'Religious left' an emerging force
By BILL THEOBALD
Gannett News Service
By BILL THEOBALD
WASHINGTON — In the political lexicon of the past few decades, when someone says "religion" the words "right wing" are almost sure to follow.
Now, a diverse group of self-avowed "left-wing" religious and spiritual leaders is building a potentially potent political movement both to provide a counterbalance to the influence of conservative Christian groups and to reframe the debate over values to include healthcare, poverty and the environment.
A fledgling effort, there is already evidence from the 2004 election that the religious left could be a force in the fall election and beyond.
"I think there is a real possibility for these groups to coalesce into a politically significant bloc of voters," said John C. Green, political science professor at the University of Akron. "But it might take a while."
What has grabbed the attention of Green and other political observers is the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a loose coalition of liberal Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists and others.
It was founded by Vietnam anti-war activist turned Rabbi Michael Lerner, out of the Tikkun Community, an interfaith organization created in 2002.
"This is not traditional left politics," Lerner said this week at a conference that drew 1,000 people to the nation's capital. "We are critiquing the liberal culture because liberal culture is often hostile to people of faith."
The eight planks of the group's "Spiritual Covenant with America" (modeled on former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America) include harsh critiques of America's materialistic, sexualized culture. They call for personal responsibility and avoiding "First Amendment fundamentalism that attempts to keep all spiritual values out of the public sphere."
At the same time, the covenant sounds familiar liberal themes of a national healthcare system, corporate responsibility and environmentalism.
"There are tens of millions of people out there who think these are great ideas," Lerner told the crowd.
At times, the conference did have the feel of a 1960s revival - down to an interpretive dance and group singing of re-worked lyrics for John Lennon's "Imagine." Part of one verse: "No scarcity of care, the sacred everywhere, replacing greed and fear."
"I'm here because the religious right does not speak for us all," said the Rev. Barbara Silversmith, 61, a chaplain at Capital Hospice in Beltsville, Md. "I think we are in the most dangerous time politically and spiritually we have ever been."
Green, senior fellow in religion and American Politics for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said the 2004 election marked "the wakeup call" for religious progressives.
That call won't get answered, said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
Perkins said this left-wing coalition will not work because its members are not unified around a single set of religious beliefs. They are united only in their opposition to the religious right, he said.
But Green's research, based on a national survey of voters, found the religious left was actually a major factor in the 2004 election. It made up 14 percent of voters, compared with 15 percent identified as religious right. And 69 percent of the religious left voted, up from 51 percent in 2000.
In this fall's election, Lerner said the group is targeting Ohio, a pivotal state in 2004. Green believes progressives could have an impact in some of his home state's races because they will be so close.
Whether this influence grows, Green said, depends on how well the Network of Spiritual Progressives and other groups establish the grass-roots communication and get-out-the vote systems that have worked so well for conservative Christians.
"That's a really big question. It did take the religious right some time to figure that out," Lerner said.
Contact Bill Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org.