The Nation surveys the pew gap

When thinking about favorite sources for enterprising religion reporting, GetReligion does not normally turn to The Nation -- although that magazine does collect its sporadic religion coverage on this accessible page. All the more reason, then, to praise a report by Eyal Press that appears in the Aug. 30 issue and covers one of GetReligion's favorite hobby horses: Closing the 'Religion Gap.'

Press consults the usual sources, including Jim Wallis, John Green and Amy Sullivan, but goes beyond the "Bulletin: Democrats are Christians Too" tone, and argues back in a refreshing way.

Consider, for instance, how Press contrasts remarks by Alphonso Jackson, the Bush administration's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, with those of Wallis. He begins with Jackson's remarks at Pentecost 2004, an event sponsored by Call to Renewal:

But when Jackson told the audience that being poor was merely "a state of mind" and that the best thing government could do was stay out of the way, the reaction was chilly. As his speech drew to a close, few clapped. One man stood up and, shouting across the room before Jackson could reach the exit, asked what the Bush Administration was doing for people like the woman he'd met by chance that morning on the street, a mother who worked as a prostitute at night because she didn't earn enough to support her family from her daytime job. "Well, I would say to you that you should ask a different question," Jackson replied. "What are you going to do for her?" Here was "compassionate conservatism" distilled to its essence. The audience responded with a cascade of hisses and boos.

By refocusing the debate about values away from what happens in the bedroom and toward issues like homelessness and poverty, strategists like [Tom] Perriello believe progressives can reclaim the moral high ground in American politics while mobilizing religious activists to advance concerns they share. At the Call to Renewal conference, Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners, echoed this line, arguing that unlike inherently divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a campaign against poverty could unify Christians "across political and denominational lines." It's an inspiring thought, although in reality such a campaign would likely fracture along familiar political lines. For as Jackson's speech showed, framing poverty as a religious issue can as easily buttress a conservative agenda as a progressive one.

It is, by the way, baffling that a reminder of each individual believer's call to make a difference in suffering people's lives would meet with such hostility at a gathering of justice-loving Christians. Of course individual action cannot meet every need. Does that mean it's an offense worthy of hissing and booing to say that a Christian should make a personal sacrifice to help a woman enslaved by poverty and prostitution? What does it say about Christians -- left, right or center -- when they think first of the government, rather than the church, in fighting poverty and oppression?

Press also meets Ron Sider, who is a familiar name to reporters seeking evangelicals who care about social justice. Sider delivers a remark that even nonmembers of Call to Renewal could find entirely orthodox: ""I don't think God is a Marxist, but frequently the Bible suggests that people get rich by oppression or are rich and don't share what they have -- and in both cases, God is furious."

Green offers this honest observation: "The Democrats would be in trouble if they tried to be a purely secular party . . . but they would also be wasting their time trying to woo the most traditional religious voters, because they are firmly Republican, and they would have to give up a lot to go for them."

But the most engaging section of his essay comes when Press interacts both with Brenda Peterson, the Democrats' short-lived strategist on religion, and with Amy Sullivan:

"The tradition of the political left seems to be to only listen to people of faith if they are African-American" and to dismiss everyone else, complained Brenda Peterson, who was recently named director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party, a newly created post. A similar view was expressed by Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, in the Democratic Leadership Council's magazine Blueprint. Talking about faith and values only in front of minorities is "not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one," she wrote.

It's a fair point. But it would also be condescending -- and quite possibly foolish -- for John Kerry to counteract this perception by peppering his speeches with biblical references and talking effusively about his faith on the stump. Kerry is, by all accounts, a sincerely religious person, a former altar boy who briefly considered a career in the priesthood and who regularly attends Sunday mass. But he is also someone who prefers to keep his religious beliefs close to the vest, regarding faith as a personal matter that deeply marks his character but does not predetermine how he makes his decisions in office.

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