The Gray Lady asks: Can the religious left compromise?

Ever since the rise of the religious right, mainstream journalists have focused an extraordinary amount of attention on its growing clout in the Republican Party and its influence on public policy.

An important theme in this coverage has been the tension among cultural conservatives whenever they are asked to consider compromises on their hot-button issues, such as abortion and the redefinition of marriage and family. These tensions are highly newsworthy and have formed the backbone of reporter David Kirkpatrick's "conservatives" beat at the New York Times.

Since 11/2, evidence has seeped into print that similar debates are beginning on the religious left. The big question: If the Democratic Party is going to try to "get religion" and stop attacking the hopes and dreams of the so-called "values voters," does that mean that the leaders of the true left are going to need to make some compromises?

Clearly, they do not want to compromise. When the right compromises on abortion -- seeking a ban on partial-birth abortions, for example -- leaders on the cultural left can, correctly, note that this compromise is a small step toward the distant goal of overturning legalized abortion. This is the old slippery slope argument. For the cultural left, any defeat for abortion is a compromise, since it has achieved its biggest legal goal -- abortion on demand.

What motivation would a Democrat have for supporting compromise legislation on abortion, other than his or her own personal convictions? What if, out in the American heartland and Bible belt, it made sense to try to find middle ground, in order to survive politically? Like in Tennessee, for example?

You know that these questions are being asked, because Kirkpatrick has been asked to write about them. This is an important story and I urge you to read it all. Some people believe that the Democrats can solve the pew-gap crisis with a change of style and tone, but with no compromises in content or policy. There is no need to weaken the base, in other words.

"Our platform and the grass-roots strength of the party is pro-choice," said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of Naral Pro-Choice America. The party needs more religious language, Ms. Cavendish said, but not new positions.

Many Democrats agree. ... "We would like to see fewer abortions and we want our children to learn good values," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, a Catholic who has led her party's efforts to reach religious voters and was chairwoman of its 2004 platform committee.

Democrats need to make the case that health care, jobs and sex education can reduce the number of abortion procedures, even without making them illegal, Ms. DeLauro said. At the same time, she said, they need to emphasize the religious imperatives behind "pushing for real health care reform, reluctance before war and alternatives to abortion, such as adoption," as she put it in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington signed by dozens of Catholics in Congress in the spring.

Similar strategy debates, noted Kirkpatrick, are starting to break out on the hot-button issue of gay marriage. However, the abortion issue remains important to many Democrats on both sides of the debate. Here is another clip from the New York Times story:

Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, argued that in the pivotal Midwest the appearance of inflexibility on abortion rights was a heavy burden on Democratic candidates. Like most Democrats, Mr. Ryan said he supported the court precedents establishing abortion rights, but he argued that the party should relax its opposition to the partial-birth abortion ban, parental notification laws and the bill making it a second crime to harm a fetus when harming a pregnant woman. "In middle America, how do you argue that killing a pregnant woman is not a double homicide?" he said. ...

Pollsters say Democrats might well find fertile ground among theological conservatives, if the party could get around those divisive social issues and its secular reputation. Many conservative Christians who vote Republican because of their views on abortion and same-sex marriage are working class or middle class, and they often hold liberal views on economics, social welfare and the environment, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who conducts polls on religion and politics. But to reach religious voters, Mr. Green said, the Democrats "have their work cut out for them."

And all the people said: "Amen." In fact, Beliefnet.com's editor in chief recently went on the record arguing that Democrats are kidding themselves if they think they can cut into the "values vote" simply by giving their party a theological tune-up. The headline said it all -- "Democratic Faith Delusions: If all they do is dress up a liberal agenda in Biblical clothing, they won't succeed."

The good news, said Steven Waldman, is that the true, hard-core, conservative "values vote" flock is not that large a percentage of the American population. The bad news is that there is no way for the Democrats to discuss the real, live, issues they face -- again, think abortion and marriage -- without being asked to compromise to appeal to the mushy moral middle.

Long ago, noted Waldman, Sen. John Kerry voted for a ban on all abortions performed post-viability -- that is, after the second trimester. This is an especially important vote since medical science continues to push that viability concept further back into the middle trimester. And in the future?

However, Kerry later voted against the partial birth abortion ban and he never articulated his stance on these issues as a candidate for the White House. Maybe his views hardened. But Waldman is convinced that he should have found some other moral or religious issue on which to compromise and move to the middle.

Perhaps ... abortion wasn't the right issue to highlight. Maybe it was violence and sex on TV. Or maybe it was out of wedlock births. But to reach the mass of average voters, liberals need to articulate their focus on some issues that resonate with widespread concerns about the moral underpinnings of our society -- concerns that are not the exclusive province of religious conservatives. It's not just a matter of dressing up liberal ideas in Biblical clothing.

By the way, it would be wrong, wrong, wrong, if I did not note the wonderful headline on the New York Times report referenced above: "Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion." Obviously, we think everyone in mainstream journalism should Get Religion. It will be interesting to see if other mainstream newsrooms -- even television networks -- chase this important story.
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