Remember the Effort to Silence the Religious Left?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Aug 03, 2013 at 11:07:56 PM EST
In light of the claims emanating from from Washington, DC that there is a Religious Left rising and may overcome the Religious Right, I am reminded that it was not so long ago that religious progressives were being told to shut-up about matters of sexual justice. I wrote the post below in 2009 and am reprising it today because it is remarkable how things change. In the previous few years a faux Religious Left had been manufactured Inside the Beltway. The product didn't sell well -- and here we are. But those of us who thought that an authentic Religious Left might be a good thing, published a book of essays about what it might be like and how to get there. The book was deliberately inclusive. No one would be left behind -- not women seeking reproductive justice. Not LGTBQ people seeking marriage equality. Not those of us, both religious and non-religious, who support the values of religious pluralism and separation of church and state. Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America provided a platform to discuss these things. This led to some interesting debate. It could be that Dispatches was a little too far ahead of the curve, and that the time for this book is now.-- FC

Over the past few years, my Talk to Action colleagues and I have written a great deal about the way that various Washington insiders, among others, have adopted many of the ideas, framing and even the phrasings of the Religious Right. We also confronted such consultantocratic notions that we should not talk about such historic progressive and Democratic Party interests as reproductive rights, LGTB civil rights and separation of church and state so that they could make alliances with alleged moderate evangelicals and Catholics -- some of whom turned out to be not very moderate at all.  The culture war was over, or about to be, or oughtta be, so it was claimed.

But many of us knew better.

For those of us interested in understanding and better contending with the Religious Right, it has been alarming to watch otherwise seemingly sensible people actually internalize important elements of the views of the Religious Right, while presenting themselves as the Religious Left. This was bad enough, and has been reported and discussed (for example, here and here.) But what has received far less attention were the apparent efforts to silence religious progressives who disagree with this approach.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Timothy Palmer were the first to my knowledge, to go public about the silencing campaign, in their essay last year (prior to the election) in Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America. (Full disclosure: I was the editor of that book.)  It is an essay that has proved prophetic.  

Many progressive leaders today sense a shift toward moderation among some religious conservatives, as both sides of this seemingly promising trend seek common ground, and a set of shared interests on which a political coalition might be built. But there is a troubling underside:  Some well-meaning progressives are privately cautioning advocates for sexual justice to recede quietly into the background.  ...Their concern is that differences over sexuality will hinder them from forming coalitions with moderate evangelicals and Catholics, thus forestalling the election of progressive candidates. Instead, they prefer to seek common ground with the right on shared issues.

[Emphasis added]


Since the publication of this essay, evidence surfaced that this big idea has not worked nearly as well as advertised -- and this fact has thus understandably been the source of some sometimes contentious discussion.

But Haffner and Palmer sounded the alarm not about whether or not these methods would lead to success in the slicing of bigger hunks of  hypothetical demographic pie in electoral contests --  but what the ideas themselves might mean for people.

"This approach is narrow-minded and dangerous for millions of people and their families, as abortion and marriage equality cannot be considered peripheral issues by any reasonable standard. Consider that more than a third of American women have had abortions, and that four in ten Americans have a family member or close friend who is lesbian or gay.  Indeed, the full scope of sexual justice embraces anyone who is concerned with gender equality, reproductive rights and healthcare, and the right to privacy, not to mention education, equality of opportunity and the dignity of all persons.  These issues are too important to the well-being of the nation to be buried under "common ground."

The effort to silence religious progressives continued after the election as well, as Rev. Peter Laarman (also a Dispatches contributor) explained at the (unrelated) webzine Religion Dispatches. He minces no words when he declares that contemporary approaches to common ground may be a "killing ground for democratic aspiration."

There are occasions in life in which polarization simply means that the opposing parties should try harder to forge common positions. This is not one of them. An inconvenient truth here is that religious conservatives often sacralize their positions in ways that make them immune to compromise, whereas many religious liberals are only too willing to yield on their positions. This makes for an unstable mix...   in which conservative positions steadily gain ground, issue after issue.

Health care reform provides a good case in point. A significant part of the conservative community is determined to insert a hard prohibition on federal abortion funding into the final reform legislation--a provision that will remove existing access to abortion services from the insurance plans of millions of women. Conservatives unhesitatingly frame this as an issue of fundamental conscience. In response, many good liberals bite their tongues and go along for the sake of the supposed greater good of achieving universal coverage.

The silencing of a progressive religious voice for the sake of creating an imaginary common ground is also evident in the informal agreement to remove entire issues--marriage equality, for example--from the table. Whereas abortion can be admitted to the conversation on the right's terms, equal rights for sexual minorities cannot be admitted at all. The religious right's position, "we're not even going to discuss this," becomes tacitly accepted by everyone else.

It wasn't supposed to work this way. Four and a half years ago, after the religious right's pivotal role in reelecting George W. Bush spurred a frenzy of anguished discussion and planning among progressive religious leaders, the operative rationale for building new "open source" structures was that progressives would slowly domesticate the conservatives; tempering their rhetoric if not actually winning them over to more moderate positions. But there is scant evidence that anything like this has happened. What has happened instead amounts to moving the goalpost rightward: some notably sex-phobic evangelical and Roman Catholic individuals and entities have been rebranded as the progressive forces watch, while actual progressives (solidly feminist and pro-LGBTQ religious leaders) have disappeared from view.

The silencing of the religious left is so effective that even to call attention to the rebranding process is to make oneself persona non grata. Some colleagues have dressed me down both publicly and privately on more than one occasion for pointing out that certain men with long histories of indifference or hostility to the concerns of women and gays should not be lifted up as exemplars of progressive religious leadership.

[Emphases added]

Haffner, Palmer and Laarman no doubt have their reasons for not naming names in their published complaints -- complaints which were obviously not made lightly. I will join them in this, and say that I know that they are not the only ones who were told to shut-up; and that I hope that more of those who have been told to shut up will eventually come forward.

There is obviously much that could be said about all this, but for now, I am going to add just one point. It has been my experience over the years, that while there are many obstacles to understanding the Religious Right and its various constituent parts with knowledge and clarity; and applying that knowledge in useful ways; among these are often closely related political obstacles, posed by usually well-intentioned people who are reliant on false assumptions or wishful thinking about the Religious Right.  

Meanwhile, the silencing of religious progressives is apparently part of an effort to ensure a certain hegemony over the discourse, and to stifle criticism from the left. New York Times best-selling author Jeff Sharlet observed in his 2008 essay in Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America, that the grouping

"heralded by mainstream media as a resurgent Religious Left is neither left nor surging. Rather, it's a centrist coalition of the willing that's reporting for duty -- not to the task of prophetically challenging power but to a Democratic Party bent on peeling off undecided voters.  The religious centrists call this initiative "faith outreach," an ironic label for a process that is neither faithful -- to the core value of both democracy and most of the believers involved, which is that everybody counts -- nor particularly reaching anyone."

Well, I have said in comments before that a little bit of indifference can go a long way :)

But before you lay into me, I do accept that the solution isn't as simple as that, and there is the danger of conceding ground to the religious right if moderates and liberals remain silent on certain key issues.

I do think it's wise to pick our battles, though.  For example, I don't believe it's worth spending a moment of our time trying reverse such previous conservative victories as putting "In God We Trust" on our coins, adding "under God" into the pledge, or even putting a Ten Commandments monument in the grounds of a court house or state government building.

Attempting to do something about these things (as objectionable as they are to the principle of separation of church and state) is like poking a stick into a hornet's nest and does nothing more than to rally the religious right into fighting a rearguard action.   And given that the majority of people don't even know what's inscribed on the coins in their pocket, or even notice what some block of moldy old granite has inscribed upon it, it doesn't really buy us anything.

However, that's not to say we should concede new ground to the religious right.  I fully supported the efforts to remove Judge Roy Moore's monstrous monument as a step too far.   But that was more about reining in Moore than the monument itself, which would likely have become nothing more than a curiosity within a few months of Moore's departure.  But not doing anything about it would have simply encouraged Moore to continue flouting the law in other ways, so something had to be done.

But I wonder if the silencing of the religious left isn't really just the silencing of the left in general.  I know there is a lot of frustration with the conservative approach to health care from all constituents of the left -- after all, the Democratic leaders in both houses are acting as though they only have wafer-thin majorities and are letting their conservative members drive the legislation even though it's clear that a large majority of the public supports strong reform.  Bloggers and other activists have been warned to toe the line on this and other issues -- such as Don't Ask Don't Tell.

So I see this mainly as a generic liberal problem, of which the religious left is just a part.  We need leaders in Congress who are not cowed by the right-wing's attacks and are not scared to do the right thing.  The religious left needs to help hold these leaders accountable, but I'm not sure that they alone are enough to win the day.

But it's not all doom and gloom.  Despite the setbacks with things like funding abortions, if we get a strong public option (not guaranteed yet, but it's looking more promising now the insurance companies overplayed their hand) then that is still a major victory toward the eventual goal of universal health care.  (It should have been a slam dunk, I know, but hey, I'll take 'em where I can get 'em!).  

Then there's gay marriage.  Despite the set backs like Prop 8, I firmly believe that the religious right has already lost the war on this one -- not that I expect them to surrender any time soon.  Gay marriage is here to stay, and while it may take many more years for it to be universally available, the time when the religious right can use it to rally people to their cause is quickly coming to an end.  And while I don't know what's happening in Maine on the ground, I doubt the liberal religious leaders are staying silent on this issue in the run up to their referendum next month.

As for demographics, I am one of those who does believe that they will continue to move away from the religious right.  (Reasonable people can disagree, of course.)  But I don't think I have ever claimed that means we should just sit back and wait for the religious right to implode (at least I hope I didn't!).

The one issue I keep coming back to, more than abortion or gay rights, or even health care (as vital as that is) is the gross social injustice that is the American law enforcement, legal, and penal system.  There is no way on Earth that a free, fair, and democratic America needs to imprison seven times more than the average European country.  The UK is the next highest and in the US it is still five times more than in Britain (per capita).  It's also more than China and more than Russia, two of the most oppressive and corrupt regimes in the world.

And I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the conservatives and the religious right for propagating this injustice.  They claim the moral superiority of their prison ministries on one hand but with the other they propagate any number of social and legal policies that result in an obscene percentage of America's underclass ending up in prison instead of being given the assistance they need to turn their lives around.

If there one area of American life where liberals of all types, including the religious left, are conspicuous by their absence, it's here.  Democrats everywhere are simply too scared of being tagged as being soft on crime to mount even the slightest resistance to the "law and order" tough-on-crime Republicans.  Every election season I see it on TV -- "vote for me, I locked away more criminals than ever last year," and so on.  And I don't see any hope that this is going to change any time soon.

by tacitus on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:20:11 PM EST

is certainly part of the silencing of the left in general. But that does not change the reality of the situation; and that the silencing of the RL has its own dynamics; and that it remains an important phenomenon that should not be pooh poohed.

There are of course, many important issues. The way that the phenomenon happened to come to my attention is due to the abovementioned, which are also important, albeit not exclusively so.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:38:16 PM EST

The religious right easily allows anyone with a computer to look up "proof texts" and preach away with authority and passion, crushing any and all opposition in their way. While it is a real turn off for many, it also turns on a great many more. The left usually refuses to do such "proof texting" options with their preaching, but sometimes leave listeners with only a general sense of liberal values without an impassioned moral authority proclaiming them. This needs not be the case. Most preachers have a good education, the lectionary readings support and underpin liberal values, and theologians have biblically and culturally addressed the hot button issues which divide us. I look forward to the day when liberal preaching is unashamed to call upon the resources of the Biblical record, and the historical examples of the Jesus narrative to proclaim good news to the poor, healing and health for the sick, freedom to the oppressed and imprisoned, and forgiveness those called sinners and outcasts. Like the canned soup commercial, "It's in there..." lets encourage one another to do the daily grind and proclaim the Good News. The neglect of passionate biblical proclamation is not an effective counter to the conservatives passionate perversion of Biblical language. It is time to bring in on and let people know the truth. It alone has the power to set people free.

by chaplain on Sun Dec 27, 2009 at 10:39:58 AM EST

While not the only issue on which Religious Progressives have been told to shut up if we want to appeal to "the Center," sexuality is one where the differences are most stark.

by Rusty Pipes on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 06:22:27 PM EST
to which the right always returns. The other sutff often seems to just be on auto pilot; of COURSE, we're tough on crime; of COURSE, government shouldn't be involved in health care etc. But I think back to 2004 when right-wing groups were distributing the "Five Non-Negotiable Issues" pamphlets, especially outside Catholic churches, the ones that said EVERY other issue -peace, social justice, you name it  -- was "negotiable," but a candidate HAD to agree with you on these five. And ALL except euthanasia involved sex and/or reproduction -- gay marriage, abortion, cloning and stem-cell research.

This is a great piece, Fred, and on a topic that's been on my mind in the more secular sense too. We have a situation in Ohio now where it appears that our only candidate for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state is an ultra-right extremist on abortion and gay rights. Her only opponent dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, quietly. Now people are starting to hear about it and they are alarmed and shocked, but this alarm doesn't appear to be shared by our state party, they haven't responded to a very polite letter I sent about two weeks ago after speaking to the director of the state Democratic Women's Caucus, who urged me to put my thoughts in writing and the candidate herself has completely ignored addressing these issues (I am sure that when cornered at a candidates night -- if  she even has the guts to go into Democratic strongholds -- she will say the positions don't matter to SoS, but every since SoS since 1979 has run for Senator or Governor. The office is known as a springboard. And this candidate has never shown a glimmer of interest in SoS issues like elections.)

I am starting to fear that the attitude of the party here may be, as one person has already put it, "We're a big tent." But when you have only ONE woman on your statewide non-judicial ticket and she is to the right of most Republican women, then you have effectively silenced the 99.9% of Democratic women (and probably close to the same number of Democratic men) who don't share that position. No one speaks for them. And to my way of thinking, reproductive freedom and gay civil rights are not just issues we can negotiate away or find some kind of phony "common ground" on -- for Democrats, they are core beliefs.

I am sure this will also be framed as a matter of her faith, and that's fine as long as she is a legislator representing a conservative downstate district. When she is on our statewide ticket, then it seems to me she needs to mostly reflect the thinking of most members of the party she represents. I know we will be told to shut up and go along, and it's going to be a disaster. We're looking at electing Ken Blackwell, part 2, next November.

by anastasia p on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 07:10:18 PM EST

While emotional weakness and psychological dysfunction led many progressives to this point of complete compliance, it is likely that mounting economic insecurity will seal the deal. As America's nervous breakdown intensifies, the progressive/fascist alliance can be expected to make matters worse for all of us.

by Jay Taber on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 12:31:35 PM EST
C'mon Jay.  There are constructive ways of approaching problems like these by thoughtful, politically mature people.

There is nothing that I am writing about here that in anyway suggests a fascist/progressive alliance.

Good grief.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 01:38:41 PM EST

Sounds like a typical "they're all in it together" New World Order conspiracy theory cry.

I listened to Alex Jones on the radio yesterday for the first time in a long while, he's from my home town of Austin, TX, and was on public access TV here long before he (sadly) became a national figure in NWO conspiracy theory circles, and with every breath he was spouting nonsense about Obama being a pawn of the fascists running things behind the scene.

Unfortunately, the main topic of conversation was about how nobody should take the H1N1 flu vaccine because it's "loaded with thousands of unknown viruses that will destroy your immune system."  It's at times like these I wish there was a Hell so that there could be a special place reserved for people like Jones.  He's going to have blood on his hands before this flu epidemic is over.

by tacitus on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 05:07:02 PM EST

Oh, I don't know, I think critiquing the progressive betrayal of democracy in the US is a thoughtful, mature, and constructive exercise. It's certainly a well-documented betrayal, if one cares to look.

by Jay Taber on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 08:14:06 PM EST

By encouraging people to vote?

By trying to resist the Conservatives?

By working for civil and human rights.

I've never met a progressive who'd betrayed or even ADVOCATED betraying the US.  Conservatives, especially certain types (dominionists), on the other hand...

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 08:50:49 PM EST

proving this assertion. though I should admit beforehand that anything from the ridiculous "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg will only show you to be delusional.

by trog69 on Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 05:21:03 AM EST

is a logical fallacy.  

This is a site devoted to reporting, analysis and discussion of the religious right and what to do about it.  As we have discussed previously, if you are going to bring something up, please at least related it to the topic of the site; and especially to the topic of the diary on which you are commenting. These are pretty basic and I think, not unreasonable standards.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 11:01:31 AM EST

That being said, I have no problem discussing most anything with most anyone. I respect anti-choice people's right to make those decisions for their own lives. Got that? OWN lives. That includes what one Catholic ally calls "institutional morality" of their church and affiliated organizations. I really do think that we have some obligation to maintain respect for them as they stand for their own rights and morality. As a 20-year pro-choice and pro-GLBTQI activist, I am aware of the needs of women particularly, for whom abortion, tubal ligation, and all the rest are simply NOT options. We need to be mindful of that and find ways to be helpful, not condemning. However, concern for their rights has never caused me to back down on my support for women and all people for whom sexual justice is imperative, is a right that must be maintained in full, and for full equality for all people. The only way I know how to do this is keep doing it. More and more I see movement, and the fact that a handful of small-minded, fearful "progressives" think we should shut up is not relevant to me at all. "Thank you for sharing," is my usual rejoinder. "But no. I won't stop speaking." I refuse to hand them that power over what I say and do. So far, that seems to be working.

by Churchlady on Mon Oct 19, 2009 at 02:50:29 PM EST

I have preserved the comments from the original posting since they are interesting from the perspective of four years out.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Aug 03, 2013 at 11:16:22 PM EST
Progressive movement has been taken over by the previously hard to find fascist allies!

Oh, wait...

by trog69 on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 04:33:54 AM EST

One problem that could perhaps be called "taking the positions of the Religious Right" was a very big difference in approach that folks on the Left (religious and otherwise) were very late in realizing and addressing. For too long the Left focused on specific constituencies and specific policies that they favored, narrowly addressing those needs and losing sight of the overall ideas that they just assumed reasonable people would favor.

Over and over we have been bamboozled by false claims and irrelevant attacks that may have only worked through the election, but that was the only times it mattered. Great demonstrations and activism rises as it has this past year, making great theater against increasingly draconian laws passed by Republican packed legislatures, but in getting the vote out so the legislatures are not packed, and building a deep agenda that can pass a balanced legislature when we can elect one, we have barely begun to fight.

The ideas presented by George Lakoff have been very slow in getting adopted, but our successes have been largely as a result of that. Gay rights was defined by the Right as about weird sex, and we have refocused it to be about love. Abortion was defined by the Right as about killing a "child" and it has been redefined as about women's health and empowerment. The Right defined itself as upholding a theocratic Christian Morality, and by definition those opposing it as immoral. The Left has finally rejected their assigned place as opposing morality, and redefined that Morality to its proper place as the concern and advancement of others, finding along the way the original intent that made Christianity the leading religion in Roman Times.

It is here where the Religious Left needs very badly to speak out loudly and push back against the cuckoos, outing their camouflage, reversing the steeplejacking, and calling their claims of hyper-Christianity as the reality of opposing the original values. This cannot be done well from outside the churches, but must be done on the inside. There are many other facets and things that need to be done, but making the real community values of the Religious Left, the default when the subject comes up is a major step.

by FreeDem on Fri Aug 09, 2013 at 10:36:25 PM EST

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