Jewish World Review March 23, 2004 / 1 Nissan 5764
To get its groove back, the religious left needs to come up with some new ideas and a new vision for curing persistent social ills
Religion is like nitroglycerin in politics. If that observation troubles you, you're not giving enough credit to nitroglycerin.
Nitro is not all bad. It simply must be handled with care. On the positive side, it can bring relief from the violent chest pains of angina pectoris. On the negative side, it can blow up your house.
The same must be said about appeals politicians make to the religiously faithful. One who worries about such appeals is the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, which sponsored a forum last week in which I participated at the National Press Club on the role of religion in the 2004 political campaigns. (A full transcript is available at www.interfaithalliance.org.)
"What if appeals to religion in the process of electing a president are done in such a way as to rob religion of its sacred substance and compromise its integrity as a prophetic presence in our nation?" Rev. Gaddy said. "What if a strategy to win religious voters in one particular tradition fosters among people in other religious traditions the conclusion that, contrary to the Constitution, there is a religious test for public office and there is an established religion in this land? What if religiosity as a campaign strategy blunts the vitality of democracy? What if appeals to religious prejudices during the campaign more deeply divide our nation?"
Those are good questions and they are not being raised by only one political party.
A prominent conservative on the panel was Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and founding president of the Heritage Foundation. He took pithy shots at "the religious left," complaining that it received suspiciously little media attention, compared to the religious right.
He's right, if only because the religious left does not organize itself around religion as explicitly as the religious right. Religious-left progressives, so prominent in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war movements of the 1960s, somehow lost their mojo in the '80s, I noted, even as a new religious right emerged, using the same '60s-style organizing techniques.
To get its groove back, I think the religious left needs to come up with some new ideas and a new vision for curing persistent social ills like teen pregnancy, lame schools, juvenile crime and joblessness. Bill Clinton, like Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, has a knack for articulating the vision thing. Too bad he had a big problem with the personal morality thing.
Of course, religion is nothing new in American politics. As pollster John Zogby, another panelist, pointed out, voters typically want their candidates to have a sense of morality and spirituality.
Even former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean talked about his religious faith during his campaign's last days, almost as a last resort.
Current Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry tends to avoid talking about his Catholic faith, unless you ask. He cites his classic New England reserve about religious discussions. We'll see if that changes as the November elections draw near.
Beyond that commonly held regard for morality and spirituality, national agreement pretty much ends and the great divide begins, Zogby says. We are two distinct nations, his polling tells him. "In fact, the motto of this forum should be e pluribus duo [two separate nations]" he said.
He went on to detail numbers behind the divide: Fifty-four percent of red state voters (the states George W. Bush carried in 2000) attend a place of worship at least weekly, compared to 34 percent of blue state (the states Al Gore carried in 2000) voters. On religious issues, 44 percent of red state voters see themselves as conservatives, whereas only 29 percent of blue state voters do.
Interesting, but hardly shocking. Variety makes the country interesting and dynamic, as long as it doesn't turn into another civil war and I think we're a long way from that.
While Zogby and other pollsters cite the polarization in our "50-50" nation, I also see a country trying to work out differences and reach consensus.
While our conflict-fixated news media, for example, focus on clashes over gay marriage this year, a consensus is growing almost without notice in support of civil unions. Who would have guessed that, in this election year, support for civil unions would be the new "safe" position for politicians in both parties who don't want gay marriage, yet also don't want to appear intolerant?
In that sense, I think that, as Alan Wolfe wrote in his important book, "One Nation After All," the nation's "civil religion" continues fundamentally to be a live-and-let-live philosophy. We Americans argue a lot. We even devote radio and cable news channels to arguing. But most of us also seem to be searching desperately for some agreement. That's how this diverse nation holds itself together. Religion serves us best when it helps us find that common ground.
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