Rebuilding the Religious Left

Frederick Clarkson is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. The book, a collection of 19 essays by 22 authors, challenges the religious left to reinvent itself. Clarkson was one of the first investigative reporters to look closely at the religious right in the U.S. As a journalist, he broke the story in Mother Jones of the rise of Christian militias years before the Oklahoma City bombing made them national news. He went undercover at the founding strategy conferences of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and revealed in Church & State magazine their plans to take over the GOP and establish theocratic politics and policies as a permanent feature of American public life. He has also written extensively about anti-abortion terrorism in the United States.

Through a series of email exchanges, we discussed the current state of the religious right, the growing influence and media presence of Pastor Rick Warren, efforts by the Obama campaign to court evangelicals, and how an authentic religious left might be able to win back a place at the table.

BERKOWITZ: Rick Warren, the celebrated pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, interviewed presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on August 16. How do you view Warren’s work and where does he fit within the constellation of religious leaders?

CLARKSON: Four years ago, Rick Warren wrote an inflammatory letter about the presidential contest to thousands of evangelical pastors. This letter revealed him to be a fierce partisan, who epitomized the worst aspects of the Religious Right. He declared five issues to be "non-negotiable" and those they "are not even debatable because God’s word is clear on these issues." These included abortion, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and euthanasia. He later said he regretted the letter but that he had not changed his views.

While he is a skilled showman, he is unable to sustain moderation in style or in substance even before a national television audience. His real self leaks out. At the Civic Forum, Warren highlighted the top two litmus tests of the religious right—abortion and same sex marriage, and described abortion as a "holocaust." Following this he called on his audience not to "demonize" people with whom they may disagree—having just compared people who have a different view on abortion to the Nazis. In my view, Warren is an emerging leader of the Religious Right in transition, not of evangelical moderation.

Being different than Falwell and others of that generation does not necessarily a moderate make. Warren acknowledges climate change, for example, but is a fierce proponent of "free" markets and is so ideologically rigid that it is difficult to imagine him getting behind the kinds of solutions that could address what needs to be done. Similarly, he is fiercely antigay and supports African political and religious leaders who advocate criminalization of homosexuality. It is difficult to imagine that the HIV/AIDS work for which he receives such plaudits can ever be successful as gay people are driven underground in an atmosphere of persecution and fear.

As for how he fits in the wider constellation of religious leaders, as a disciple of the late guru of modern corporate management Peter Drucker, Warren is more about building a religio-corporate empire than former leaders of the religious right. Drucker was the theorist of the mega-church, applying business principles to the creation of religious empires. Meanwhile, Warren’s books read more like self-help books than dire warnings of Satanic or Muslim hordes. Warren claims both McCain and Obama as "friends" and both immediately agreed to participate in Warren’s event.

Organizers for the Obama presidential campaign are putting a lot of time and money into wooing evangelical voters. Obama has also met with a number of Christian evangelical leaders. Why such an accelerated focus on evangelicals?

There is a theory based on some polling that the white evangelical vote is in flux and that it might be possible for Democrats to peel off some votes, especially among younger evangelicals. Other polls, however, suggest that this is wishful thinking.

I think the Obama campaign is more about depolarizing the debate and reducing the demonization of the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate. Changing the tone of politics is good, but I think this is also about marginalizing the role and voice of religious progressives who in past decades played decisive roles in stopping the war in Vietnam, pushing for African American and women’s rights, and much more. The Beltway Insiders would prefer not to have a resurgent religious left complicating things by making conservative evangelicals uncomfortable and, perhaps more importantly, compelling significant changes in the way the politics and public policy industry does business.

I think a faux religious left is being manufactured as an official counterweight to the religious right as a sop to the actual stirrings among religious progressives.

What did you make of McCain’s pick of Governor Sarah Palin?

I think the Palin pick underscored the ongoing significance of the religious right in American politics generally and the Republican Party in particular. The religious right made it very clear that they were not happy with McCain and that the price of their support was going to be a vice presidential pick. Longtime movement leaders like Richard Viguerie and Phyllis Schlafly have been arguing that the GOP has "betrayed" the conservative movement (on taxes, Iraq, federal budget, civil liberties, and more), and were urging conservatives not to donate to national GOP committees, but to direct their donations to reliable movement organizations instead.

Viguerie, Schlafly, and others were predicting a time of regrouping; McCain represented more of the same. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson had said more than once that he could never vote for him. Pro-choice moderates like former Gov. Tom Ridge (R-PA) or former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman (I-CT) were considered unacceptable choices for vice-president and I have no doubt that had McCain selected one of them, many on the religious right would have chosen to sit out the race or focus on down-ticket races where they could have a larger impact.

Max Blumenthal reported that at a pre-GOP convention meeting of the Council for National Policy, a secret right-wing leadership and networking group, Tom Minnery, a close aide to Dobson, gave the thumbs up to Palin in advance of the announcement. That this group was consulted before anyone even knew that Palin was a possibility speaks volumes about the nature of the deal. After the announcement, Dobson called her an "outstanding choice," and Viguerie called Palin "perfect." Viguerie went on to say that conservative evangelicals would be energized in a way not seen since Ronald Reagan. I would say that the religious right made its demand and its demand was satisfied.

If Palin survives the scrutiny of her more extreme views on abortion, the teaching of creationism, resistance to LGTB rights, and stem cell research—it will represent the mainstreaming rather than the rejection of the most openly far religious right views.

What is the mainstream media referring to when they talk about a religious left?

The religious left ballyhooed by the media seems to consist of a few moderate evangelical authors, plus Jim Wallis, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and a gaggle of political consultants who advise clients on matters of faith outreach and who advocate dialog with conservative evangelicals. Whatever the merits of all of this, it is not always progressive and usually has little to do with movement building. An authentic and more politically dynamic movement needs multiple sources of activism and sufficient independence so that they can not only speak truth to power (as many are fond of saying), but have the capacity to seek and acquire enough power to be able to move politics far more substantially in the direction of a just society.

Why hasn’t the religious left gained traction over the years?

The religious left (broadly defined) of the post-WWII era was so central to tremendous victories—helping to stop the Vietnam War, playing major roles in the Civil Rights movement, and working towards equality for women and minorities—in their own institutions as well as in public life that I think many people got tired from so many years of turbulence.

Additionally, mainline Protestant churches and Catholic bishops who had led the way in much of the social progress of the era were under tremendous pressure to back off. A more conservative Vatican silenced liberation theologians and promoted conservative bishops as progressive theologians retired.

The rightist financiers of the conservative movement, such as Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, bankrolled dissident factions in the mainline churches and established the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) that has served as headquarters for networking and encouraging conservative factions as well as waging its own campaign of disruption and division against mainline churches. These highly organized campaigns have resulted in the departure of congregations and wider schisms, particularly in the Episcopal Church.

What went largely unnoticed was that while the strategic funders of the right were building both secular and religious right organizations and institutions, they were also underwriting efforts to degrade the opposition. (To this day, many have a hard time accepting this unfortunate fact.) This, combined with some natural attrition in membership due largely to changes in demographics, left churches in a perpetual budget crunch. The National Council of Churches (a communion of about 35 denominations) at one point came perilously close to shutting down. Even so, the many millions of progressive Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were still out there, but under-organized. The more dynamic and politically oriented organizations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (such as Clergy and Laity Concerned) withered and were not replaced or were institutionalized to the point of political irrelevance.

Finally, the religious left, unlike the religious right has never figured out how to relate to electoral politics. The key to the religious right success was organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the 35 state-level political affiliates of Focus on the Family (among others), which mastered the mechanics of electoral politics and had worked out highly developed ideas of what it means to be a Christian and a citizen and how these identities relate. On the religious left, a culture of protest politics and a sense of helplessness came to dominate. To this day, there is no organization of the religious left anywhere in the U.S. that engages in year round electoral power building the way that religious right organizations have done.

Why put together this type of book at this time?

Religious progressives seem to be politically stalled, distracted, and lacking a coherent strategy and effective tactics. One of the themes that emerges in the book is that the religious left needs to reestablish a significant capacity for "organizing" in the broad, social, political and electoral sense. It has been a key to successes in the past but seems to have been abandoned in favor of think tanks and public relations strategies. As Marshall Ganz, formerly one of the top organizers with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union, writes in the opening essay: "To find the courage, commitment, and hopefulness to face the challenges of our times, why would we turn to marketing mavens, management gurus, and niche strategists when our real sources of strength are in learning who we are, where we come from, and where we are going?"

While I wanted a reasonably diverse mix of religion and race and such for the book, it also needed a mix of approaches; activists, academics, journalists, theologians, clergy, and laity. Most books in this field seem to be dominated by academics. I wanted to widen and deepen the conversation to make it more exciting and engaged than what most academics offer. It needed essays that would acknowledge that there is no religious left that is even remotely comparable to the religious right, at least in terms of power and influence. I wanted to know what contributors thought about that and what should be done about it.

If there were going to be a more politically dynamic religious left, what would it be like and how would we get there and what mistakes should we avoid? How could a movement be created that is greater than the sum of its parts? I did not want a manifesto, a platform, or a blueprint—I wanted some exceptional political thinking that would help to open up a wide ranging conversation about the state and direction of the religious left.



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.