Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2005 / 8 Adar I 5765
Hillary and crew delivering shout-outs to the center
Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent olive branch to abortion opponents has political analysts speculating on whether she is "moving to the center" in preparation for a possible 2008 presidential run. A more appropriate question might be: "What took everyone so long to notice?"
The nattering nabobs of radio and TV anti-Hillary negativism ridicule the New York Democratic senator's "new position." But the conservative choir should be particularly irritated and nervous that Clinton, a Barry Goldwater-supporting libertarian conservative in her suburban Chicago youth, does not fit easily into the extreme-liberal box.
Clinton's recent speech in Albany, N.Y., to fellow abortion-rights advocates echoed the sensibly centrist vow of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to make abortion "safe, legal and rare." Then she went further. She courageously made a full moral-values appeal for something you seldom hear at pro-choice rallies: outreach to the anti-choice right.
"We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," she said. "The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."
She praised faith-based programs. She reminded everyone that she is "a praying person" and that when she was first lady she advocated teenage celibacy. She defended family-planning services and over-the-counter sales of "Plan B" emergency contraception, but allowed that "the jury is still out" on a conservative favorite, abstinence-only programs for teens.
Sen. Clinton, in short, is triangulating, confounding her critics with the centrism that, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "Third Way" ideology, helped Bill Clinton win two presidential terms here.
She's not alone. Democrats in Congress, their party's national headquarters and their allied think tanks like the Washington-based Center for American Progress have been planning a variety of faith-oriented policy events around the country.
"We worship an awesome G-d in the blue states," said Barack Obama, now an Illinois senator, in his stirring Democratic National Convention speech last year. He was right. But, since the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Democrats have not talked much about itat least, not in public.
"We lost King and ... Democrats became the secular party," laments Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a founder of Call to Renewal, an evangelical ministry to the poor. The Christian evangelical minister suddenly has become very popular since November, when 79 percent of the voters who named "moral values" as their No. 1 issue voted for the re-election of President Bush. Wallis' new book "G-d's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" is a New York Times best seller. He has preached his gospel of faith-based activism on programs as various as Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
He is astounded, Wallis told me by telephone on his book tour, to find hundreds of young people in his travels that "didn't know you could be a Christian and still care about poverty or the environment or promoting alternatives to war."
That perception is particularly dismaying to Wallis, a registered Democrat. Ever since his college days in the late 1960s, Wallis has been preaching about how the Bible has 3,000 verses that mention the poor and, so far, he has not found any that talk about capital-gains tax cuts for the rich.
"How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?" he said. "It is almost as if Jesus' top priorities have become a capital-gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq. It seems that religion has been hijacked, and it is time for a rescue operation to take back the faith."
Perhaps Bush's successful outreach to evangelicals will teach Democrats the value of learning from their own religious diversity instead of taking it for granted. Just as the Republican Party should not be held captive by religious extremists, Democrats should not be held captive by the zealots of secularism.
Instead of dismissing school vouchers, church-sponsored housing development and other faith-based social services, they should explore openly the role such services can play in partnership with government, as long as the providers do not discriminate against non-believers.
Good people from the religious right and left can find common ground to solve common problems. Our problems as a country are too great and our resources too limited for us to turn away from the valuable work that people and organizations of faith know how to do quite well. The Democrats' tent used to be bigger than that. It can be that big again. All they have to do, as Wallis says, is to let their faith shine through.
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