TV & Radio
The New York Times
May 19, 2006
Religious Left Struggles to Find Unifying Message
By NEELA BANERJEE
WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.
After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.
Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and "to practice fully our authentic being."
Kimberly Crichton, a Washington lawyer and Quaker, grew impatient. "I think we would be more effective if we focused on specific legislation," Ms. Crichton said. "Are we going to discuss specific policies?"
Ms. Zenya replied: "What we envisioned this time is saying we are a religious voice. More relationship-building, consciousness-raising."
The man in the pew in front of Ms. Crichton translated: "The answer is, no."
Since the last presidential election, liberals of various faiths have talked about taking back religion from the conservative Christians who helped bring President Bush and a Republican Congress to power.
Yet liberal believers have so far been unable to approach, even modestly, the success of the religious right and command the attention of Congress.
Turnout at the Spiritual Activism Conference is high, but if the gathering is any indication, the biggest barrier for liberals may be their regard for pluralism: for letting people say what they want, how they want to, and for trying to include everyone's priorities, rather than choosing two or three issues that could inspire a movement.
"We didn't get on the same page with everyone, and it is about getting on the same page," said the Rev. Tony Campolo, an outspoken liberal Baptist minister from Pennsylvania who once served as a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton, and attended the conference. "The thing about the left is that they want everybody to feel good."
Initiatives by liberals have been percolating locally and nationally, from state interfaith alliances in Ohio to counter a powerful conservative Christian movement there to national campaigns to reduce poverty led by liberal evangelicals like the Rev. Jim Wallis.
The Democratic Party itself is wrestling with the best way to shake an image of indifference to religion. Most recently, the party's national chairman, Howard Dean, courted evangelicals by appearing on Pat Robertson's television program, "The 700 Club." In the process, Mr. Dean alienated gay and lesbian supporters of the Democratic Party by misstating the party's platform on same-sex marriage.
Religious leaders at the conference here cautioned that it would take years before liberal believers could match the savvy and strength of conservative Christian groups.
But Rabbi Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine, and an organizer of the spiritual progressives' network, rejected the approach that Democrats have so far taken to faith, describing it as window-dressing.
He called on the activists at All Souls Church to define progressive faith, rather than have politicians do it. He said research begun years ago showed that Americans were experiencing a deep spiritual crisis but that only conservative Christians had responded to it, with an agenda that he said "backs the ethos of selfishness and materialism in our society."
"They get away with this because the left isn't even in the relevant ballpark," Rabbi Lerner said. When people on the left "hear talk of a spiritual crisis, they think it's some kind of New Age flakery or a code word for homophobia, sexism and racism," he said.
He urged participants to offer a real alternative to the ideas that many conservative Christian groups promulgate. But identifying those alternatives proved to be the hard part for many at the conference.
Mr. Campolo, the Baptist minister, explained to the participants in a seminar that many people on Capitol Hill were religious, and that to reach them and to establish authority, liberals should rely on the Bible.
"You have no right to be a spiritual leader if you haven't read Scripture," he told the group. "People in Congress respect the Book, even if they don't know what it says. If we don't recognize this, we don't know squat."
A young man with long hair and a tunic challenged Mr. Campolo.
"I thought this was a spiritual progressives' conference," he said. "I don't want to play the game of 'the Bible says this or that,' or that we get validation from something other than ourselves. We should be speaking from our hearts."
Carol Gottesman was urged at her group to speak from her heart about her priority, the environment. A 64-year-old nurse from Hubbard, Ohio, and a Conservative Jew, Ms. Gottesman spoke Thursday with her congressman, Tim Ryan, a Democrat. It was one of dozens of meetings the network had set up.
Mr. Ryan, who had read about the network on the Internet, asked Ms. Gottesman if the group was pushing specific policies.
"No, it's more that we want to take caring and generosity and bring it into everything," she said.
Mr. Ryan responded: "Spread love, not hate. Pretty simple. Do you have a little network back home?"
Ms. Gottesman squared her shoulders proudly and said, "I'm it."