The Press Notices -- Progressive Religion!

Glen Johnson/ BOSTON GLOBE, 12/1/2004

Published on Saturday, November 27, 2004

Liberal religious figures, concerned about broad moral issues such as world poverty as well as the perception that ''moral values" helped win the election for President Bush, are stepping up their organizational efforts to support left-leaning candidates and their causes to prepare for the 2006 midterms and the 2008 presidential election.

For some, the goal is to recruit Democratic candidates who, like Bush, seem comfortable talking about their faith and its role in making public policy. But for others, the aim is to challenge Republicans who — opponents say — favor narrowing debate about religious values and ethics to hot-button issues such as abortion, while ignoring church views on the death penalty or broader moral questions such as responding to the world AIDS epidemic and a US economy increasingly reliant on low-wage labor from abroad.

Almost universally, though, the liberals are seeking to counteract the growing political power exerted by Christian conservatives and the religious right since the 1970s. That strength was exhibited Nov. 2 as about 4 million more religious conservatives voted for Bush than did in 2000, 11 states passed referendums opposing gay marriage, and as an exit poll found that among the 22 percent of voters who cited ''moral values" as the most important factor in their decision, more than 80 percent of them voted for the president instead of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

The National Association of Evangelicals, which promotes a conservative Christian agenda, represents institutions with about 30 million members but, by some estimates, the number of conservative Christians could be as high as 80 million. The Roman Catholic Church claims more than 60 million members, and the National Council of Churches, on the liberal end of the spectrum, represents institutions with about 50 million members.

While estimates of the number of conservative Christians may vary, the rise of the Christian right has been clear.

''The religious right has been effectively organizing for 35 years, and as I always say, it took Moses 40 years to lead his people out of the wilderness, and it's going to take us a few years more to catch up," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.

Edgar is part of a group that holds a conference call each Thursday to discuss the liberal response to national and world affairs, a telephonic gathering convened last year in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.

''While we didn't stop the war, we began to talk and work cooperatively together," he said.

Among as many as 40 people on the line any Thursday are Jim Wallis, who convened Call to Renewal, a faith-based response to world poverty; the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance; the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., pastor of the Riverside Church in New York; and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, is investigating how Democrats can talk more effectively about religious issues in the run-up to the midterm elections, when the party of an incumbent president traditionally loses seats in Congress. He was reluctant to talk about his plans until his staff completed research he requested.

Today, Republicans control not only the White House, but also have expanded their majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. Democrats hope to alter that balance by better training candidates and nongovernment supporters on the use of television, a medium mastered by Falwell and Robertson. (Edgar already is conducting seminars.) They also are capitalizing on the example of Howard Dean, the Democratic presidential candidate who succeeded in using the Internet to register supporters as well as raise money for his campaign.

Nonetheless, the left disputes the argument that religious perceptions cost it this year's election, dismissing the exit-poll finding that 22 percent of voters made ''moral values" their prime issue.

Instead, it cited the results of a Zogby poll of 10,000 voters conducted after the election and released Nov. 9. In that poll, when surveyed voters were asked to list the moral issue that most affected their vote, the Iraq war placed first at 42 percent, while 13 percent named abortion and 9 percent named gay marriage. When moral values are itemized, the left has argued, voters voice concerns about government conduct as well as personal moral behavior, which could favor Democrats.

According to another question in the poll, conducted for Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic human rights organization, when the voters were asked to choose the most urgent moral crisis facing the country, 33 percent cited ''greed and materialism," 31 percent selected ''poverty and economic justice," 16 percent named abortion, and 12 percent selected gay marriage.

Wallis, who edits Sojourners magazine in addition to leading Call to Renewal, said the most urgent challenge for Democrats is to open up about their moral values, as well as their faith, where appropriate. Wallis said abortion offers one such opportunity.

''They say, 'Keep abortion safe, legal, and rare,' but they do nothing but try to keep it legal; they do nothing to make it rare," he said. ''The Democrats ought to say, 'Let's work on reducing abortion rates, adoption reform, helping low-income women.' We could work on that together, prolife and prochoice, and reduce the abortion rate in the process."

Keith Jennings, president and founder of the African-American Human Rights Foundation in Washington, said Democrats also should not be afraid to challenge Republicans on moral questions.

''Why is it that abortion is a litmus test and not the death penalty?" he said to applause earlier this month at a postelection round-table discussion organized by Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. Jennings cites the Roman Catholic ''prolife" tradition, which includes opposition to both abortion and the death penalty, arguing that some of the arguments on faith put forth by the right are incongruous.

Edgar, Wallis, and the others also believe people on the left should force a political discussion on poverty, Iraq and US foreign policy, and the environment, all of which could lead to positions supported by biblical references.

Edgar favors an appeal to what he terms ''the middle church" — neither the liberals on the left nor the conservatives on the right — the same segment that eventually was won over by the push for civil rights during the 1960s.

To help achieve those goals, activists have created a website. They also are appealing for donations to run television commercials supporting their views, as they did in the fall when they broadcast a commercial on Arab television apologizing for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And they plan to continue the Thursday conference calls.

''We have been organizing three years versus 35 [for the religious right], but it will take us three or four more years to raise our voice to the point where it will be heard," Edgar said.

Copyright 2004 Boston Globe Company


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