God's Politics

Dear Kos,

I read your piece, Religion, values, and politics, and liked a lot of what you said. But I have a few responses to it. You and I have discussed this before, and you are clearly not attacking religion per se, as too many secular progressives have done for a long time. As a progressive Christian, I always wondered why many on the secular Left felt it necessary to cut off potential political alliances with progressive religious people, to alienate most of America with nasty anti-faith diatribes, and to choose to ignore the history of most of the social reform movements in this country, where religion often served as a powerful motivator and driving force – as in the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, establishing child labor laws and social safety nets and, of course, the civil rights movement. In recent years, the Left and even the Democrats managed to appear hostile to faith and to people in faith communities. Regardless of what one’s views of the divine are, that’s called shooting yourself in the foot.

And nobody has been more critical of the Religious Right and their “perverted” use of biblical texts, as you rightly put it, than progressive religious leaders themselves. But the mainstream media and the secular Left appeared to have one very odd thing in common. They both seemed to want Americans to believe they had only two choices: the Religious Right OR the secular Left. There were always millions of religious moderates and progressives who didn’t fit either category, and felt left out of the discussion. My book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, served to bring many of those folks out of the closet. A book about progressive faith in America became a best-seller only because it revealed what was already there – lots of unrepresented people, including a new generation of evangelicals who now had a broader agenda than just two issues. But, frankly, the response to the book has been mixed in secular Left circles. Some are quite pleased that the Religious Right’s political dominance was finally being challenged, and Tim Russert and Jon Stewart were now featuring other, more progressive religious voices. They also saw the electoral results of Democrats learning to make the connection between issues and values, as you suggested they should, and from becoming more faith-friendly. But others felt, and still feel, quite threatened by all that, fearing any kind of faith talk among progressive people, and objecting to Democrats “getting religion” – something they regard as foreign and hostile to their political agenda.

I’m also on record against Democrats’ “getting,” using, or manipulating religion for political purposes, simply mimicking what the Republicans have done so shamelessly. I’ve continuously said that “religion has no monopoly on morality,” agreeing with your point that “morality and ethics don’t have to come from religion.” But values can come from religion, and it’s important that Left seculars really embrace that reality too. I’ve said that religion must be disciplined by democracy, and publicly expressed in ways that are consistent with both pluralism and diversity. That means you don’t say (as the Religious Right often has) that this is a Judeo-Christian country and so we get to win! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never did that. He invoked Jesus and Isaiah as the roots of his political convictions and held out his spiritual vision of the “beloved community,” but then made moral and political arguments (not religious ones) on behalf of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and a Voting Rights Act in 1965. He had to persuade all Americans, not just the religious citizens, that civil rights legislation was best for the common good, not just for the black Baptists like him. When we get to the public square, religious communities and candidates motivated by their faith must make a moral turn, and speak in a language accessible to all of our citizens, religious or not. You said it well; the real political conversation is one about values, no matter what their source. Indeed, the country is hungry for a new moral discourse on politics – it’s one that we all need and are all needed for. Nobody gets kicked to the curb.

But for some, faith is part of “what makes a candidate tick,” as you put it. And that has to be okay, too. You were pretty tough on Harold Ford, and seemed to blame his faith for his views that you don’t like. I disagree with some of Ford’s views too, but don’t think his faith is the problem. You like Tester of Montana and Webb of Virginia better, and seem to suggest their lack of expressed faith gives them better views. But I like Barack Obama too, and he and I have been talking about the connection between progressive faith and politics for 10 years. And I recently met Tim Kaine, also of Virginia and a strong person of faith, who seems to be at least as progressive, if not more so, than Webb or Tester. My point is, agree or disagree with a candidate’s positions, but don’t blame their faith for them. The same day your piece came out, The Wall Street Journal (of course) ran an editorial castigating secular leftists one more time, suggesting that those who disagreed with the Religious Right were showing their hostility to religion. Again, the assumption was that the only choice is between right-wing faith or militant secularism. And yesterday, I battled with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, who once more insisted that the real moral issue is still abortion, and the Democrats will always find that to be the obstacle to becoming truly religious. It’s time to change the conversation on all sides.

So Kos, let’s made a deal. How about if progressive religious folks, like me, make real sure that we never say, or even suggest, that values have to come from faith – and progressive secular folks, like you, never suggest that progressive values can’t come from faith (and perhaps concede that, in fact, they often do). If we progressives, religious and secular, could stop fighting among ourselves (shooting ourselves in the foot) and join together on some really big values issues – like economic fairness, health care, and a more just foreign policy – think of the difference we could make. How about it?

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