e-mail us


Democrats reclaim religious ground

George Herbert Walker Bush, in his 1988 run for the White House, hosted at his Georgetown home a gathering of a number of religious right figures, including editors of conservative Christian publications.

The gathering, brought together by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, allowed Bush to explain that although he was a New England Episcopalian by birth and upbringing, he really was in tune with fundamentalist evangelical Protestants. He just might not always sound like them. The editors and others went away convinced.

The episode illustrates just how important to American politics the religious right was perceived at the time.

The selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as running mate to Al Gore has thrown an unexpected twist into this year’s political/religious drama. For all the other well-known assets the Connecticut senator brings to the Democratic ticket, experts say he could have just as profound and immediate an effect in helping the party reclaim some of the religious territory it has conceded to Republicans in recent decades.

If we’re lucky, his candidacy will also restore some balance in our national conversation about religion and politics.

The religious right has been overwhelmingly successful in appropriating to itself religious language and symbol that once comfortably was shared by the wider religious community. For too many, any discussion of religion and politics begins and ends with the religious right and a fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant brand of Christianity and its concomitant narrow political agenda.

Religious conservatives reached an apex of visibility during the 1992 Republican convention when TV preacher Pat Robertson and the ultra conservative Pat Buchanan were given prime-time spots. Their extreme language -- laced with intolerance and absolute demands -- scared even the Republicans.

What has become wrong with our political discussion is not the intrusion of religion but the assertion by a small band of influential religious activists that their point of view represents the religious view. The reaction against such rigorous claims was an attempt to sanitize politics, to rid it of religious affiliation.

But inasmuch as religion informs our ultimate concerns, it has always informed our activity in politics. What Lieberman, an observant Orthodox Jew who speaks easily about his faith, brings to the table is a renewed sense that religion does not have to impose a sectarian test on people to be a motivating force for political involvement.

Lieberman’s selection, said John Kenneth White, Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America, sends the signal that “one can be religious, have faith and still be a Democrat.”

In a broader sense, said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Lieberman revives the kind of religious influence that traditionally was at work in Democratic circles -- an influence that finds expression in a sense of service to the general community. In contrast, he said, conservative Christians see their role more in judging what constitutes the correct community -- gays and lesbians, for instance, do not fit in -- and in trying to get people to join the right community.

“Though a politics of nostalgia leads fundamentalists to wish for a return to a world they believe they have lost,” writes historian Martin E. Marty in Politics, Religion and the Common Good (Jossey-Bass, 2000), “that world -- while rooted in historical reality -- is also a mythical construction.”

Mythical, perhaps, but in the politics of the last 20 years also a powerful inducement to organize. Perhaps it is a sign that the population has become so glutted on the ultra-individualism and personal piety politics of the religious right that the Republican Party pretty much scrubbed it from public view at this year’s convention.

The group’s narrow and exclusive view of politics, while sometimes effective at the local level, will not win national elections.

Rejecting the religious right’s point of view does not mean eliminating religion from the national conversation. Lieberman shows us what increasing pluralism demands: that our God can inspire political involvement without requiring that everyone share all of our beliefs.

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000