Left Behind

Fault lines among the leaders of the religious left.

If a viable religious left is going to emerge to balance the religious right, as the Democrats desperately hope it will, two men will be critical to the effort: Michael Lerner, the garrulous rabbi and editor of the interfaith magazine Tikkun, and Rev. Jim Wallis, the barrel-chested evangelical editor of Sojourners magazine and head of the anti-poverty group Call to Renewal. Despite their many shared goals, the two offer disparate visions of what the religious left must do to succeed politically—so different, in fact, that they may be incompatible.

Lerner and Wallis often get lumped together, and frankly, the religious left has been so marginal until now that it hasn’t much mattered. The confusion is understandable. Both are veterans of the student movements of the 1960s who have been agitating ever since for a progressive politics consistent with their reading of scripture. They more or less agree on the big liberal faith issues, poverty, pacifism, the environment. After the 2004 election exposed a yawning “God gap” favoring Republicans, both penned brisk-selling books, often jointly reviewed, that challenged the religious right’s exclusive claim to speak for people of faith and the Democrats’ reluctance to speak to them. More recently, they’ve each begun setting up congregational networks to promote their ideas and consolidate their influence, much as the fledgling religious right did decades ago.

But as their movement becomes a bigger target for the religious right and Republican Party they may have to start keeping their distance from each other in order to continue building it.

The differences between Wallis and Lerner were highlighted at two recent events. Last month, Lerner hosted a four-day conference to kick off his aggressively eclectic new interfaith group, the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Wallis hosts his own Christian-centered anti-poverty conference beginning today.

Lerner believes in a cosmically big tent. His target is liberal people of faith who feel alienated by the narrow politics of the religious right, and the 26 percent of Americans who self-identify—according to a recent Newsweek/Beliefnet poll—as “spiritual but not religious.”

There was a strong Christian presence among the 1,200 attendees at the NSP conference, but it leaned heavily toward liberal denominations. Quakers and Unitarians outnumbered Evangelicals and Catholics. They were joined by scores of liberal Jews, fewer Muslims, and a sprinkling of Buddhists, Sufis, Baha’i, Wiccans, Native American shamans, and various metrospiritual seekers. Even secular humanists were welcomed.

Together the attendees all prayed in concentric circles, sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” (with the line “and no religion too” tastefully amended), and meditated while eating vegan boxed lunches. At times they seemed like a flock of black sheep. My breakout group of eight—led by a stunning Jewfi woman (Jew + Sufi = Jewfi) in ventilated Crocs sandals—included Unitarian and United Church of Christ pastors, a retired scientist looking to marry faith and reason, and a gay former Christian fundamentalist turned theatrical performance activist. Everyone was highly motivated, but I couldn’t help wondering: How big can such a constituency be?

Lerner is undaunted by such concerns. His vision for the NSP is intentionally quixotic, and he doesn’t expect to sway elections anytime soon. In fact, he’s positively phobic of short-term thinking lest it compromise his vision. That vision, in Lerner’s words, is “a new bottom line in American society” whereby policies and institutions are “judged efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring.” The conference’s Spiritual Covenant with America included more concrete proposals on everything from corporate responsibility to foreign policy and the environment. But its scattershot approach puzzled some attendees. I tagged along with one on a Capitol Hill visit at which he handed the list to his Congressman’s staffers and urged them to “just pick one thing, I don’t care what it is. “

Wallis, on the other hand, is more focused. He wants to influence two voting blocs that will be critical to the 2008 election, moderate evangelicals and Catholics. His plan is to focus on poverty, an issue he believes all Christians can get behind, rather than ceding the floor to gay marriage and abortion, which the religious right uses to estrange Christians from the Democratic Party.

Wallis may be on to something. A 2004 Pew poll found that most evangelicals support increased spending on anti-poverty programs, rigorous environmental protection, and the fight abroad against HIV and AIDS. Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals (which represents some 45,000 churches and 30 million members nationwide) and the Evangelical Environmental Network have become increasingly vocal in their support of these Democrat-friendly faith issues.

Wallis’ conference this week, Pentecost 2006, will bring hundreds of Christian activists to Washington to promote a Covenant for a New America aimed at eradicating poverty at home and abroad. Unlike Lerner’s conference, Wallis’ isn’t going to be dominated by the liberal fringes: Among the speakers are Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas, two of the most prominent voices on the religious right.

This is a smart move because to succeed, Wallis needs to remain credible with evangelicals. His cozy relationship with Lerner and the NSP crowd, on the other hand, risks making Wallis appear unorthodox by association. The criticism has already begun. A piece in the Baptist Press noted that Wallis attended Lerner’s conference and pointed to the choice of venue—All Soul’s Unitarian Church—as proof that liberals don’t understand “people of faith, in particular evangelicals.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, railed on his blog against efforts “to replace the Christian faith with an empty ‘spiritual’ shell” and directly criticized Lerner for his idea of universal “spiritual yearnings” that make no “reference to some specific truth claim.”

Democrats, for their part, probably feel similar unease. They appear far more comfortable with Wallis’ version of the religious left than with Lerner’s. Wallis has been a frequent adviser to the party since the 2004 election, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are scheduled to appear at his conference this week. During his event, by contrast, Lerner had to settle for a private, off-the-record meeting with Obama. The caution is understandable. Everyone remembers the thrashing Hillary Clinton took for her 1993 “politics of meaning” speech, which drew heavily on Lerner’s language and ideas. (“Guru! Spiritual Advisor!” the Washington Post gleefully charged.)

The source of Wallis’ appeal is his apparent moderation, both political and theological. His argument is compelling in its simplicity: An overriding commitment to social justice is more basic to Christianity than the issues championed by Christian fundamentalists. But to prevail he must avoid seeming too militantly progressive. “The country is not hungry, I don’t think, for a religious left to counter the religious right,” Wallis told the NSP conference. “The country is hungry for a moral center.” To follow his own advice, he must leave Lerner behind.