Issue Date: January 28, 2005
Religion and values loom large as Democrats debate the future
By JOE FEUERHERD
From the ivory towers of high-minded think tanks to the nitty-gritty of the retail politics needed to secure a majority of the 447 national committee members who will select the partys next chairman, Democrats are sorting out what they are all about. And like sausage grinding and law making, its not a pretty process.
Its complicated, with traditional allies splitting along unconventional lines. Among the divisions: liberal secularists versus the progressive religious community and powerful pro-choice activists versus those who think the party should be more inclusive toward those who favor limits on abortion.
The fault line is values, which, depending on who defines the term, can be anything from opposition to tax and budget policies that favor the wealthy over the less so, to the war in Iraq, to the definition of marriage, to the partys longtime support for abortion rights. The debate occurs at a moment of perhaps unparalleled weakness for the oldest political party on the planet: Republicans control the White House, a majority of governorships and state houses, and secured increased margins in both the House and Senate in November.
Liberal stalwart Ted Kennedy entered the fray Jan. 12. Theres no doubt we must do a better job of looking within ourselves and speaking out for the principles we believe in, and for the values that are the foundation of our actions, he told a National Press Club luncheon. Americans need to hear more, not less, about those values. We were remiss in not talking more directly about them -- about the fundamental ideals that guide our progressive policies.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton added her voice to the debate Jan. 19. There is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles, Clinton told a Boston audience gathered for a fundraising event for a faith-based charity, according to The Boston Globe. She urged those with religious convictions to live out their faith in the public square.
In the short term, the Feb. 12 election to decide who will replace Terry McAuliffe as party chair will be a decisive moment. The frontrunners in the six-candidate pack are former Indiana Rep. Timothy Roemer -- a 9/11 Commission member who opposes abortion rights but has the support of some high-profile pro-choice Democrats -- and Howard Dean, the solidly pro-choice former Vermont governor whose energy and organizational skill excites party activists but whose aversion to religious themes worry those who say such rhetoric is necessary to revive the moribund party in middle America.
One of the most important things for me as a Democrat is how do we reach out more effectively to help the least of our brethren? Roemer said on ABCs This Week Jan. 9, the day he announced his candidacy for the party post. Thats what Jesus said to us. Even as pro-choice activists have mounted an aggressive campaign to derail Roemers bid, his candidacy is encouraged by such pro-choice lawmakers as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Democrats, meanwhile, are getting advice from some unusual quarters. Speaking at the capitols epicenter of institutional liberalism on the same platform as four of the nations leading religious progressives, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Conventions Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Bushs re-election vanquished those who seek to disqualify religiously informed citizens from being involved in the [public policy] debate. He specifically mentioned the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Voters, Land told the Brookings Institution-sponsored panel on Moral Values, Politics, and the Faith Factor, definitively rejected the idea that some perverted misunderstanding of the separation of church and state requires religious people to check their values at the church foyer.
Though Lands co-panelists cautioned that believers were still not welcome in some mainstream political circles, and warned of the risks of overusing religious rhetoric, no one challenged his central thesis. The so-called religious right has won its fight with secular fundamentalism, asserted Land. The debate is now over -- they have lost. I welcome their defeat.
Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical minister and Sojourners magazine editor whose recent book, Gods Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesnt Get It, is an Amazon.com bestseller, said he fears that Lands analysis is incorrect, or at least premature.
Secular fundamentalists [are] still fighting to keep moral and religious language out of the public discussion, lamented Wallis, who has been advising Democratic members of Congress on how to connect their traditional support for liberal economic policies with the concerns of religious believers. While Republicans narrow the discussion of values to two issues, marriage and abortion, Democrats fail to link their traditional social justice concerns to religious-minded voters, many of whom would vote Democratic if the partys candidates articulated their message from a faith perspective, said Wallis.
Former Catholic Charities USA president J. Bryan Hehir, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, urged caution to those who would use religious imagery and language in the public sphere. Morality, which has an appeal beyond specific religious doctrines or denomination, said Hehir, should be the mediator between religion and politics in civil society. A pluralistic society such as the United States requires those who assert religious claims to justify them to others who dont share their faith with pragmatic secular arguments, said Hehir.
Predictably, perhaps, one of the vanquished refused to give up the fight. Lands declaration of victory is an absurd statement because the majority of the people in this country dont share most of the values of the so-called religious conservatives, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told NCR. Lynn noted that large majorities of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade and support either marriage rights or civil unions for gay couples.
The Democratic Party shouldnt try to be Republican light on religion because its not going to work, said Lynn. There are plenty of good, solid morally responsible ethical positions that can be articulated by people who also happen to be Democrats. You dont need to tie the idea that we have to take care of the poorest people before we give more to the wealthiest to direct religious experience. You dont have to quote Jesus about it -- its just not an appropriate way to run a secular democracy.
Kennedy, meanwhile, did not back away from his longtime support for abortion rights. A woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly, said the eight-term senator. But, he continued, if we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we must be serious about reducing unwanted pregnancy. We must adopt policies with a proven track record of reducing abortion. The number of abortions is reduced, said Kennedy, when women and parents have education and economic opportunity.
Few Democrats would argue with Kennedys critique. The unanswered question, however, is whether party leaders will opt to challenge core constituencies within their ranks, such as the pro-choice lobby and strict church-state separatists, or, instead, seek to energize that base in its quest to win elections.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005
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