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Left wing religious dwindling in numbers

Left wing religious dwindling in numbers

Orlando Sentinel


Early in this presidential election year, the Republican Party faithful are
already rolling up their sleeves - and passing the collection plate. In church
social halls, they are raising money for voter registration, "issue"
advertising and "Christian scorecards," which rate candidates on their positions on key
cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

By contrast, there is little activity at the other end of the ideological
spectrum. Left- wing religious efforts at political mobilization - where they
exist - seem puny, aged and marginalized. After decades of riding popular social
movements such as civil rights, the left splintered and now seems unable to
regroup. Conversely, the GOP has co- opted the support of religious voters by
focusing their attention on cultural and lifestyle issues - such as gay

On economic issues, another mainstay of the left, the outlook is no brighter.
Unless they are directly affected, people in the pews seem unwilling to
grapple with economic disparity and job losses, which defy simple solutions.
Despite the loss of 3 million jobs since 2001 and falling retirement and investment
portfolios, they are more likely to object to teaching Darwin in the classroom
than to struggling in an economy increasingly based on survival of the

The poll numbers are ominous for Democratic candidates, who seem to have
written off voters with strong religious convictions. A survey by the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press found that nearly two-thirds of Americans
who attend religious services at least once a week vote Republican. For those
who say they seldom attend a house of worship, that figure is reversed:
Two-thirds vote Democratic. Though preachers don't pick presidents in America, for
at least 150 years they have helped set the political agenda.

Thundering from pulpits, mobilizing congregants, religious activists in the
19th and early 20th century helped end slavery; supported women's suffrage;
brought about Prohibition; and supported the rights of workers to organize into
trade unions. More modern inheritors of this social gospel were also vigorous
agents of change and resistance, propelling the civil-rights and anti- Vietnam
War movements. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing religion was a
force to be reckoned with. "We had the feeling that we were getting somewhere,"
recalls the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain at Yale University and
one of the patron saints of mainline religious activism.

"We criticized American practice in the name of American ideals." But today
liberal religion is seen as a spent force, says Mark Tooley, a researcher for
the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington, D.C., think
tank. The religious left comprised denominational leaders and tended to be
elite, as opposed to grass roots, he says.

Today's religious right is younger and more vigorous, drawing its support
from growing charismatic and nondenominational churches. "The religious left was
mobilized and excited by the civil-rights movement and by the anti-Vietnam War
movement, and has had difficulty finding equally passionate causes to replace
those," he says. "The religious right has abortion, homosexuality and
church-state issues that have energized them over the past 25 years.

There's no sign that any of these issues are going to go away anytime soon."
Evangelicals who previously voted Democratic because of economic issues are
trending Republican because of cultural issues, Tooley says. "But at the same
time, most of those people are still, by and large, not activists by nature.

They are largely middle-class, suburban people who are not drawn to the same
kind of economic wedge issues that would excite the religious left or liberal
evangelicals." Nor are they willing to follow their spiritual leaders on other
issues. For instance, opposition to the death penalty, globalization and the
Iraq war by Roman Catholic bishops and mainline Protestant leaders has failed
to generate grass-roots support.

There are a variety of explanations for the virtual collapse of the religious
left in America. Some believe its members never recovered from the divisive
period of the 1970s, when the movement split into "identity politics." After
working together to break down old barriers, the unified movement headed in
diffuse directions: affirmative action, feminism, gay rights and multiculturalism.

Others think the left was simply outmaneuvered and outorganized by the right.
Savvy religious conservatives decided it was a mistake to see political
involvement as something "unclean" for so many years, conceding the field to
liberals by default. And the perceived excesses of the 1960s galvanized conservative
Christians into action. Experts say the eclipse of the religious left by the
religious right also may reflect the decline of mainline denominations and the
rise of evangelicals in the 1980s - both politically and theologically. For
many old activists, this is the winter of their discontent.

Skeptics say the cold reality is that you can't build a mass political
movement on nostalgia. Americans today live in a high-stress, fiercely competitive
work environment, which tends to reinforce a certain degree of
self-centeredness. No Democratic candidate or liberal religious leader has offered a credible
plan for reversing globalization or even ameliorating its impact. Much of the
social safety net was eliminated during the boom years of the 1990s.

With no simple answers to big problems, there is a pervasive feeling of
powerlessness - and frustration. In November, a group of liberal and moderate
religious leaders from mainline denominations announced the formation of a new
organization that is trying to fill the gap, calling itself the Clergy Leadership
Network. The group's goal is to become what some called a Christian Coalition
of the left. Founders include Coffin and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former
general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

They are a Who's Who of veterans of the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War
movements. The Rev. Albert Pennybacker, a Disciples of Christ minister, heads the
new organization. Backers say they want to offer an alternative to the
"partisan God" embraced by the GOP, and to turn their loose-knit group into a
"coalition of conscience." The odds against the new group are long. "I don't think
it's going to go very far," says Tooley. "Its leaders are largely retired,
mainline Protestant leaders.

It would have better prospects if it had enlisted pastors of large black
churches, or a few liberal evangelical pastors or more Catholic clergy and
bishops. It just doesn't seem to have plugged into the more dynamic and growing parts
of American religion." Still, there are faint signs of life - and youth - in
the religious left, according to Jim Wallis, of the Washington, D.C.-based
Sojourners community.

Founded in 1971, the group is a Christian ministry whose mission is "to
proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social
justice." Wallis considers himself a theological conservative, pro-life
evangelical - and a radical social activist. Unlike many evangelicals, he believes
that religious concern for the poor and the powerless should be motivated by
justice, not by charity.

Wallis says he has many requests from young evangelicals to join his
community, which focuses on economic and social justice. When he and others like him,
including Tony Campolo, another radical evangelical, carry their message to
heartland churches, the response is positive, he says.

It may be the case that the baton of social justice has passed from liberal,
mainline Christianity to evangelicals. "I agree that liberal religion is in
decline, but I don't agree that social justice is in decline in the church,"
says Wallis. The problem with most mainline denominations, he says, is more
theological than ideological. "If you don't have a real Bible- based,
Jesus-centered faith, then all you have is upper- middle-class, affluent Americans who are
not going to be your primary constituency for social justice," he says.

In battles around the country for a "living wage," mainline ministers make a
political mistake when they frame the debate in secular terms, talking about
"fairness." A more effective strategy, Wallis says, is to rally evangelicals
with verse from the Bible, especially prophets such as Isaiah, who spoke out
forcefully for fair payment for those who labor. However, there is little
evidence so far that even that strategy moves believers.


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