July 2, 2005 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

HOUSES OF WORSHIP: From Gospel to Government

They're the furious faithful -- the growing number of religious liberals incensed by the political influence of Christian conservatives. Last week another organization joined their ranks with promises to "reclaim Christianity" and challenge the association of vital religion with conservative politics.

As far as Patrick Mrotek, founder of the Christian Alliance for Progress, is concerned, the gloves are off: "We can no longer stand by," he announced at a Washington press conference, "and watch people speak hatred, division, war and greed in the name of our faith."

With a membership of perhaps 6,000, the Christian Alliance for Progress qualifies as the organizational equivalent of a megachurch -- but not much more. Nevertheless, its policy goals are ambitious, ranging from debt forgiveness to universal health care. It proffers an agenda "founded firmly on the teachings of the Gospel." Some students of the Gospel may be surprised at how neatly such an agenda fits the Democratic Party platform: The alliance supports stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion; it opposes the Bush tax cuts, plans to privatize Social Security and the war in Iraq.

Every few years, it seems, another progressive group arises to contend with the political clout of Christian conservatives. The list includes the Interfaith Alliance, Call to Renewal, Soulforce, Let Justice Roll (run by the National Council of Churches), the Clergy Leadership Network, Faith Voices for the Common Good and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Most religious progressives, whatever their doctrinal differences, believe that the Democratic Party must attach spiritual values to its political agenda. Democratic leaders seem ready to heed the call.

Last summer the Center for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff, gathered 400 clergy and scholars at a "faith and policy" conference in Washington. Then came George Bush's re-election, made possible by church-going voters, and suddenly the "faith factor" gained new cachet among Democrats. Earlier this year, for example, Hillary Clinton told supporters in Albany that "religious and moral values" could help discourage teenage sex. In March, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi formed a working group to design a "faith agenda" for her party.

"If the last election proved anything," notes a recent issue of the Economist, "it was that middle America found an overtly religious party much less weird than an overtly secular one." Religious progressives would agree. Yet despite their feeling comfortable with God talk, they share certain traits that may limit their appeal to other people of faith.

First, they're composed mostly of mainline clergy and church elites who are often culturally out of step with the rank and file. They're leaders with no obvious grass-roots constituency. Second, they treat traditional religion with either suspicion or outright contempt. Believers who raise concerns about complex social matters -- such as embryonic cloning or the role of condoms in fighting AIDS -- are dismissed as crazed theocrats. Third, religious progressives are often allied with left-wing partisans such as financier George Soros, MoveOn.org and Pax Christi, all of which loathe the Christian Right as much as radical Islam.

A final weakness of Christian progressives is one shared by some Christian conservatives: the impulse to leap directly from the Bible to contemporary politics. Few are as blatant as Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine and a darling of Democratic leaders. In his best-selling book "God's Politics," Mr. Wallis discerns from a short passage in Isaiah a blueprint for government welfare spending. "The starting point to check how our society measures up to Isaiah's platform," Mr. Wallis writes, "is by examining our federal budget." Or, as the Christian Alliance for Progress argues, rather confusedly: "In his sermons and in his parables, Jesus teaches that poverty can certainly be an effective weapon of mass destruction."

Their Web sites are awash with this kind of talk. In all of it, there is little room for political philosophy, or civil society, or even an appreciation of the different roles of church and state. Whatever the argument -- whether it's a big government approach to poverty or a pacifist stance on terrorism -- Bible verses are at the ready.

Call it fundamentalism from the left. If religious progressives help the Democratic Party to "find religion," we're going to see a lot more of it. Heaven help us.

Mr. Loconte is a research fellow in religionĀ at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). He served as a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared in The Wall Street Journal