A coalition of religious leaders recently announced the formation of a new political advocacy organization designed to mobilize voters in opposition to Bush administration policies.
The group, Clergy Leadership Network, will operate from an expressly religious, expressly partisan view. It promises to "bring about sweeping changes in our nation's political leadership," providing a counterpoint to "failing public policies."
My first reaction, upon hearing this announcement, was: Amen. It's high time liberal clergy unite to counter groups like the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition. For decades now, these and similar groups have been busily shaping how Americans think about such issues as school prayer, lesbian and gay civil rights, sex education, and even the war on terrorism. They've injected a right-wing Christian perspective into myriad public debates and have done so in increasingly sophisticated ways, rarely using overtly religious language but nonetheless expressing religious beliefs that are not universally held.
But my excitement was tempered when I read the fine print and learned that this new clergy advocacy group will steer away from discussing a range of social issues - so-called hot-button topics including abortion and gay marriage. "Our key issues," a spokesman said, "are people without jobs, people who are hungry, people burying children killed in Iraq. These are real issues that override flashy talk about sexual orientation."
Economic issues are clearly pressing - especially at a time when our president has enthusiastically cut taxes for the rich, shredded social programs and amassed a half-trillion dollar budget deficit to boot. Princeton economist Paul Krugman is right: The current administration is comprised of "radicals masked as moderates" intent on rolling back many of the economic policies we take for granted and returning us, in effect, to the days of Herbert Hoover.
But it's not just the economy, stupid. "Flashy talk about sexual orientation"? Tell that to the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, who said in his recent ruling that lesbian and gay marriage rights are necessary to affirm the "dignity and equality" of all individuals.
I wonder: Does "flashy talk" apply to discussions of sex education at a time when right-wing activists for abstinence are placing teenagers at risk by not giving them information about safer sex? And what about "flashy talk" about women's rights, just as the Bush administration's ban on so-called partial-birth abortions begins to whittle away at the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? "Flashy talk" indeed.
As the Christian right assumes the high ground, the Christian left - if there is such a thing any more - has turned its back on these and other social issues. What they don't seem to realize is that Americans do care about these issues, and many if not most of them support women's right to choose, lesbian and gay civil rights, and comprehensive sex education. They care about these issues passionately, alongside bread-and-butter concerns.
Yet many so-called liberals seem to operate under the strange illusion that these issues are relevant only to "special interests." In this, the Clergy Leadership Network is unfortunately not alone. Recently, while driving to work, I heard affable Democratic strategist James Carville repeat the same mantra: In order to take back the White House, Democrats need to shed the perception that they're beholden to "special-interest groups" (read: supporters of abortion, gay rights, affirmative action and so forth).
Behind all this talk is the quest to appeal to the NASCAR Dad. Democratic strategists seem convinced that blue-collar men, a majority of whom support George W. Bush, have to be won over in order to reclaim the White House. And opinion polls tell them that these guys are none too fond of weak-kneed liberals, African-Americans (unless, of course, they're basketball stars) and even many union members.
But if liberals can in fact capture the loyalty of these "special-interest groups" - a hefty share of America's women, racial and sexual minorities, educated professionals, and unionists, they're doing well. Perhaps well enough to win an election. And if they alienate this part of the population - by not taking its issues seriously - they're sunk.
Conservatives learned long ago that politics is and should be about more than economics. Only when liberal Christians - and Jews and Muslims, for that matter - take back the mantle of family values will they be capable of mounting a serious challenge. But they shouldn't mimic Republicans' paens to traditionalism. They should embrace progressive values we can all get behind. Or else we'll be forced to prepare for the second coming of President George W. Bush.
Arlene Stein, author of "The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights," is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University.
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