A New Faith and Politics Fight: Religious Progressives Vs. the Religious Left

With religious liberals more in the spotlight, a rift has emerged.

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Schultz and his fellow religious leftists, meanwhile, want to articulate moral or faith-based rationales for liberal positions "If we're talking about a basic human right [to abortion]," says Schultz, a Wisconsin-based United Church of Christ minister, "why should we discourage people from exercising that right?"

The same goes for gay rights. "There's no question that Jesus consorted with outlaws, sinners, and prostitutes," says Peter Laarman, who leads the Los Angeles-based religious-left group Progressive Christians Uniting and is another critic of Washington's burgeoning religious-progressive set. "For Christians to say, 'I only validate traditionally normal sexual behavior,' that's lazy theology."

After the 2004 election, religious leftists and more centrist progressives were united, pushing back on the religious right's claim that it spoke for values voters. But the Democrats' return to power, and their new enthusiasm for religion's role in politics, have exposed fractures over how to define the left's faith-based agenda. "Grass-roots people started out saying we like these people," says Schultz, referring to religious progressives. "Then I had qualms, then dissatisfaction. And then I said, 'This is just not working.' "

While religious progressives have spent a lot of time in dialogue with evangelical leaders, religious leftists argue that winning over evangelicals is a losing battle. They note that white evangelicals backed John McCain over Obama 73 to 26 percent last year, only a slight change from 2004, despite Obama's aggressive evangelical outreach. Religious leftists say it makes more sense to work with liberal religious traditions, like mainline Protestants.

So far, the escalating battle between the two camps has played out mostly in the blogosphere. "[S]ome things aren't amenable to compromise because there is no middle ground,'" Schultz blogged in a Street Prophets critique of Come Let Us Reason Together. "Either abortion is murder or it's not, and so on."

That and other criticism provoked a response from Robert P. Jones, a member of the "Come Let Us Reason Together" coalition and a key player among Washington's more centrist religious progressives. Writing on a new website called Religion Dispatches, Jones derided the religious left for dividing "the world into an ever-shrinking cadre of ideologically pure, litmus-tested allies and the remainder, a world of enemies to be defeated."

To Jones and his allies, the religious left is repeating the mistakes of the religious right, whose ideological purity has succeeded in mobilizing the GOP base but has led to few policy victories. For instance, abortion is still legal nearly 40 years after the antiabortion movement got off the ground. "The lesson from the religious right is the danger of not getting anything done," says Jones.

Which helps explain why Washington's religious progressives are increasingly embracing the centrist label. Faith in Public Life started as a Democrat-allied group operating out of the liberal Center for American Progress. "But we realized that people don't want to escalate the culture war," says Executive Director Jennifer Butler. "They want to dismantle it."

Even as groups like Faith in Public Life work to position themselves as centrist, though, much of their work clearly benefits Democrats. Working to introduce an anti-religious-right group in Ohio after the 2004 election, Faith in Public Life helped close the GOP advantage among religious voters there. Obama and Hillary Clinton attended a candidate forum that Faith in Public Life sponsored last spring, but McCain declined.

Indeed, their support from Democratic donors partly explains why religious progressives are ahead of the religious left in terms of organizing and infrastructure. But religious-left leaders have published a book called Dispatches From the Religious Left and say they've begun to organize beyond the blogosphere. Whether they can reclaim the term "religious progressive" has yet to be seen. Given that some proud religious progressives are now embracing the centrist label, though, they may have an easier fight on their hands.

Corrected on 04/01/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the web site Religion Dispatches.