WASHINGTON – A diverse group of religious leaders, advocates and scholars is calling on progressives to embrace their own religious faiths in order to strengthen public policy debates in a new initiative aimed at taking the offensive in the “war of ideas” recently dominated by political and religious conservatives.
To launch the project, the left-leaning Center for American Progress, held a half-day forum, “Faith and Progressive Policy: Proud Past, Promising Future” that brought together some of the leading voices among religious political progressives.
“We are not here to create something new,” said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, “but instead we are here to celebrate and renew a tradition that predates each of us but unites all of us.
“Long before there was a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson or even a Tom Delay, there was a Martin Luther King Jr., a Dorothy Day and an Abraham Heschel,” said Podesta, a Catholic= “For them, justice and fairness in the community was inseparable from their faith in God. That’s the real story of religion in American life and we’re here to reclaim it.”
Conference speakers emphasized that most American social justice movements have had their roots in religion or spirituality. Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his book about the civil rights era, said American progressives can’t ignore the influence of religion in the history of their causes.
“The world since 1964 is a world created by Martin Luther King Jr., not Ronald Reagan,” Brach said. “We inherit and live in a world that liberals created.”
While participants spent much of the conference highlighting the historical role of faith in progressive causes, the purpose of the conference was not simply to celebrate the past. Religious liberals were also trying to figure out how public religion has been taken over by the religious right and political conservatives over the past 20 years.
“Many of us feel like our faith has been stolen,” said Jim Wallis, convener of Call to Renewal and editor-in-chief of Sojourners. “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American? It’s time for a rescue operation.”
Wallis said people of faith have a responsibility in this election year to let their religious consciences inform their voting. Wallis’s sense of urgency was echoed by many participants in the conference.
According to recent polls, religious liberals have good reason to be concerned.
People who attend religious services are about twice as likely to vote conservative, according to numerous polls. This “church gap” between supporters of Republicans and Democrats has been steadily widening in recent years.
A Gallup poll released Tuesday (June 8) showed that Protestant registered voters favor Bush by 9 percentage points.
However, Bush’s lead doubles for Protestant voters who attend church regularly. While John Kerry leads Bush by 8 percentage points among registered Catholic voters, the Gallup poll shows that this lead is significantly lower than the 56-point lead held by the Catholic John Kennedy in 1960.
Wallis said Democrats should blame themselves for their failure to reach out to religious voters.
“Democrats make the mistake of restraining faith to the private sphere,” Wallis said. “They say, yes, I have faith, but don’t worry about it.”
In addition to the challenge posed by the religious right, religious liberals must also confront secular, nonreligious progressives who have similar political positions. The Rev. James Forbes, minister at Riverside church in New York, said religious progressives must not be “embarrassed” to talk about religion with their secular counterparts. Religion, Forbes said, is not the one-sided issue conservatives have made it out to be.
“We must be sophisticated enough to distinguish between narrow and broad experiences of ultimate reality in our world,” he said.
The initiative brings together a diverse group of believers who do not agree on all the issues. They do, however, agree that it’s time to let people know that conservatives do not have a monopoly on faith.
“The right has done a better job in the last 20 years holding up their side,” Forbes said. “But now we must speak out and offer a new and fresh vision of how a nation can be and how we are called on to be. We can be a blessing to America.”
In addition to the conference, the project’s organizers are also planning a speaker series, public discussions and events on Capitol Hill designed to raise awareness of the role of religion in American public life.
Copyright 2004 Religion News Service.