, which he said happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).

  • Ben

    Many (and recently I) have been inclined to the idea of a rift in religious (and other) thought. If there is some gulf between various philosophically-permitted persuasions that comes down to questions on canon, then GetReligion does very well to cover various ways our media misses that divide. And, it hardly comes close to making the blog itself “a [free public?] rant against those on the left”. It makes the blog a better read, comments (this one too) aside.

  • Alison

    I realize my comments were a rant. I apologize.

  • mjbubba

    Our pals here at GetReligion are doing a fine service, even when the discussion thread wanders off track. This post continues a series of observations here about the attempts by the religious left to gain traction within the Democratic Party. If they can continue to sucker the media into covering the religious left as if it actually represents much of the Democratic Party, they can probably continue to pull some votes from many of the lukewarm sheep in the pews.
    On the other hand, we have also enjoyed a series of GetReligion posts about the split among Republicans between the religious conservatives and the Country Club set. The comment thread here lets us see that even readers of GetReligion tend to jump zealously into the fray, so how can we expect ordinary reporters of the mainstream media to be listening carefully enough to make the appropriate distinctions?

  • Martha

    Jerry, rather than getting into splitting the atom with you, I’ll agree on this: abortion is a hot topic.

    Now, seeing as how this fine establishment is about media coverage of religion, I will try to stick to the point. What I was getting at is how bias may be in the eye of the beholder. Using a phrase like ‘abortion rights’ rather than simply ‘abortion’ or even ‘pro-choice’ – is that a signifier of bias? To me (admittedly biased myself in that I believe abortion is wrong, no ifs, ands or buts) that does seem as if either the reporter or the newspaper has a certain viewpoint, one in which abortion is a ‘right’ on a par with the undeniable human rights of life, liberty, food, shelter, etc. Any opposition to that is therefore not just a matter of “you say tomato, I say tomato”, it’s a denial of human liberty of the likes of calling for the re-introduction of slavery.

    Wrapping it up then in an example of how ‘hey, it must be okay, they’ve got *nuns* doing it’ is just the big red bow on the parcel, so to speak.

    And if this item below is true, then I find it very disturbing.

    I make no comment other than I found it on Amy Welborn’s “Open Book” blog; I hope it’s not so, but if it is – well, the notion that a reporter would say there’s no need to correct what he put out when it was factually wrong is not a good example, to say the least, from someone working for what I presume would like to think of itself as the newspaper of record. Reportage or propaganda?

  • dpt

    The subject of religion and politics came up in several letters to the editor in our local diocese paper during the last election cycle.

    I find it troubling that either political party tries to wrap its arms around the Gospel and how each better represents Jesus’ teachings, etc. as faults and short comings in either party are ever so apparent.

    I live in the Bay Area, CA so for the Democrats here, their message of being closer in line (as written in some letters) with Jesus’ teachings falls flat.

    This region is ground zero of liberal politics, “tolerant/non-judgemental” practices and Democrat partycontrol; yet, poverty is severe here and the disparity between rich and poor some of the worse in our nation.

    And while, liberal politicians in various cities in the region pass resolutions against the war in Iraq or the US military, violent crime is on the rampage(cities like Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco have experience horrific murder rates in recent years).

    So if Democrats want to play the God-card, then their policies and agendas can be judged accordingly.

    Someone else can go ahead and write about the GOP and their playing of the “God-card”.

  • Dennis Colby


    “Abortion rights” is Associated Press style for referring to people who oppose changes to the country’s current abortion laws. As you can imagine, coming up with appropriate and accurate terms is very difficult in situations like this. “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” are both political loaded, and neither one really gets to the heart of the matter, which is abortion.

    AP style for pro-life is “anti-abortion,” which seems fair. However, pro-choice people strenuously object to “pro-abortion.” At some point, journalists have to allow for a little bit of self-definition; if people opposed to abortion don’t generally object to “anti-abortion” (there are some exceptions, of course), that’s going to be the label.

    Whether you or I agree that abortion should be a right, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided it is. In that sense, “abortion rights” isn’t a loaded term signifying favor. It’s a description of what a group of people say is their political position.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry’s comment on the history of abortion and murder reads like a carefully crafted NY Times pro-abortion piece–it is all in the editing of the sources. I went to the listed link and there were far, far,more quotes there from early Christian leaders and groups equating abortion with murder than there was speculation that maybe it isn’t because of an ensoulment theory. And as more scientific-medical evidence became available the quotes show that the pendulum started swinging back hundreds of years ago so that today’s Christians who are pro-life clearly are in line with centuries of the earliest Christians who, in a sense, overthrew the Roman Empire on life issues. It is interesting that so often pro-lifers are called “medieval” when it is the media promoters of abortion who look to the Middle Ages for support for their program of death.

  • Martha

    Yes, but to phrase it in the language of rights is not neutral, whatever we might like to think. Unjust laws can be made affecting natural rights but those rights do not depend on laws. Again, I would example slavery: most people would not say that slavery was alright when the law allowed it, but now it’s illegal, it’s wrong. They would argue that humans have the right to liberty as humans, and that does not depend on law being passed to say they are free, nor do they lose their right to liberty if a law is passed stating they may be chattels.

    So even if the courts overturn the laws permitting abortion or even if the legislature passes laws forbidding abortion, if it is a right, then it cannot be taken away. Like the current push for same-sex marriage: that marriage is a right, and that to deny it to same-sex couples is a denial of human rights, not just a matter of a legal decision.

    “At some point, journalists have to allow for a little bit of self-definition”

    Which is fair enough if they’re describing what the people in question say about themselves. But how or why exactly did the AP decide this was the neutral, non-political term? And that ‘anti-abortion’ would do for the other side? Most people who are pro-life would prefer that term to be used, as the common charge I’ve seen flung about by pro-choice proponents is that “Oh, you only care about anti-abortion, but not after the child is born; what about poverty? equality of access? the death penalty?” In other words, social justice.

    Which is where we came in, I think.

  • Eric

    I’m not totally comfortable with the term “abortion rights” for the reasons stated by others. On the other hand, “pro-life” isn’t a good term either, as many so-called pro-life folks favor capital punishment and are not pacifists. I think “anti-abortion” is about as neutral of a term as you’re likely to find.

  • Dennis Colby


    Again, terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are political weasel words. They are attempts to deflect discussion from the topic actually under consideration: abortion.

    “Anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion” seem fine, except I think people in the latter camp have more problems with that terminology than people in the former. Hence, “abortion rights.” The term seems neutral to me, because it accurately characterizes that position: the argument that access to abortion is a right.

    I think any residual benefit abortion rights advocates get from association with the word “rights” is neutralized by the term “abortion,” which makes most Americans uncomfortable.

    But what’s a more neutral term? What would satisfy both sides as being fair? The answer is nothing, so the media has to try its best to accurately describe the positions at stake.

    The best religious parallel I can think of relates to Messianic Jews. Almost universally, Jews of every persuasion are unanimous in saying this group should not be considered Jewish, since they believe Jesus is the Messiah. But the group insists they are Jews. How should reporters cover them? It’s a no-win situation: by merely describing the group, the press leaves itself open to charges of bias.

    The abortion controversy is a similarly bleak situation for the press. No matter what, on any abortion story, there will be people who feel the story is unfair. At some point, the press just has to get on with doing its job.