Political liberals seem to have learned one lesson from the 2004 elections: Values, especially religious values, matter to the American people. There is a rush on to deny the religious right the moral high ground. Last year God’s Politics (HarperCollins), by Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, was a bestseller. Wallis’s subtitle said it all, “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” Jimmy Carter, our most respected ex-president—and, in my view, a much underrated one—weighed in with his views on the interplay of religion, ethics and politics in Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (Simon and Schuster). In a contrarian effort to deprive any political movement of the mantle of Jesus’ authority, the Catholic polymath Garry Wills has published What Jesus Meant (Knopf). The one-time Jesuit, former classicist, journalist, historian and culture critic argues that the Gospel is beyond politics.
Meanwhile the former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta has spun off two organizations from his Center for American Progress with the hope of increasing political participation on the part of the religious left. The Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, headed by Alexia Kelly, a former staffer of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, aims, it says, at creating “a culture that reverences the life and dignity of the human person over greed and materialism, and over the politics of division.” Faith and Public Life, headed by the Rev. Jennifer Butler, a former Presbyterian representative at the United Nations, attempts to improve communications skills for religious leaders across the political spectrum and to provide spokespersons and rapid-response commentators for the media. The two groups, in conjunction with Georgetown University Law School, are sponsoring a multi-year effort with Catholic and evangelical scholars in the hope of formulating a shared framework on social issues that candidates and voters might use for their guidance. (No litmus tests here.)
Into this melee comes Rabbi Michael Lerner with The Left Hand of God (HarperSanFrancisco). Lerner, the founder and editor of Tikkun, the pioneering Jewish journal on religion, spirituality and politics, offers an agenda for a new spiritual politics. In part an analysis of the moral vacuum on the left, in part a platform for a religiously inspired politics, the book is also intended as the precursor to what Lerner hopes will be a new movement of religious progressives. On May 17-20 he will host in Washington, D.C., a gathering for the Network for Spiritual Progressives, an interfaith coalition he would like to assemble around a “spiritual covenant for America.”
After nearly two generations in the wilderness, there are plenty of pro-life/pro-poor/pro-peace Catholics eager to find a new political home. But political activists like Podesta and Lerner may underestimate the difficulty of wooing the Catholic left. Even if one puts aside the demographic and social shifts in the Catholic population, social-teaching Catholics are less comfortable with allying religion and politics than Jews, Evangelicals or black Protestants. As a result of the 20th-century struggle to be accepted as American, they have acquired more inhibitions over the commingling of church and state than outsiders might expect.
Catholics, of course, would like to think they have outgrown the suspicion that once in power they will take their lead from the Vatican. That mistrust was rekindled, however, in the controversies over the Roberts and Alito nominations last year and in the media coverage of them. There is, all the same, a certain reaction formation, as the psychologists used to term it, among many liberal and moderately progressive Catholics. It shows itself in a reluctance, as members of “the church,” to appear to be imposing their views on a broader public. Members of the largest denomination in the country, they hesitate to make power plays that others could interpret as bullying. There are, of course, no such inhibitions on the Catholic right.
What can we expect, then, of this sort of Catholic participation in these efforts to organize the religious left? First, we can expect a more deliberative movement, where the pro-life, pro-poor, pro-immigrant agenda is thoughtfully hammered out and allegiances won for a common program. Second, to maintain such allegiances, candidates and their staffs will be expected to show greater discipline than in past years. Finally, we can hope for a moderate politics, averse to demonization, that will be inclusive but not fragmented, and attractive to the wide middle of the American polity.
Surely, we can hope.
Correction: Drew Christiansen’s Of Many Things column of April 3 mistakenly reported that the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good was a spin-off of the Center for American Progress. The Alliance is an independent organization with backing from Pax Christi U. S. A.