For the past few days, I have been down in Key West, Fla., for one of those amazing "Faith Angle" gatherings, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, for journalists and scholars. As always, the topics were timely and the discussion -- almost all of which was on the record -- was lively. The speakers this time were Michael Cook of Princeton University, on "Understanding Muhammad and Islam"; longtime Democratic insider William Galston of the Brookings Institution on "Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party"; and James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and Alan Wolfe of Boston College debating the question "Is There a Culture War?" (a preview of their forthcoming book).
I don't even know where to start when it comes to offering URLs on all those people and those topics. But if you want transcripts of their talks and the discussions, watch this site. Or you can read one journalist's take on the proceedings, because Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher of the Dallas Morning News live-blogged the whole thing for his new Crunchy Con blog over at Beliefnet.
I do not have the time or the energy to cover all that Capt. Crunchy's flying fingers produced during the sessions. But I will say this: There were two powerful ghosts in the room.
One was the ongoing issue of whether American evangelical Protestants have become so disheartened by trends in the second Bush White House that they have already started a quiet retreat from the nasty business of politics and back into the garden of compassionate deeds and evangelistic words. Is the Rev. Rick "Purpose Driven" Warren of Saddleback Church a sign of this trend? There were many references by reporters and forum leaders to his session with reporters a year ago in Key West.
So, should we look for a louder evangelical left and a quieter evangelical right? Here are two short Dreher notes on that discussion:
The question is put to Wolfe: Why would you think that conservative Protestants, having spent 40 years building a powerful political machine, would abandon it? Because, says Wolfe, its leaders are having an epiphany about what their role as Christians in this culture are supposed to be, and to do. Leaders like Rick Warren are genuinely more interested in fighting poverty and relieving suffering, not fighting in the political realm. There is an authentic re-thinking of Christian mission, of Christian public purpose, among the younger generation of Evangelical leaders.
Hunter says that because Evangelicalism is more and more defined by emotional experience, a nascent Evangelical political progressivism is easy to foresee. You can see this especially among the emerging Evangelical elites. Says Hunter, "Most of the Evangelicals I know at the University of Virginia, I only know one who voted for Bush in the last election."
The second ghost was like unto the first.
Galston's presentation was excellent and it, of course, raised a fundational question about the current direction of the Democratic Party. Will the party's elite leaders be willing to do more than talk about religion? Will they be able to actually compromise on hot-button cultural issues -- such as abortion and gay rights -- in order to reach the massive, mushy, "incoherent" (Wolfe's word) middle of the American marketplace of emotions (as opposed to ideas)? That's a hard question, as noted by Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post piece entitled "The New Temptation of Democrats":
The risk is that, in the process of maneuvering, Democrats' reframing and rebranding could edge into retreating on core principles. It was unsettling to hear (Howard) Dean -- in the process of cozying up to evangelicals -- mangle the party platform, saying, incorrectly, that it states that "marriage is between a man and a woman." In fact, while deliberately silent on marriage, the platform supports "full inclusion of gay and lesbian families . . . and equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections." ...
(By) all means, let Democrats woo evangelicals and cast the message in a way that speaks to religious voters. But in doing so, keep in mind: What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?
Abortion is always a hot topic for Democrats, but it wasn't the issue lurking in the background in Key West. Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard was there and, at one point, I wished he could have handed out copies of Maggie Gallagher's recent cover story, "Banned in Boston -- The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty."
The basic question: Will the leaders of the Democratic Party do what the Clinton White House was willing to do, which is defend the basic freedom of association rights of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others? During private conversations, Galston said it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to support an attack on the First Amendment rights of millions of traditional religious believers. That simply is not going to happen, he said.
But numerous sources -- left and right -- quoted in the Gallagher article are not so sure. Consider these remarks from a strategic leader in a Jewish organization that is, needless to say, not part of the Religious Right.
As general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern knows religious liberty law from the inside out. ... (He) sees the coming conflicts as pervasive. The problem is not that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages or prevented from preaching their beliefs. Look past those big red herrings: "No one seriously believes that clergy will be forced, or even asked, to perform marriages that are anathema to them. Same-sex marriage would, however, work a sea change in American law. ...
Consider education. Same-sex marriage will affect religious educational institutions, he argues, in at least four ways: admissions, employment, housing, and regulation of clubs. One of Stern's big worries right now is a case in California where a private Christian high school expelled two girls who (the school says) announced they were in a lesbian relationship. Stern is not optimistic. And if the high school loses, he tells me, "then religious schools are out of business." Or at least the government will force religious schools to tolerate both conduct and proclamations by students they believe to be sinful.
Will speech against gay marriage be allowed to continue unfettered? "Under the American regime of freedom of speech, the answer ought to be easy," according to Stern. But it is not entirely certain, he writes, "because sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace principles will likely migrate to suppress any expression of anti-same-sex-marriage views." Stern suggests how that might work.
In the corporate world, the expression of opposition to gay marriage will be suppressed not by gay ideologues but by corporate lawyers, who will draw the lines least likely to entangle the company in litigation. Stern likens this to "a paroxysm of prophylaxis -- banning 'Jesus saves' because someone might take offense."
It was great to be in Key West and surrounded by some amazing journalists and scholars. But the topics were not what I would call "relaxing," at least not for folks who worry a lot about about religious-liberty issues.