Downfall

In the last few years we’ve seen the birth of a new book genre: the Religious Left Political Testimonial. The common theme of these books is that politics has been warped by the dominance of the religious right and the “secular left.” The authors describe how their personal commitment to progressive politics was shaped by religion and remind us of the role that religion played in the great progressive movements of the past.

Of late, we’ve seen a variant of this argument made by a number of writers: Sojourners editor Jim Wallis (God’s Politics, The Great Awakening); former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (Failing America’s Faithful); NewsHour‘s Ray Suarez (The Holy Vote); Tikkun‘s Michael Lerner (The Left Hand of God); former Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan (The Party Faithful, reviewed here: LINK); and political analyst E. J. Dionne Jr. (Souled Out).

This approach has now become the de facto position of the Democratic Party. Behold the stark difference in approaches between the current candidates and John Kerry, who declared, JFK-like, that his faith wouldn’t influence his policies, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said that, on the contrary, faith powerfully fuels their progressive approach.

Perhaps some of this is just political calculation. The candidates and their handlers may have concluded that appearing indifferent to religion is foolish in a country in which more than 90 percent of the voters say they believe in God. But if all that comes of this new consciousness is that Democratic speechwriters now remember to put “INSERT BIBLE QUOTE HERE” in their speech drafts, not much will have been gained. There needs to be some actual thought given to what religion really teaches about our obligations to our neighbors, human nature, and other factors that shape policy.

That’s where Dionne’s book really shines. In addition to being able to dissect exit polls with the best of them, Dionne is also a student of theology. Writing as a believing Catholic as well as a political pundit, he explains how Catholic doctrine has shaped his own approach to politics and policy.

Dionne makes the obvious point (still worth noting) that Jesus was an anti-establishment figure who admonished his followers to serve the poor and said nothing about abortion or homosexuality. He also notes that many of the issues that drove conservative religious Americans into the Republican Party were suspiciously unrelated to faith: racial integration, crime, taxes, and other nonreligious aspects of liberalism. (I’d add: one of the key issues that prompted the birth of the Moral Majority was Jimmy Carter’s support of the Panama Canal treaty; it’s hard to see how keeping the waterway in American hands would have been at the top of Jesus’s to-do list.)

Harmful as the religious right has been, Dionne argues, the “secular left” has made matters worse by overreacting. By secular left he means that portion of the electorate that combines support for a strict separation of church and state with a detectable contempt for religion or religious people. Members of the secular left view political invocations of God as a sign of looming theocracy and are hostile to declarations of faith in public. Though not dominant even among the liberal elite, they are numerous enough to put books like Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great on the best-seller list and to provoke Democratic leaders into awkward and damaging displays of political correctness. My favorite example was when John Kerry, a devout Catholic himself, said during his 2004 acceptance speech that he “welcomed” people of faith into the party, as if it were an act of magnanimity to a small minority.

“One of liberalism’s great achievements has been its resolute opposition to bigotry,” Dionne writes. “Bigotry against people of faith is not only ugly; it is inconsistent with the liberal creed.” But just as the old religious right leadership has shown itself this campaign season to be past its prime, so too the secular left seems to have lost some cloutor at least to have made a tactical decision to stop complaining when Democratic politicians invoke God. They mutter under their breaths that it’s stupid, but they accept that politically it’s better for the Democrats if they sound “faithier.”

If in fact the religious left is back inside the tent of Democratic politics, that is very good news for the progressive cause, if history is any guide. As Dionne explains, the great social justice movements of the past two centuries were all powerfully fueled by people of faith motivated by a biblically inspired concern for social justice and the poor. He also notes that Jesus was all about confronting the powers-that-be: “It is impossible to see Jesus as a tool of the establishment.”

Okay, religious progressives care for the little guy. So far it just sounds like there’s a remarkable similarity between their concerns and the Democratic Party platform of the last few decades. Does religious tradition offer anything that an orthodox secular liberal wouldn’t say?

Yes, says Dionne. If you look at either the Bible or the history of social movements, you’ll find that the religious voice invariably has combined a concern for the poor with a strong commitment to personal responsibility. “This connection was visible not only in the Prohibition movement, but also in the early trade-union movement, which put heavy emphasis on education and self-help, even as it preached organizing and solidarity. It was powerfully present in the civil rights movement.” These were movements that placed demands on both society at large and the individuals within it. Poverty, he says, will not be addressed unless society deals with both racism and structural problems and single parenthood and family breakdown. At their best, religious leaders don’t urge us merely to lift up the poor, but also to fight the causes of poverty, be they economic forces or the weaknesses of human nature to which all of us are prey. It is this biblically based moralism that allows religious progressives to condemn the self-destructive behaviors that lead to family dysfunction and poverty without seeming to be “blaming the victim.” It’s a moralism that secular liberals of the 1970s and ’80s rejected, but that FDR was perfectly comfortable with and that New Democrats have tried, with much success, to reinject into their party.

Another area where faith takes religious liberals in a different direction than secular liberals is abortion. While religious lefties such as Jim Wallis avoid involvement with the conservative anti-abortion movement, they speak openly of abortion as something to be avoided and take seriously the goal of reducing the abortion rate. This has made pro-choice activists uncomfortable. One of the most interesting moments for the Democratic Party will be when the nominee decides whether to have an abortion-reduction strategy along with a pro-choice position.

Dionne offers a particularly shrewd analysis of the religious holes in the GOP platform. It’s not just that conservative Republicans mouth platitudes about compassion for the poor while doing little to help thema point even now being made by some of their own leaders, like Mike Huckabee. It’s also that they refuse to admit the obvious conflicts between Christian doctrine and their belief in unfettered free markets. By contrast, Dionne points out, conservative Catholics like Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II combined their social conservatism with an extremely progressive view of how markets needed to be tamed for the social good (leading them to support, for instance, trade unions around the world).

I have only a few minor quibbles with Dionne’s book. The first is a historic point. Dionne says that American liberalism was always more pluralistic because we did not experience the religious wars of Europe. In fact, Americans became pluralistic because they did experience religious conflict, not in Europe but in the colonies. Prior to the drafting of the Constitution, most American colonies had official religions and persecuted their religious minoritiesfor example, imprisoning Baptists and Quakers for heresy. The colonists viewed religious liberty as the freedom of their sect to dominate others. It was because this system worked so badly that the Founders rejected the approach of their ancestors and embraced pluralism.

Moreover, Dionne gives insufficient attention to some of the tensions within liberalism that will eventually result from an energized religious left. While Republicans certainly led the way in downplaying the importance of poverty as an issue, the Democrats followed suit by deciding that elections were all about winning the middle class. Only John Edwards elevated poverty as a central concern, and you can see where that got him. Will religious leaders on the left really criticize Democrats for paying insufficient attention to the poor?

Progressives must also grapple with the fact that within the Democratic Party, some religious leaders are the main opponents of gay rights; you can see this in not only liberal Catholic bishops but also many African American and Latino clergy. The Iraq War and the sinking economy have somewhat obscured this division, but it still persists just below the surface.

These are, however, minor complaints. Souled Out is consistently engaging, learned, and persuasive. Charmingly, Dionne ties it all together not with a recitation of Dorothy Day or Reinhold Niebuhr but Frank Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie, he writes, far from being merely sentimental, actually captured the full mix of American values:

“Americans are deeply egalitarian but also believe in upward mobility and the value of owning property.” (Hence the hero George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, owns a savings-and-loan.)

“Americans love family values but dislike harsh condemnations of those who may fail in their efforts to live up to them.” (Bailey risks scandal by lending money to a “bad girl.”)

“Capitalists can be good, but only if they recognize moral limitsthe social mortgage on their wealth.” (George Bailey becomes beloved, after all, not through charity but through lending people money so they can help themselves. He was a microlender, not a welfare program.)

Any book that treats It’s a Wonderful Life as theologically significant is to be read carefullyespecially when it draws such shrewd lessons in the process.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman, a contributing editor, is co-founder and president of Report for America, which places talented emerging journalists into local newsrooms.