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Religious progressives celebrate rise, with eye on lurking perils

Then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during a forum on faith, values, and poverty hosted by Sojourners/Call to Renewal at George Washington University, Monday, June 4, 2007, in Washington. Religious progressives hailed a
Then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during a forum on faith, values, and poverty hosted by Sojourners/Call to Renewal at George Washington University, Monday, June 4, 2007, in Washington. Religious progressives hailed a report noting their recent successes last week, but a principal advocate says unresolved tensions lurk behind their rise.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

The rising romance between self-identified "religious progressives" and the Democratic Party might not deliver lasting results, according to political observers and even the progressives themselves.

The progressives are enjoying a moment in the sun, thanks to "Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives," a report issued last week by the Brookings Institution — a left-leaning Washington think tank — which portrays the Obama-backing religious coalition as being on the rise, while those religious and social conservatives who backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are in a group whose ranks may soon decline as the country's demographics change.

Yet all is not promising on the left, Brookings fellow and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said last week. "Religious progressivism will never constitute the same homogeneity of the religious right," he said. "Despite this, a religious voice will remain essential to movements on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and on behalf of the middle class, who are under increasing pressure."

And Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist who helped the late Jerry Falwell organize the Moral Majority in the 1970s and 1980s, predicted believers on the left will ultimately be as disappointed as those on the right have been the past decade.

"The left is not going to be any more successful than the right" in wedding religion and politics, he said in a telephone interview. "Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world, and people who misuse him on the left or the right misrepresent him and do him a disservice."

'Awesome' blue-state God

Paradoxically, 2004 marked the beginning of President Obama's national ascendancy, with the then-Illinois state senator delivering a rousing Democratic convention speech about those who "worship an awesome God in the blue states." But the defeat that year of presidential nominee John Kerry by then-President George W. Bush served as a wakeup call, Dionne said.

"Democrats discovered God in the 2004 exit polls," he said. "When (Democrat Bill) Clinton was president, he was very fluent in talking about religion and his faith. … He had the issues he had, but one of the issues he didn't have was being tongue-tied about his faith."

Following Clinton's presidency, there was a "period where Democratic politicians were unable to talk about faith," Dionne added.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and political observer, agreed, saying at the Brookings event launching the report, "After 2004, Democrats had a need to 'get religion' and understand what went wrong."

But the "Faith in Equality" report issued a stark reality check for religious progressives, saying victories can be fleeting.

"The success of Obama and the Democrats in 2008 led not to a redoubling of interest on the progressive side in religion, but quite the opposite," stated the report, based on formally convened conversations with many religious progressives. "With electoral victory won, many Democrats — as well as progressive funders and organizers — turned their interests elsewhere. Engagement with religion atrophied, and with it a variety of organizing efforts."

Indeed, in 2012, there was no major shift among religious voters. A post-election Public Religion Research Institute survey found that among Romney supporters were a small segment (7 percent) of religiously unaffiliated and a whopping 75 percent identifying as white Christians, according to the Brookings report.

"By contrast, fully 25 percent of Obama’s voters were religiously unaffiliated, 34 percent were white Christians while the rest were a diverse array of African-American and Latino Christians and followers of other faiths," the Brookings report stated.

Secular voters valued

Even religious progressives such as Dionne acknowledge some may doubt the viability of the movement. He told the audience at the Brookings event last week that Democratic pollster "Paul Begala called the term 'religious progressives' an oxymoron like 'Jumbo Shrimp,' but it turns out that jumbo shrimp do exist."

The disengagement by Democrats of religious progressives doesn't surprise Amy Black, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Carol Stream, Illinois, a school dubbed the "evangelical Harvard" and Billy Graham's alma mater.

While religious progressives are an "important" part of the recent Democratic winning coalition, Black said, "the other very important piece are the secular voters."

Although at 17 percent of the base, such secular Democratic voters are "not going to get you across the finish line," she added. Yet Democrats need to reach out to secular voters, "and they need those secular voters showing up," she said.

"It's very hard to rally secular voters and religious voters at the same time," Black explained, adding religious progressives elicit "suspicion and hostility from their potential allies." Such wariness, she said, is "becoming even more pronounced as the gay rights movement has gained traction."

According to David E. Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the school's Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, religious progressives may not be as needed by the Democratic Party as the GOP needs the so-called religious right.

"Numerically they're quite small; (they're) not terribly well organized; (and it's) not even clear the issues they prioritize necessarily have a religious inflection to them," said Campbell, co-author, with Robert Putnam, of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." "Unlike opposition to gay marriage or abortion, which is almost intrinsically religious," issues such as "income inequality, immigration, the environment — you don't find religion as the driving force ... among those Americans who hold those views."

Moreover, Campbell added, the progressives themselves may not be getting as much issues-oriented promptings from church pulpits. In preparing the 2012 edition of "American Grace," Campbell said that in reviewing surveys he and Putnam had done in 2005 and 2010, what was "really striking, the biggest change, (was) the number of Americans who said they were hearing political messages over the pulpit decreased dramatically over the five-year period."

Columnist Thomas said Christian conservatives eventually learned that political solutions won't heal the soul. "(The) right wanted to use government and political power to change power to change culture, which can only be done by a change of heart," he said. "The things the right cares about are not the cause of our decadence, but a reflection of it."


Twitter: @Mark_Kellner