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Two new books chart Democrats' success in reclaiming mantle of faithfulness in America

February 10, 2008

Politics Issue:
Left Wing and a Prayer


The leadership of the Democratic Party, to its misfortune, has tended to confuse the religious right with religion, period. As a result, they can now look back at a long campaign of successful efforts to alienate white Christians, who make up two-thirds of the American electorate.

At the 1972 national convention in Miami, for example, when party progressives banished the Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and his 58 handpicked delegates, most of them ethnic Catholics, in order to lend greater gender and racial balance to the Illinois delegation. At the failure, during the Carter years, to prevent the loss of jobs by blue-collar Catholics in the Rust Belt. At the elevation of abortion rights to canonical status and the silencing of Democratic voices in opposition, like that of the Pennsylvania governor and pro-life Catholic Robert Casey, a convinced liberal on universal health care, poverty reduction, education and the like, who was denied the podium at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. (However, many alienated Democrats came home to vote for religiously literate Bill Clinton in 1992, whose pro-choice mantra promised that abortions during his administration would be "safe, legal and rare.")

Nor were the party elites terribly distraught when their 2004 presidential nominee, John Kerry, a serious Catholic who mumbled and stumbled around that potentially appealing fact early in the campaign, landed in hot water with a handful of ultra-aggressive Catholic bishops. Although this minority’s heavy-handed threats to deny Communion to a pro-choice Catholic candidate were met with quiet disdain--episcopal omerta'--by a majority of their fellow bishops, who hate abortion but resist politicizing the Eucharist, the Kerry campaign mounted no effective response.

As for white evangelicals, well, the attitude has been--let the Republicans carry the fundamentalist mantle. After all, aren’t all born-again Christians hopelessly conservative, concerned more with undermining the teaching of evolution, standing in the way of stem-cell research and bashing gays than with promoting a just economic order or protecting the rights of women and minorities?

In short, the Democratic Party's long string of counterproductive responses to the enduring influence of the religious right has had the cumulative effect of driving away any type of base with the word "faith" attached to it, and opening the door to the Republicans' shrewd, if cynical, courting of religiously conservative white Christians. It's been a self-defeating failure, since there are millions of moderate and progressive Christians ready to embrace a reasonable alternative.

Now two savvy, genre-bending, unapologetically faith-based new books take that failure as an object lesson. "The Party Faithful," by the respected political journalist and progressive Baptist Amy Sullivan, is a kind of sophisticated self-help manual for Democrats who are looking for a way "of leveling the praying field." Sullivan provides a brisk history of Democratic miscalculations, along with a running commentary. "Souled Out," by the respected political journalist and progressive Catholic E. J. Dionne Jr., is a deeply personal and searchingly intelligent reflection on the noble history, recent travails and likely prospects of American liberalism. Dionne envisions "a radically new role for religious groups in American politics," an integration of personal morality with a championing of the common good that, he says, is "not only possible but necessary, for the sake of our public life and for religion’s sake as well."

Both authors blend reportage, analysis of voting patterns, historical precedents, personal religious testimony and unvarnished advocacy. They lament the reduction of religion to narrow ideological concerns and its identification with one political party. Both explore religious alternatives to the right-wing politics of fear and exclusion, and hold up a wide array of individuals for emulation: stereotype-busting evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Rich Cizik and Rick Warren; influential Catholic liberals like the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, the architect of major documents on just war and nuclear-era peace; and independent-minded politicians like Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro, House Democrats who are attempting to break the pro-choice/ pro-life stalemate by pushing programs to reduce the number of abortions.

Strikingly, both authors announce the demise of the religious right and proclaim the advent of a new era of religious engagement in the direction of what might be called faith-friendly liberalism. "American politics is at a turning point," Dionne asserts. "Evangelical Christians are an increasingly diverse group," broadening their political agenda to include environmental issues and a commitment to international human and religious rights, as well as to economic policies that address poverty. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics are poised to renew their "rich history of social concern," Dionne says, and he concludes, "There is very good reason to believe that in the coming years, America’s religious communities will no longer be seen as the natural allies of political conservatism."

This would indeed be a marked departure from the recent past, when, in Sullivan’s words, "a showdown between the religious left and religious right was like a tricycle going up against a Mack truck." The disparity reflected a three-decade head start by religious conservatives flush with cash, coupled with the Republicans' "incredibly sophisticated methods of reaching religious voters." Meanwhile, according to several veteran Democratic operatives cited by Sullivan, "the only method the party had for identifying Catholics was to guess based on surnames."

Are Sullivan and Dionne to be believed, or is this the triumph of wishful thinking over political reality? Sullivan admits to setting out to prove her Dem-dissing pastor wrong, and Dionne, burdened by what he poignantly describes as "the agony of liberal Catholicism," could be forgiven for mistaking the creativity of a few Catholic politicians and the enthusiasms of younger Catholics as benevolent signs of more liberal times to come.

In their defense, however, consider the following points of light. Since at least 1993, when she gave her (unfairly derided) "politics of meaning" speech, Hillary Clinton has spoken thoughtfully and frequently about the relationship between her faith and her political convictions. More recently, John Edwards has acknowledged the strength he drew from his Southern Baptist heritage when his son died, and he also cites the religious source of his work on behalf of the underprivileged. And in his balanced and straightforward presentation on religion and politics, delivered to the Call to Renewal convention in June 2006, Barack Obama stated flatly that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King--indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history--were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause."

Whenever Democrats used to talk about religion, Sullivan comments, journalists jumped into the "'gotcha' mode to prove that the rhetoric is just a ploy to pander to voters." Clearly, however, none of the three leading Democratic candidates for president have been intimidated by the still powerful reputation of their party as fundamentally irreligious. Rather, they seem committed to reversing that reputation. If this new Democratic outlook succeeds in sparking the moral imagination of our religion-drenched nation, Dionne and Sullivan will be proven prophetic: a powerful political change is gonna come.

R. Scott Appleby is a professor of history and a director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright 2008, NY Times.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

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