In the days since the presidential election, much has been made of evangelical Protestant voters' role in the re-election of President George W. Bush. And rightfully so. Without the Bush-Cheney campaign's strategic mobilization of this reliable base constituency, particularly in rural areas of battleground states, we might be calling Sen. John Kerry president-elect today.
With so much emphasis on the political significance of religious conservatives in the wake of this election, some might be wondering whether there is (or could be) a countermovement of religious progressives in the United States. Is it possible to apply a more liberal interpretation to the relationship between religion and politics in this country?
The much-touted exit poll finding that moral values were the most important Election Day concern of 22 percent of voters highlights the fact that a sizable number of Americans expect political leaders to offer a prophetic vision. Yet this expectation is not new, nor historically the sole province of the Republican Party.
Through much of the 20th century, politically influential religious voices envisioned Jesus Christ as a champion for the poor and disadvantaged. During the civil-rights movement, thousands of white clergy and laity linked arms with African-Americans. The 1970s saw clergy-led protests against the Vietnam war and inequality in urban housing policy. And in the 1980s, religious progressives worked for nuclear disarmament and illegally sheltered refugees of war-torn Latin America.
Things changed for religious progressives in the 1980s, however, when the "New Christian Right" emerged and began reshaping the meaning of morality politics by emphasizing abortion and homosexuality instead of justice and racism. Religious progressives remained complacent as the political Zeitgeist slowly shifted to favor religious conservatives. In this sense the religious Left may have been victimized by its own success. Perhaps it assumed that a progressive witness would forever remain as the leading political voice of religious Americans.
This assumption, if it was made, was simply wrong. Today many people of faith across the board - particularly Christians - see Republicans as the only appropriate representatives of their needs, concerns and way of life. Progressive religious interest groups such as Sojourners and the Clergy Network for National Leadership Change tried very hard this year to encourage voters of faith to believe that God is not a Republican. But in many religious circles, Democrats are seen as scornful, secular, urban literati who do not understand or appreciate traditional lifestyles.
There is a substantial "God gap" in the American electorate: Nov. 2 exit polls show that fully 61 percent of voters who attend weekly religious services favored Bush. This figure includes substantial numbers of traditional Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, and even Jews (who gave Bush one in every four of their votes). The Republican spin on moral values has appeal that reaches beyond evangelical Protestantism.
And the fact that Bush is himself an individual of visible personal faith (he made the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives one of his first priorities after being inaugurated) undoubtedly has enhanced the affection of religious Americans for the Republican Party. Religious Americans clearly accept Bush as one of them.
There are still clusters of religious progressivism evident in the United States today. Of particular note is the grassroots anti-poverty organizing done under the auspices of networking groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Gamaliel Foundation, and the Pacific Institute for Community Organization. Yet there are practical reasons to believe that religious progressives on the ground are not well connected either with each other or with the elite-level organizations that share their policy agenda. The religious Left may also be stymied by its diversity and the fact that many of its leaders endorse what might be termed "scriptural relativism."
Unlike evangelicals, religious progressives encourage a wide range of scriptural interpretations. Thus it becomes challenging for clergy and other elites on the left to be viewed as authoritative speakers on other subjects. As a result, it can be difficult for religious progressive leaders to mobilize anyone for political action. For a religious Left to be resurgent in the United States, a clear moral vision that challenges social inequality and questions the legitimacy of war needs to be forwarded at both the local and national levels.
Laura Olson is associate professor of political science at Clemson Uniersity and co-author of "Religion and Politics in America."
© 2004 Newsday, Inc.