Tumultuous Noise

Why are religious conservatives still the squeaky wheels?

American religious life has undergone a seismic shift. If, as statistician John Green’s report “The American Religious Landscape and Politics, 2004” suggests, religion no longer breaks down as “Catholic vs. Protestant” on issues like abortion, John Kerry’s record, or pre-emptive warfare but now divides into “traditionalists vs. modernists,” why do the traditionalists still get all the attention? If the political fault lines between religious people have really shifted, the troubling question arises for orthodox believers with liberal political convictions: Why are they still upstaged by their “super religious” conservative sisters and brethren?

Last Wednesday, Dr. Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with other progressive faith leaders, spoke at a sparsely attended press conference in Midtown Manhattan. Their purpose was to encourage alternative religious voices in the public square. These religious leaders staged this meeting in order to launch the Vote ALL Your Values Campaign, which celebrated some recent accomplishments: over 450,000 voters registered; a corps of 400,000 progressive religious activists recruited; hugely successful religion-based ad campaigns; and more than a million voter guides (describing poverty, health care, and education as religious issues) distributed. Citing the necessity of a “faith-rescue operation” from the religious right, the Rev. Jim Wallis proclaimed a beginning of the end of that faction’s “dominance over faith and politics.”

One reason the right has reigned despite progress like this is that the tools used for studying and reporting on religion haven’t kept pace with the increasingly complex impact of religious convictions on national and international politics. While pollsters’ questions show growing sophistication, religious practitioners with progressive public values still have to check the “other” box in most national surveys. Even John Green’s 2004 study (done in conjunction with the Pew Forum), for example, which makes some headway in expressing the diversity of political views within different denominations, still stops short of capturing the full picture.

In dividing respondents into three categories besides denomination—”traditionalist,” “centrist,” and “modernist”—the survey still plays into the unsubstantiated popular perception that the most religious people are those with a literalist understanding of scripture (in the case of evangelicals) or a high view of the “tradition” of papal authority (in the case of Roman Catholics). These are the traditionalists. Similarly, the “modernists” in the Green survey—those who answered “yes” to the propositions that religion should be adapted to modern circumstances and that all world religions contain the truth, come out looking merely less observant than their traditional co-religionists. So, when the survey shows “traditionalists” of all denominations having more conservative political views and the “modernists” more progressive ones, we cannot escape from the impression that the most faithful persons among all denominations are politically conservative, rather than concluding that conservative political views seem to coincide with a very specific sort of religiosity.

Where, for example, would the political views of a member of Evangelicals for Social Actions show up in such a survey? Though she might agree that tradition is worth preserving and that scripture is highly authoritative, she would not qualify as an evangelical “traditionalist.” Why? Because rather than focusing her energies on the single passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans used by antigay members of the religious right, she might instead take seriously the over 2,000 biblical verses relating to poverty and spend her time developing micro-enterprise lending programs in poor countries or advocating increased foreign aid. But she might not qualify as a “modernist” since she could easily disagree that all world religions contained the same truth. This person, like other religious conservatives with socially progressive views, falls below the radar.

The mainstream media—with a few exceptions—resorts to even blunter instruments when it comes to describing religious involvement in public life. Nowhere was this more clear than in Ronald Suskind’s cover story for the New York Times Magazine on the impact of evangelical faith on the Bush presidency. Suskind uses the word “faith” to include everything from the president’s evangelical belief system to the kind of unquestioning loyalty he demands from his staffers. Nor does Suskind explain his suggestion that the president’s religious faith is related to his famous lack of intellectual curiosity. Suskind makes broad generalizations about a vast swath of diverse humanity, implications that, were they applied to a particular race or gender, would cause controversy.

Suskind’s article does a great disservice to progressive religion. Rather than illustrate why the theology emanating from the White House is rotten from a religious standpoint, Suskind uses all of the muddied definitions of the word “faith” interchangeably—from the most technical to the most prosaic. Purposefully or not, he leads his largely secular, liberal, and affluent audience to indulge their deepest and least rational fears: Every American believer is a potential King Canute, confessing a higher power today and telling the sea to turn back tomorrow. (Steve Waldman wrote more about George Bush as spiritual hallmark in this “Faith-Based” article.)

Some responsibility for the continued loud voices of political conservatives rests with the leadership of mainline Protestant traditions. Mainline Protestants, who have tended to become more politically liberal in the last two decades, are the natural base for a “Vote ALL your values” initiative. And yet whether concerned with the in-house business of their own denominations or wary of alienating the person in the pew by perceived involvement in political debate during a polarized time, few denominational heads showed up at last week’s New York press conference. With the exception of an Episcopal bishop and an ecumenical officer for the United Methodists, all the other featured speakers were heads of large extra-denominational organizations. Moderate leaders within traditional church structures are not going out on any limbs.

Placing op-ed pieces in the secular press is not high on the priority list for the average mainline religious leader. Radio stations that used to broadcast sermons from major mainline pulpits have largely been taken over by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, and liberal alternatives on the radio don’t exist. Seminary curriculums offer little sense that the mainline traditions are interested in preparing their ordained or lay leadership to address a public other than the immediate members of their own congregation. But in a world where religion has become a major force effecting national and international politics, religious leaders need to address questions that go beyond the traditional scope of parish life. This means training in interfaith dialogue, community organizing, and increasing the visibility and voice of progressive groups advocating for public policies consistent with the prophetic strand of the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Should fighting for the microphone and the attention of the secular public really be a priority when pulpits need filling, dying churches need tending to, and pastoral concerns abound? Isn’t this a distraction from the mission of saving souls? Maybe. But at a time when, as Jim Wallis puts it, the answer for many “is not less religion, but better religion,” the general public as well as the person in the pew is entitled to a more thoughtful, nuanced understanding of the potential of religious belief along with its pitfalls.