The status of religion in politics

obamaDid a Democratic version of Mike Gerson start working for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.? I ask the question because his speech earlier this week at the Call to Renewal conference is about the best attempt to articulate the struggling movement known as the "religious left." Not that it was that impressive. It's about time a Democrat came up with something beyond the talking points on religion and its involvement in the public square. In the meantime, Slate is all over the crack-ups of both the "religious right" and the "religious left." But more on that later. Here is the Associated Press version of the Obama speech:

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

"Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters," the Illinois Democrat said in remarks to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty.

OK, enough of that. It's a relatively bland AP report on what seems to be just another speech. But it seems to be more than that. It's time for some analysis. First, read this column by The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, who gushes that Obama's talk will ultimately be seen as a "road map for Democrats struggling to speak authentically to people of faith." Um, haven't we heard the term road map before?

Andrew Sullivan chimed in here with regards to the little-noted comments by Obama on abortion and his own past statements. To me they are some of the most revealing elements of the entire speech, and something that most reports are missing. They are definitely worthy of discussion, but not for now. Back to Dionne, who leveled his own criticism at the AP for missing key aspects of the story:

Here's what stands out. First, Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief. "Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts," Obama declared. "You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it."

In an interview yesterday, Obama didn't back away. "By definition, faith admits doubt," he said. "Otherwise, it isn't faith. . . . If we don't sometimes feel hopeless, then we're really insulating ourselves from the world around us."

On the matter of church-state separation, Obama doesn't propose some contrived balancing act but embraces religion's need for independence from government. In a direct challenge to "conservative leaders," he argued that "they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice."

It's always easier to write about a speech a few days after it was given, isn't it?

For another second-day story on the speech, check out this commentary by the WaPo's Dana Milbank. He makes an interesting comparison of Obama's current status with that of George W. Bush's political standing in 1998. There's also some quality color commentary from the events surrounding Obama's recent speech.

clintonSen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also made a big speech on religious issues, but as the lack of media coverage and blog buzz shows, she is not quite as in touch as Obama. She actually had a nice touching story to share, but perhaps it's her failure to concede issues the way Obama did that puts her one notch below her Midwestern colleague?

While those in the "religious left" camp rally to Obama and, to a much lesser extent, Clinton, the movement is showing signs of cracking just as it discovers its leader.

Martin Edlund's in-depth report in Slate on Michael Lerner, editor of the interfaith magazine Tikkun, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical editor of Sojourners, is a rather devastating piece for those hoping for a convergence of religious lefties and a rather sober wake-up call to those of us who have had to rely on the Post's coverage of the movement:

Lerner and Wallis often get lumped together, and frankly, the religious left has been so marginal until now that it hasn't much mattered. The confusion is understandable. Both are veterans of the student movements of the 1960s who have been agitating ever since for a progressive politics consistent with their reading of scripture. They more or less agree on the big liberal faith issues, poverty, pacifism, the environment. After the 2004 election exposed a yawning "God gap" favoring Republicans, both penned brisk-selling books, often jointly reviewed, that challenged the religious right's exclusive claim to speak for people of faith and the Democrats' reluctance to speak to them. More recently, they've each begun setting up congregational networks to promote their ideas and consolidate their influence, much as the fledgling religious right did decades ago.

But as their movement becomes a bigger target for the religious right and Republican Party they may have to start keeping their distance from each other in order to continue building it. ...

This is a smart move because to succeed, Wallis needs to remain credible with evangelicals. His cozy relationship with Lerner and the [Network of Spiritual Progressives] crowd, on the other hand, risks making Wallis appear unorthodox by association. The criticism has already begun. A piece in the Baptist Press noted that Wallis attended Lerner's conference and pointed to the choice of venue -- All [Souls] Unitarian Church -- as proof that liberals don't understand "people of faith, in particular evangelicals." R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, railed on his blog against efforts "to replace the Christian faith with an empty 'spiritual' shell" and directly criticized Lerner for his idea of universal "spiritual yearnings" that make no "reference to some specific truth claim."

While the "religious left" struggles with its identity -- and its very existence as a political force -- the "religious right" is showing cracks as well. Not that this is news. A good reporter understands that the movement is anything but uniform in its beliefs.

This Slate piece by Russell Cobb, which is a review of Michelle Goldberg's book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, echoes the previous piece and inadvertently borrows some of our own criticism of the mainstream media's coverage of Islam as a monolithic force:

As evangelical Christians gain more political clout within the Bush administration, the ideological gaps between the factions of the Christian right are becoming more pronounced. It's not just environmentalism. Even gay marriage, that touchstone of the religious right, is a source of internecine tensions. Michael Farris, the founder of Patrick Henry College -- an elite breeding ground for conservative Christians -- opposed the latest constitutional amendment against gay marriage because it didn't go far enough in stripping gays of their rights. But the strains within the evangelical movement don't get much play in the secular media. For liberals, there's little difference between a Dobson, a Robertson, and a Cizik: They're all wing nuts in flyover states with bad hair and a gay obsession.

The specter of an American theocracy, the title of Kevin Phillips' broadside against the Bush administration, has obscured the signs of dissent in what can look like a Christian monolith. Michelle Goldberg, a Salon reporter and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, misses some of the signs, too, in her otherwise astute study. It's not just that she blurs the more fringe personalities, lumping together conspiracy-minded nut jobs (like theocrat Howard Phillips, who believes that "enemies of Christ in this fallen world must be conquered") with veteran conservative blowhards like William Bennett. As she describes how the Christian Right moved from the margins of acceptability to the Republican mainstream, she also overlooks generational tensions and large-scale dissatisfaction with the Bush administration among many conservative, white evangelicals (only 34 percent of whom, according to a June 6 Pew research poll, "strongly back" the president).

time cover of reedCobb takes Goldberg to task for failing to note the growing distinctions in the "Christian nationalism" movement ("In Kingdom Coming, Patrick Henry comes off as a boot camp for young culture warriors marching in lock step to a unified vision and lacking a basic grasp of critical thought"), citing the recent "controversy" at Patrick Henry College and the White House's failure to implement its promised "faith-based" initiatives.

To wrap things up, Slate delivers what attempts to be the eulogy of the "religious right" in politics, stating that "the fears of a Republican party dominated by monolithic religious zealots are as overblown now as they were when Reed was on the cover of Time. Haven't we read this piece before somewhere? Apparently, because the Republicans are headed into a period where their political ventures are not so victorious, they may be looking for another, um, passion:

But remember that in the elections of 1998, candidates backed by Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition did poorly. This may be why Reed sent Abramoff a letter days after the election saying he needed the lobbyist's help making contacts because he was "done with electoral politics" and "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" That was not a quote from scripture.

The article centers on Reed, who has been sliced and diced by World (why this publication has not been mentioned in coverage of the "religious right" is beyond me), and how conservatives are realizing that politics isn't what Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson say it's all cracked up to be. This may or may not be true, but I do believe the media have also failed to understand exactly what Falwell, Robertson, or Dobson are cracked up to be.

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