Jim Wallis Gets it Wrong about the Religious Right (Again) [UPDATED]
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 12:02:41 AM EST
Jim Wallis has an announcement to make.

In an essay in Time magazine, the author of the popular book God's Politics: Why the Religious Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, declares: The Religious Right's Era Is Over.

And what evidence does he have for this remarkably sunny assertion?

Well, none.

Wallis claims:
We have now entered the post-Religious Right era. Though religion has had a negative image in the last few decades, the years ahead may be shaped by a dynamic and more progressive faith that will make needed social change more possible.

As usual, Wallis speaks movingly of his desire for a "revival," to address the social concerns that most progressives would share. But he presents no evidence that the religious right is in any way out of the picture. Really. Absolutely none.

I have written before, that as much as I admire Wallis' good works over many years, his analysis of the role of religion in American politics is screwy, at best. Now, I feel I have been far too generous. He has a pattern of making big, unsupported assertions, as if his saying them somehow makes them true. This kind of thinking is not progressive, but deeply reactionary; discouraging people from actively thinking about the religious right and what to do about it, and thereby hampering our ability to understand, describe and consider some formidable adversaries. It does the cause of progressivism, and that of the Democratic Party (in which Wallis is increasingly influential) a disservice to overlook his astoundingly uninformed and misguided thinking.

Here then is a review of the major distortions of the political scene that I have encountered in Wallis' work. (I do not claim to be an expert on Wallis, so there may be much more that I have not seen.)

In October 2000, just prior to the election, Wallis, writing at Beliefnet, declared in an article headlined "The Rise and Fall of the Religious Right" that "the influence of the religious right is in steady decline." His evidence? That George W. Bush had declined to appear at the Coalition's annual conference, and that the Coalition had other organizational difficulties. A short time later, the world got to see how radically wrong Wallis was. His error was a mix of wishful thinking, and conflating the fortunes of one, albeit important, organization with the vitality and power of the religious right as a whole.  (Unsurprisingly, I had a different take on the prospects of the religious right at the time. I think the history of the past 7 years has borne me out.)

Most of Wallis' Time essay is about how he sees stirrings of religious revival and that these may lead to movements of social reform. Few would disagree that there are interesting stirrings among more moderate evangelicals among others, but this is not the same thing as saying that the era of the religious right is over -- only that some other people who are not the religious right are doing and saying some interesting things.

But this is not the only prominent error that marks his analysis of American politics. Last year, I wrote that Wallis blamed unnamed secularists for all manner of terrible things in his book God's Politics. His evidence that this mysterious group was up to no good? Well, none.

I wrote at the time:

To listen to or read Jim Wallis, you would think that legions of the Secular Left are rampaging across the land; that the secularity police are billy-clubbing every expression of religion in public life -- especially if it happens to be Christian; and ruthlessly blocking "people of faith" from participation in constitutional democracy and requiring politicians to hide their religiosity.

To offer but one example, (among many) early in God's Politics, Wallis writes,

"We contend today with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith."

OK, so who are these "secular fundamentalists" whose "way" is equivalent to the theocratic religious right and must be thwarted? You gotta think that there must be some pretty important people and powerful organizations involved. Right? Think again.

As far as I can tell, from a sampling of his many interviews, and his book, he has never named a single "secular fundamentalist," and has never identified or defined what he calls the "secular left" or specified its impact on religious life and political expression. Never, that is, except on page 69 of God's Politics, where he claims that there are many secular fundamentalists who

"attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political Left's most religion fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the "American Ideal."

Look it up and see for yourself. Wallis does not offer any of evidence in support of his attack on these civil liberties organizations -- all of whom are at the forefront of the protection of religious freedom in America. Indeed, the ADL represents the civil liberties interests of Jews, and the leaders of Americans United have always been predominantly religious. The current executive director, Barry Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. The ACLU is a network of attorneys of mixed political and religious orientation -- but are fierce defenders of the First Amendment. Are there many people who are non-religious who also populate the Left and these organizations? Well sure. But the same is true for the Right and for that matter, Libertarians. People who advocate for secularity in public life are not usually opponents of religious expression, rather they are proponents of religious freedom and separation of church and state who seek to defend democratic pluralism against the advances of religious supremacism in all of its forms. But Wallis' characterization of these organizations is indistinguishable from the leaders of the religious right.

It should not go unremarked in this context, that Wallis in 1996, signed onto a draconian antiabortion manifesto. Moiv, writing at Talk to Action,revealed:  

But before his elevation as an "evangelical progressive" celebrity, together with a Who's Who of the Religious Right that he now says "gets it wrong".... Jim Wallis signed a lengthy document that said plenty about abortion, culminating in a call for a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion entirely. And to this day, adept as he is at dodging questions about his true position, Wallis has yet to repudiate a word of it.... A partial list of signatories includes such luminaries of the Religious Right as Gary Bauer Family Research Council; Charles W. Colson Prison Fellowship; Guy M. Condon of Care Net; James C. Dobson , Focus on the Family; Clarke D. Forsythe, Americans United for Life; Wanda Franz, National Right to Life Committee; Robert P. George; William Kristol, Project for the Republican Future; Beverly LaHaye, Concerned Women for America; Richard Land, Southern Baptist Convention; Bernard N. Nathanson, MD, Richard John Neuhaus, Institute on Religion and Public Life; Frank A. Pavone , Priests for Life; Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition . . . and Jim Wallis, Sojourners

Wallis' assertions about the end of the religious right are belied by a major article in the same issue of Time that his "viewpoint" essay apppears, discussing the national network of anti-abortion "crisis preganancy centers," many of which are receiving funding from state governments. But then again, perhaps Wallis does not view these state funded-agencies of religious prosylization and medical misinformation as part of the infrastructure of the religious right.

In any case, I thought we had heard the last of Wallis' dubious political analysis. But in a post '06 election article on BeliefNet; Wallis claimed:

In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard.

While I would agree that the 2006, election was a set-back for the religious right, it was far from the thorough "defeat" Wallis implies. But meanwhile, what was his evidence that the election was a defeat for the secular Left? (whatever that is.) Well, none.

It is difficult to discern what in the world he is thinking when he makes these preposterous pronouncements. But it does seem to be reasonably clear that Wallis is busy positioning himself and his designees as the "voice of the moral center." And to do this, he sets up the religious right and the ever-mysterious, unnamed "secular Left" as strawmen for him to position himself between.

Just before the '06 elections, Chip Berlet, also writing at Talk to Action observed  that premature predictions of the demise of the religious right, a biannual event in American politics, were already creeping into the media:

I don't know how the Republicans will do in the upcoming elections, but I do know that the Christian Right as a social movement will survive, and remain a powerful factor in the social, cultural, and political life of the United States. Every few years--following an electoral defeat of Republicans, the collapse of a Christian Right organization, or a televangelist getting caught with his pants down (literally)--the death of the Christian Right is announced in the media...corporate or alternative.

I wish I had a dime....

Christian Right groups come and go, the Christian Right as a social movement remains strong. For example, the Christian Coalition replaced the Moral Majority. The Christian Coalition collapsed several years ago as a national network. Now it is being replaced by the FRC Action coalition, which will do highly targeted voter mobilization among conservative Christian evangelicals using sophisticated techniques that will go under the radar unless you are enmeshed in the conservative Christian evangelical subculture....

Win or lose, skilled Christian Right activists will emerge with stronger grassroots organizations and longer lists of names of potential recruits.

Wallis concludes his Time essay, having presented not a word of evidence that the religious right has been dispatched, declaring:

The era of the Religious Right is now past, and it's up to all of us to create a new day.

This is the kind of wishful thinking that has too often guided progressives and Democrats. But the religious right remains one of the most powerful political forces in the United States. And its leaders and leading organizations are being being actively courted by most, if not all of the Republican candidates for president. (It should go without saying that this would not be the case if the religious right were unimportant.)  The religious right continues to play a major role in the politics of the national Republican Party, and dominates many state parties.

I do not know why Wallis makes wildly unsupported and demonstrably false declarations with such apparent frequency.  But I am quite certain that smart, well-informed political strategies are more likely to be effective than those guided by ignorance and unfounded assertions.    

Update [2007-2-20 21:45:5 by Frederick Clarkson]: Wallis has managed to ignite further debate by behaving in his customary high-handed fashion. He he calls out Markos of the Daily Kos; and in making a seemingly constructive call for an alliance between "secular" and religious progressives, he manages to insult and annoy people: Kos responds as do bloggers Atrios at Eschaton and Big Tent Democrat at Talk Left. Pastordan at Street Prophets writes:

So Mr. Wallis, let's make our own deal. How about if you realize that there are other people in the religious grassroots working carefully and productively to make common cause with secular progressives - they've been doing it long before you came on the scene, and they'll be doing long after we're both gone - and how about if you save your patronizing lectures. In return, we won't call you a horse's ass. How about it?

is always a tricky area of discussion -- the religious right in particular -- that's why we are all going to have to get a lot better at it.

At the moment, bogus assertions like those of Jim Wallis are what is passing for informed discourse.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 12:51:28 AM EST

is unaccustomed to interacting with the on-line reality-based community who expect assertions to be backed up with facts.  As long as his lectures and books which contain such sweeping assertions are lapped up by people who just want their impressions confirmed, will he listen to anyone else?

by Rusty Pipes on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 05:05:40 PM EST
seems to be about shutting off conversation rather than opening it. His unsupported claims about the secular Left are contagious and contribute to the balkanization of progressives, dividing the religious from the non-religious by creating an atomosphere of mutual suspicion.  This is irresponsible and I, for one, will continue to speak out about it.

If anyone has concrete things to say that can 1) define the secular left 2) identify exactly who and what does that Wallis et al are concerned about (or do not do enough of what wallis et al would prefer them to do), I have yet to see it. If and when they produce -- we may have something worth talking about.

The absence of specificity is breathtaking -- and the scope in which people refuse to report and discuss and yet insist that every empty accusation made is utterly true -- is utterly amazing.


by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 09:10:28 PM EST

Wallis may not be in the habit of interacting with the reality-based community but he certainly gets feedback - not only from major bloggers such as Atrios, Markos, and Paster Dan as Fred Clarkson points out below - but he gets it from his own blog. It's important to check out the comments on his latest swipe at the left. His commenters call him out loudly and clearly with the same criticisms made repeatedly here and, more recently, on other liberal blogs. And this isn't the first time. He was slammed in the comments section of an earlier post of his that was discussed here. Thanks to Bruce Prescott's blog, I discovered at the time that this history runs long and deep. Bruce provided a bit of interesting history.

At a conference at Baylor University in April of 1996, Wallis was fully informed and repeatedly warned that his disdain for the First Amendment would serve the purposes of the Dominionist Right and would only make it easier for them to turn the poor out into the streets. James Dunn, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Derek Davis, Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Phil Lineberger, Director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Foy Valentine, retired Director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a host of other ardent church-state separationists might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Like many Dominionists, Wallis seems to think the end (for Wallis -- helping the poor; for Dominionists -- building a theocracy) justifies the means -- gutting the First Amendment and its prohibition of discrimination against religious minorities.

The reason why Wallis always speaks generically about "secularists," never naming them, is because he well knows that naming all the moderate, mainstream Baptist leaders who have opposed him face-to-face on church-state issues would only serve to negate his position.

One might even say that Wallis' misperception and distortion of others views and his penchant for setting up straw men approaches that we see on the religious right. I don't fully understand his underlying motivation but, certainly, the fact that he's sold a lot of books and become the darling of the centrist (DLC) Democrats and those who (mistakenly) believe that the '04 election was lost because Dem's weren't "religious" enough reinforces this tic.

I guess the big question is what to do about it. While it's important to keep challenging him directly, it seems the ultimate targets should be the politicians who are naive enough to swallow this stuff. Hopefully, they (or their aides) read the blogs and it might be a good idea for readers to send links to the political campaigns each time this issue is discussed on any blog. Quasi-religious left consultants seem to be a growing cottage industry and they have the potential to be as destructive to a truly progressive agenda as other "centrist" consultants have been in the past. It might also be a good idea for front pagers here to post comments to Wallis' blog (as Pastor Dan did today) with links to Talk2Action. Many of the commenters there seem to be more in synch with this blog than the one at Beliefnet.

by Psyche on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 11:57:26 PM EST

I am rather happy to have both claims (those of Wallis and Clarkson) out there because I think the truth is somewhere in the middle of them but I doubt that a more nuanced (and accurate) statement would get the attention that this discussion needs.  First, Wallis' proclamation does have a positive impact in the evangelical community.  He is one of them, in effect giving them permission to reject the automatic equivalence of evangelicalism and right-wing Christianity.  That is a good thing politically and, in the specific context of the evangelical community I suspect it is closer to being accurate than Clarkson's account recognizes.  But it would be a disaster if Wallis' position were taken to be applicable to American religious and political life generally.  The Christian right took a hit in the last election and the broader process that its outcome represents, but it is organizationally and financially strong, has a great deal of power and money at stake, and therefore is not about to give up.  This is where Clarkson's voice, and Talk2Action generally, is important.  That said, some of Clarkson's contentions are wrong, just as Wallis' are on the other side.  Take for example the question of whether there is an influential hostility toward religion on the secular left.  There is, in my judgment and experience, and it is a problem.  I do not mean that religion is suffering in this country (quite the contrary), or that I think the left generally wants to stamp it out (all of us on the left would like its absolutist and exclusivist forms to disappear).  Rather, I mean that a large and powerful segment of the secular left refuses to provide the kind of strategic, organizational, and financial support to the religious left that would come even close to mirroring the political/religious alliance on the right.  (I will not name these individuals and organizations because they are doing a lot of good in other ways and, frankly, I keep hoping they will wake up to political realities.  Anyway, nothing is gained by picking a fight with them in public.)  Without a parallel alliance on the left, the religious right will rise to dominance again in this country, even if Wallis is correct about the current situation.  Dawkins and Dennett to the contrary notwithstanding, religion is here to stay and the best long term antidote to a dominant religious right is a strong, articulate religious left, with the same kind of systemic and marketing capabilities that right wing religion now has.  A strong left wing religion is important precisely because it does not seek to impose a leftist religious regime instead of a rightwing one.  Instead, it champions a democratic society whose pluralism extends equitably to varied religious, non-religious, and anti-religious viewpoints, and--this is important--it does so for its own religious (or theological) reasons, not merely for those of political self-interest.   

by doubtisdivine on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 06:24:50 PM EST
Please be specific, doubtisdivine, regarding your critique of the mythological secular Left, which Jim Wallis so glibly equates with the Religious right.

If you have a definition and can name any organizational or individual leaders, you will be the first to do so.

Wallis's public writings, including and especially his best selling book God's Politics have bought into the fundamental framing of the religious right, positing in the most manichean fashion possible, the dark forces of secularism vs God's people.

Wallis is becoming a divisive force among progressives in the way that he adopts the central frame of the religious right. I would encourage you to consider that you are drifting into adoption of his framing as well.  No religious left will be possible if progressive religious leaders adopt this kind of thinking. If you have been following my writing for any length of time, you would know that I encourage the development of a religious left along the very terms you describe. And that is one reason why Wallis's increasingly unfounded assertions are so disturbing -- because he is making them and because he is gaining higher levels of public exposure.

I will continue to challenge this stuff.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 09:25:11 PM EST

That's what Wallis's claims remind me of.  Read his latest response to Kos and Atrios.

I don't for one minute believe his anecdotes about un-named members of Congress.  

I'm also made very, very uncomfortable by the suspicion that Wallis' references to the supposedly hostile-to-religion funders are code for Jewish progressives who are reluctant to fund explicitly Christian organizations.

There needs to be a civil and respectful dialogue, and I'm glad it's begun, but it has a long way to go.  And it will be hard to keep it civil until Wallis is willing to be more honest.

by Nell on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 06:07:43 PM EST

Thanks for your response to my remarks.  I am not persuaded that taking a middle ground, in the very specific way that I did, is false or that it is tending toward adopting Wallis' framework.  But you are right to warn us about the enormous political cost, as well as the conceptual fallacy, of pitting secular perspectives against religious ones.  That is not my view.  I only wished to make two points.  First, that Wallis' announcement--which is too optimistic by far and so by no means should cause us to back off of the critique of the religious right--does nevertheless introduce among evangelicals the idea that being an evangelical need not mean being beholden to the Christian right.  (Gregory Boyd makes the same point, with greater theological insight.)  My second point is more important (to me): It is that the secular left has not yet been willing to ally itself actively with the religious left to the degree needed to build a strong and effective religious left in this country.  In addition to progressive religious denominations and interdenominational organizations, there are literally scores of grassroots progressive Christian, Jewish and "interfaith" initiatives doing excellent work but having to struggle to stay alive for lack of adequate financial and strategic resources.  I will continue to avoid naming specific people, but I will say that individuals associated (as funders and staffers)with organizations like the Open Society Institute, the Center for American Progress, and People for the American Way need to join with, and support, these progressive religious organizations and initiatives.  And until they do so to a degree that more closely approximates the support that Right Wing funders give to Right Wing religion, the progressive religion movement in this country will not have the capacity to affect our social and political discourse in a sustained way.  The fact is that these progressive funders do not provide significant support--financial or otherwise--to progressive religion.  Why is that the case?  My own guess (I can't read minds and I don't have quotations to prove my view) is that their reluctance stems from a judgment that the impact of religion in the past half century is simply an odd kink in Western history and that in the long run religion (the "superstructure") won't continue to have causal power in our social discourse.  Pretty soon, on this view, religion will retreat again into the private intersticies of our society and other factors will again be the primary determinants of political outcomes.  I don't deny the power of other factors (often it is "the economy, stupid"), but I think it is naive to fail to see that religion has been fundamentally intertwined with politics since our nation's beginning (for better AND for worse), and a lasting progressive movement needs to incorporate a progressive religious vision--for which a strong alliance of religious and secular progressives is essential.  I don't think we have that now. 

by doubtisdivine on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 05:19:53 PM EST
I still maintain that a false middle is being staked out -- notably when you say that Clarkson is "wrong" but don't say how. (Thats the Wallis method.)

But since you have ventured part way out of the shadows, and ar complaining about lack of funding, let me just point out that of the three organzations you name, two of them are not funding agencies.  Meanwhile, a few weeks back none other than the IRD published a report, in which it complained that more than half of the National Council of Churches' most recent budget came from "secular" sources including the Rockefeller Foundation and even the Sierra Club. (I wrote about this at the time, and you can follow the links to get more details.)

I might add that both the Center for American Progress and People for the American Way both have a history of working with religious communities. So if there is a critique to be made, it will have to be far more specific to make any sense to me or to anyone else.

That said, Wallis has a long record, one Bruce Wilson and I have detailed, of outrageous secular bashing: factually unsupported, intellectually indefensible, and politically counter productive. These things cannot be explained away by taking one dimension of his Time article without consideration of the rest of his meaning, especially in the context of the main body of his work. Sure, Wallis represents a sector of evangelicalism that is not part of the religious right. Good. Tony Campolo and for that matter, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton represent that as well. So? This fact alone does not justify Wallis saying stupid things and people defending those stupid things. This does not further the conversations that need to take place, rather it firms up the divisions created by Wallis in the first place. It is long past time that this conversation that has been going on among concerned and reasonably well informed people, mature and that we do not go forward with the false framing Wallis borrowed from Tim LaHaye, Francis Schaeffer and R.J. Rushdoony.

Religious and non-religious (lets drop the word secular, shall we? it means so many different things to different people) progressives certainly do need to find ways to work better with one another: but let's be up front that there are those, suchas Wallis, who benefit form maintaining the artificial barriers;and blaming unnamed others for their own failures.

Here at Talk to Action, we have religious and non-religious writers getting along swimmingly, because our differences are not nearly as important as those values and concerns that bring us together. We do our reporting and our analysis based on facts and direct experiences. We try to be transparent and acknowledge our errors when they happen. (And they do.) And even when we disagree, we do not question each others motives. If there are reasons to hold some specifics back, there are good, ethically sound reasons for doing so.  This stands in contrast with Wallis, who makes sweeping pronouncements based on nothing. I realize there are many aspects to Jim Wallis's work, and I always go out of my way to say so. (I might add I even published in Sojourners magazine some years ago.)  I am zeroing in on this constellation of issues, because it is important to do so, and it is a problem that is only going to escalate in its significance as he rises in the world of celebrity religion.

And by the way, there is no one here who thinks that religion has not played a role in politics forever. This site exists in part because that is so, and that we understand it will continue to be so, and that it is important to navigate this territory well.

But back to your main point, I am unaware of any movements called the religious left or the secular left in the U.S. The religious right on the other hand, is a well established and identifiable movement. This is one of the reasons why Wallis's false equivalencies don't fly.

It has been my experience over many years that religious and non-religious individuals and organizations work together all the time. Others do not. So?  Is there a single reason for this?

I agree with you that there are indeed many fine local interfaith organizations. And I can't think of any that don't work with non-religious groups; nor have I ever experienced non-religious groups that would not work with them.  Ever.

So the challenge continues to go out. Those -- and let's begin with Jim Wallis -- who have a critique, a concern or a whole raft of concerns and critiques of other people, other organizations for what they do or do not do, many of us are eager to hear them so they can be considered on their merits. Demagogic  hearsay just isn't going to cut it.

Certainly, some kinds of conversations are not well suited for public airing. Responsible people in public life always understand that. What I am saying is that the approach that Jim Walllis is taking in his public argument is irresponsible and a page, (nay several chapters in God's Politics) taken from the religious right. Other of his writings since have, unsurprisingly, been continuations of his themes. These have proved divisive and counter productive.

The fact is that the era of the religious right is not over, no matter what Jim Wallis says. But in order for us to make sure that it happens someday, the mindless secular bashing has got to stop.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 10:02:14 PM EST

the secular left has not yet been willing to ally itself actively with the religious left to the degree needed to build a strong and effective religious left in this country.

Does this sentence read as you intended it to? Or did you mean to say, "...to build a strong and effective left in this country"?

Because it assuredly is not the job of 'the secular left' (really, liberals; these aren't left organizations) to build an effective religious liberal movement.  That's the work of religious liberals inside their denominations.

Funders committed to liberal values and policy positions, particularly Jewish funders, have every reason to take a hard line on separation of church and state.  

Wallis' proposals call on the Democratic Party to do the job liberal Christians should be doing, and in the process marginalize nonbelievers and Jews within the party.

A strong alliance of religious and secular progressives is essential.  It needs to be built on the basis of issue campaigns, not on eroding the most fundamental liberal principles of this country in an effort to gain a perceived electoral advantage.

P.S.  I very much appreciate your comment, but found it hard to read due to the lack of paragraph breaks.  You deserve to be read, not skipped over, so give yourself some white space! <g>

by Nell on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 11:39:22 PM EST

Thanks, Clarkson and Nell, for your responses, which I will respond to in order (with white space--a good idea!):

I thought I was clear that you were wrong, Clarkson, only in neglecting (in that particular statement) the potentially positive impact of Wallis' pronouncement among evangelicals.  I'm sorry if that was not clear.  I know evangelicals who, because of Wallis' "message," have begun to think about the fact that the religious right does not provide the only intellectual (theological) framework on which they might rely.  If, as I believe, this is not an isolated phenomenon, it is a very important development.  (It is, of course, a profound condemnation of the rest of Christianity that the religious right ever got this kind of conceptual strangle hold over conservatives in the first place.)

On the issue of funding, I will try to make my point again, this time more clearly and, I hope, persuasively.  I know that many of the progressive "secular" organizations like those I mentioned are not funding-agencies.  But they certainly are conduits for funders who take their advice and follow their lead.  What leaders in these organizations think about the importance of supporting progressive religion makes a huge difference to progressive philanthropists--most of whom probably are, for good (and not so good) reasons, puzzled by the "religion" scene if not downright suspicious of it.  So the approach taken by these organizations is very important.  They are the ones that need to be persuaded of the necessity (and propriety!--I'll get to that) of supporting progressive religious groups in the US.

Yes, the NCC and some other (mostly denominational) progressive religious groups have gotten funding from the "secular" left.  But note that my concern was clearly stated as a comparative one--"until they do so to a degree that more closely approximates the support that Right Wing funders give to Right Wing religion."  I seriously doubt that the total financial support given by the "secular" left to all of the religious left in the past year or the past four years is even one tenth of what Right Wing funders (many of whom are themselves non-religious) have given, say, to Focus on the Family or any single one of scores of other Right Wing religious groups.  

Right Wing donors like Scaife, Ahmanson, Olin, Coors, and the Bradleys (identified, for example, by Andy Weaver, whose work I think you have reported on) have poured millions and millions and millions into the Christian Right Wing.  There is no way that Christian or Jewish progressives can establish and sustain--and sustain, I emphasize--a strong, alternative religious voice in this country without organizational, strategic, and financial support from the "secular" left.  In fact, progressive Christian institutions, generally, do not have the resources to sustain themselve in their current form, to say nothing of becoming stronger. 

I don't know precisely how to define a "movement," but I think the number of grassroots progressive religious groups that emerged after the 2004 election to be very significant.  I can name more than 50 of them.  I thnk they, and the scores of progressive blogs, chat rooms, e-newletters, and local action groups that now exist constitute something very promising, even if they can't be called a "movement." 

But they are drying on the vine.  Until last year I was associated with one of the grassroots progressive religious initiatives with a national focus, and I know personally the leaders of several others.  I also know that many, many of these grassroots groups are barely hanging on, driven only by determination and personal sacrifice.  Some have had to shut down for lack of funds; others are facing the same fate.

Leftists should know that there is enormous power in grassroots movements if they can be sustained.  They, in fact, are what will fuel real change in the established denominations.  But almost none of leftwing donor dollars have gone to them; almost all of the minimal amount that has been forthcoming from the "secular" left has gone to denominational and interdenominational organizations.  I truly do not criticize the funding given groups like the NCC.  Bob Edgar has done a phenomenal job and his work deserved even stronger support from non-religious funders.  The same can be said for other denominational groups.  But to ignore the funding, communicational, and organizational needs of these grassroots groups is, well, extraordinarily foolish.  They are the cheapest bang for the buck the left generally can get, and they are not doing so.

The issue is not whether leaders on the "secular" left are bad or benighted.  The "heart of the matter" is how to build a lasting progressive movement in the US.  It is absolutely necessary to continue to expose and critique the Religious Right.  But that, in my view, is not nearly enough.  It is also necessary quite carefully to build a progressive alternative, which would include a strong progressive religious component.  And the best way to do this includes vetting, advising, and funding these progressive religious initiatives working at the grassroots.  They are a gift to the left that the left should accept and maximize in vastly greater proportions than anything we have seen to date.

Nell, I don't think this has anything to do with the separation of "church" and state.  The separation clause applies to the relationship of government and religion.  It stipulates that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches should take no action that privileges a particular religion, religion in general, or any attitude toward religion.  But this does not preclude private foundations and individual philanthropists from funding religious initiatives.  Certain private organizations, because of their tax status, cannot fund political advocacy initiatives.  And it certainly is true that particular religious viewpoints do incline individuals toward certain political judgments.  But they are not the same.  These organizations and foundations can support a religious group that advocates, for example, caring for the poor or extending justice to gays and lesbians without themselves being being guilty of advocating specific legistation regarding poverty of homosexuality.

I know the left is leery of anything that smacks of violating the separation clause.  We should be.  But to be unnecessarily or wrongly fastidious on this separation simply benefits the Right.

by doubtisdivine on Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 06:22:59 PM EST
I have a migraine coming on, so will have to return later for more substantive response.  But I've skimmed your reply (much easier with the breaks, thanks!) and want to ask you to consider taking Frederick's excellent suggestion: replace secular with non-religious.  

At the very least, please drop the quotes around secular.  That makes your use of the unhelpful phrase secular left even more reminiscent of the unsavory coded language  I'm familiar with from being a Southerner, and a left-liberal activist of long standing.  When I hear right wingers talk about the secular left and secular humanists, I know full well what they mean:  Jews. (And, though less so now, but the undertones are still there: Communists.)

You almost certainly don't intend that.  So please: non-religious liberals, not the secular left.

by Nell on Sat Feb 24, 2007 at 12:39:06 PM EST

A brief response for when you are feeling better, which I hope is soon. I intended (but forgot) at the end of my too long posting to explain that I put "secular" in quotes to acknowledge the problematic nature of the term. For me, however, there is also a problem with using "non-religious" as a substitute for (and thus, by implication, equatable with) "secular" since there is a signficant tradition of Christian theology for which to be Christian (and hence, presumably, religious!) is also be to secular (i.e., "belonging to the world and its affairs"). And to complicate matters further (for me), I accept the argument of J.Z. Smith, a historian of religions at the U. of Chicago, that what we now mean by "religion" is an invention of Western scholarship that really distorts the subject matter about which religion scholars intend to be talking. For our "private" discussion I suppose we can simply try to be clear about whom we are referring to and the term we have decided to apply to them. But there remains the public discussion with general conventions about these terms, also to be considered. Frederick has rightly warned us (me) against inadvertently playing into the hands of the wrong side.

by doubtisdivine on Sat Feb 24, 2007 at 05:16:14 PM EST

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