Religious Left Coalitions

Author: Mark Tooley

Religious Left Coalitions

Mark Tooley

Two relatively new religious coalitions are combating the burgeoning influence of Christian conservatives. The Interfaith Alliance, created in 1994, is largely a mishmash of fading, old- line Religious Left fixtures whose predictable denunciations of Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson have failed to attract sustained attention or new allies. But the Call to Renewal, which publisher Jim Wallis helped create last year, has been considerably more successful in portraying itself as a viable alternative to the Christian Right.

Many National Council of Churches types have endorsed the Call, but their profiles have been kept noticeably low. More prominent have been "progressive" evangelicals and Roman Catholics who claim their politics are "above" and "beyond" the "traditional politics" of Left and Right. "We face a serious collapse of moral and spiritual values," Wallis told several hundred Call activists at a February conference in Washington. "Neither the Left nor the Right has understood the depth of the crisis."

Despite a brief rebuke of religious liberals who have forsaken their "moral imagination" by identifying with the Democratic Party, Wallis and other Call leaders have almost exclusively blasted the Religious Right and their Republican allies. Last December, nearly all of the Call's top leaders, including Wallis, were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in the Capitol Rotunda in protest against Republican budget cuts.

Unlike the Interfaith Alliance and the old-line Religious Left, much if not most of the Call leadership is theologically orthodox. Most proclaim to be evangelical. But like the

dispirited organs of the Religious Left, the Call has so far promoted "progressive" political action over evangelism, related to the media and liberal activist networks rather than local church members, and has de-emphasized traditional Christian teachings about sexuality and abortion so as to be "inclusive."

Of the Call's 100 prominent endorsers, eighteen are Roman Catholic, including Bishops Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minnesota; LeRoy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas; Francis Murphy of Baltimore; Peter Rosazza of Hartford, Connecticut; Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Virginia; and, Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee.

Other Catholics are Gerald Brown of the Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes, Margaret Cafferty and Joan Chittister of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Marie Dennis of Maryknoll Justice and Peace, J. Bryan Hehir of the Harvard Center for International Affairs, and Carlotta Ullmer of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. Catholic conservatives will not be surprised by these endorsers, but media coverage has contrasted high-level Catholic support for the Call to harsh criticism of the Christian Coalition by some Catholic leaders.

"It's blasphemy when religion is used to promote politics that ignore the poor, the marginal and voiceless," said Cafferty, who claimed to represent eighty thousand Catholic nuns at the Call's first press conference on May 23, 1995, at Washington's National Press Club. The Call's debut received widespread national attention, including coverage in the , the , and the . "More and more of the media realize there are other voices," Wallis has boasted.

Cafferty was joined by Wallis and other Call founders, including Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo, who seemed to summarize the Call's objective when he said, "We want to change the purpose of evangelism. . . Political issues are at the heart of the Christian faith. We thank them [the Religious Right] for making America aware that politics is religious."

Campolo, whom President Clinton has cited as one of his ten most admired preachers, pledged that the Call's "progressive evangelical caucus" would "avoid Left and Right" while advocating community programs to battle "gay-bashing, racism, and poverty." He said they would seek "reconciliation and not polarization."

A second Call press conference was held nearly a year later, on February 1, 1996. Wallis affirmed that "We think the Religious Right is wrong on many things, but we're not the Religious Left." He said, "What we see emerging is a genuine new coalition, a new network."

Wallis urged Christians to seek "common ground," but criticism of the Religious Right was sharp. Boston pastor Eugene Rivers of the African-American Azusa Christian Community condemned the Religious Right as the "Afrikaner wing of flat-earth fundamentalism." And he derided the "white supremacist orientation" of Christian conservatives, which "promotes their agenda at the expense of the poor."

This harsh rhetoric notwithstanding, Campolo declared, "this movement is about transcending bitterness, about the end of demonizing." Wes Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, reassuringly opined that there was "a silent majority in our churches today turned off by a religious community that demonizes its opponents." Wallis promised, "We're going to offer a voters' guide with criteria that will be able to be used at every level, especially local. We will not endorse candidates, not endorse parties. We want to affect the quality of the discourse. "

A two-day seminar for Call activists after the press conference indicated that the Call will be considerably more partisan than Wallis implied. James Forbes of New York's famously liberal Riverside Church lashed out at Republican policies in his opening address before an enthusiastic crowd.

"Shall we tell the truth about this grand democracy? I think that the wine has run out!" he shouted as he likened the nation's deficient political status to the wedding at Canal "No human being would balance the budget on the backs of the poor unless the wine has run out. Brothers and sisters, meanness is creeping across the land! . . .

"Some people are claiming that God has signed the Contract [with America]," Forbes exclaimed with outraged sarcasm. "Somebody has forged God's name. We need a handwriting analysis!" he told the laughing and applauding crowd. So much for escaping demonization.

Forbes lambasted the Christian Right's racist "tokenism." He cited Ben Kinslow, the amiable black cohost of Pat Robertson's <700 Club>, as his example. "Any religion that doesn't deal with cleavage between the races, sexual orientations, and genders is not strong. We must resist racism, homophobia, ageism, classism."

Despite his earlier plea for more thoughtful rhetoric, Granberg- Michaelson excoriated the "radical Religious Right" for "spurting out platitudes." He claimed that "everything they are doing destroys the family. are walking contradictions. They say they are pro-life and infiltrate our churches and subvert our weaknesses. They are not pro-life, just pro-birth. They talk about family values, but they are about greed and avarice."

He insisted that "we cannot allow them in the name of God to get away with lying. Rush Limbaugh does not speak for us." Granberg- Michaelson expressed his preference for other spokesmen, such as the reliably left-leaning National Council of Churches.

"The National Council of Churches has gotten a warm reception from the Clinton administration. I welcome it," said Granberg- Michaelson. "Clinton is a Bible-believing Baptist who has been vilified by fellow Christians. Only one-third of evangelicals support the Religious Right. The silent majority rejects the Religious Right."

editor Michael Lerner echoed fears of the Religious Right: "People are moving into religion because of legitimate fears of materialism, but they are buying into racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia." But Lerner also criticized his own side of the political spectrum to explain the Right's appeal: "In the Left, we must reject the narrow interpretation of human needs."

On a positive note, Campolo warned that Call supporters should not underestimate the sincerity or generosity of conservative Christians. "If I checked Jerry Falwell's people and their per capita giving to the poor, I bet Jerry Falwell's people would come- out better than we would. Don't think those people don't have compassion for the poor." But Campolo lapsed into more facile liberal verbiage when he became "prophetic,' about America's politics:

"There's something desperately wrong with a nation that will send its armies to protect oil, but has to debate whether or not it will save lives in Haiti or Bosnia," Campolo emoted flamboyantly. "There's something wrong with a nation that will use its resources to keep a dictator in his place if he threatens our wealth, but won't if he presses people and makes them suffer."

Campolo defended the Head Start program, gun control, environmental regulation, and federal spending on education as evidence of the "kingdom of God" in a nation called to devote its "resources" to "His honor and glory." He affirmed that "we are united against those who would dismantle the safety net. It hasn't worked like it should, but it's worked better than a lot of people think it has."

Although a self-professed evangelical, Campolo was willing to be provocative with his language about God. "God is beyond the rational categories of thought. You can only surrender to her, you got that?!" he proclaimed to applause. "That little shift. He is beyond that. She is beyond that. God is a presence."

Campolo proclaimed that Jesus' "kingdom was of this world. He didn't talk much about the other world. It was one world at a time for him."

Like Campolo, Boston Pentecostal pastor Eugene Rivers is avowedly evangelical. More strongly than Campolo, he affirmed traditional church teachings about homosexuality and abortion and was more explicit in recognizing the Call's limitations. Noting the presence of only thirteen or fourteen black people in the audience, Rivers declared, "Let's get real. This is the white Religious Left. When the media gets here we want to pad the numbers. But we are talking about a very small group. We are a prophetic minority."

Rivers lamented that the black community has been a "dumping ground" for the white Left. And he decried the "opportunism" of liberals who had likened the history of "lynched" blacks in the South to the difficulties of middle-class white women and the white gay community.

Wallis interjected that the Religious Right "makes a litmus test" of abortion and homosexuality. He urged moving "beyond old thinking" on these issues in search of "common ground.... There are people in this room who have different theologies about homosexuality.... Let's not scapegoat gay and lesbian people."

Ron Sider of the moderately liberal Evangelicals for Social Action disagreed with Wallis about agreeing to disagree on sexuality issues. According to one Call organizer, Sider was crucial in recruiting evangelicals for the Call who would not have responded to Wallis. Even more than Rivers, Sider stressed the importance of traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. "One thing typical of the Left is to say that poverty and economic justice are far more important than family, sexual integrity, and the sanctity of human life. There's as much pain in this country from lack of sexual faithfulness as from economic injustice."

The audience response to Sider's plea was muted, and several people walked out. One homosexual Baptist pastor told Christianity Today that he had to leave in protest because he had been "hurt" and "surprised" by remarks from Sider and Rivers. Wallis assistant Duane Shank explained to the same reporter, "We are in agreement on poverty issues, but less clear, obviously, on issues like abortion and homosexuality."

Racism was another chief topic for the Call conference. Rivers declared that, "White supremacy is the defining feature of the white church." Meanwhile, former National Council of Churches racial justice unit chief Joe Agne, a United Methodist minister, told of his own agonizing journey as a guilt-ridden European American: "White supremacy is the defining issue in this country." He claimed that the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation were merely "shock troops that protect the privilege of those of us who call ourselves white."

Other than Agne, speakers from the old-line NCC establishment were rare. Endorsers of the Call include NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning, United Methodist Bishop (and NCC President) Melvin Talbert, Disciples of Christ President Richard Hamm, and United Church of Christ President Paul Cherry. None has appeared at any Call public function, although Campbell reportedly has tried to acquire a role.

The Call's endorsement by one hundred mostly evangelical church leaders has gained it some credibility to speak for at least a faction of America's church members. Unlike the Interfaith Alliance, whose leaders are largely unelected representatives of declining church bodies, the Call does connect with some of America's more vibrant Christian communities. Spokesmen like Rivers, for example, in all probability legitimately speak for black Pentecostalism.

Other Call endorsers include Myron Augsburger of the Christian College Coalition, Steve Haynes of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Roberta Hestenes of Eastern College, and J. I. Packer of , all of whom are respected evangelical leaders. This leadership aside, even Rivers accurately recognized that the Call remains largely an elitist movement of politically liberal evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

The Call is primarily a project of Wallis and his magazine, coordinated by national organizer Duane Shank. Both Wallis and Shank have long activist histories that have, on occasion, intertwined them with the totalitarian far Left, such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. "We must be very careful not to be the Religious Left," Wallis told the Call conference in February. But if Wallis is not the Religious Left, then who is?

Wallis urged that "we need a third way. This country is desperately in need of it." He is probably right that a large segment of American Christians, Catholic and Protestant, thirst for a political alternative to the Christian Coalition. He is certainly right that "things are unraveling," that "neighborhoods are falling apart," and that the answers are more involved than the election of "as many right-wing Republicans as possible." This noted, he is absolutely right that "religion could become a healing force in the political debate."

Public statements from the Call so far indicate that it intends to drag the evangelical and Catholic worlds into the same left-wing political conformity and theological ambiguity (if not blatant apostasy) that have paralyzed much of old-line Protestantism. NCC spokesmen may not be present at Call events, but their spirit is. It is no surprise that Marian Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, that righteous warrior for the welfare state, is a Call endorser.

The "renewal" to which the Church must call our nation is far more profound than the political defense of federal agencies and programs that the Call to Renewal has so far promoted. Neither the Department of Education nor the Endangered Species Act are vital pillars of the authentic Kingdom of God. The Religious Right has grown because it understands this. The Religious Left, however, will not expand beyond seminary campuses and Washington conference halls until it seeks to understand likewise.

MARK TOOLEY is a research associate and UMAction Director at The Institute for Religion and Democracy.

This article was taken from the July/August 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: