The right-of-center Daily Telegraph, Great Britain's only remaining broadsheet, has published a list of what its editors consider the 100 most influential conservatives and liberals in the United States. The list tells us a lot about how the British see our next presidential election. It's also a peek into how journalists across the pond understand America's political power structure. Where do they rank the leaders of our political, business, social and, yes, religious institutions? Like many others, I tend to find lists like these silly and, by definition, flawed. But they are reasonably interesting conversation pieces worth mentioning, and it is often the subsequent discussion that produces the most interesting insights.
It's not that surprising to see former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani lead the conservative list, but who would have predicted Hillary Clinton down at number four with her husband leading at number one? Also, is it really that surprising that President Bush wasn't in the top 20? The Telegraph thought it was significant enough to put in a special word for why the country's president failed to crack the top 20.
With that aside, for the purposes of this blog, who were the leading conservative and liberal religious figures on the list and how do their rankings compare? The list is fairly focused on people who might have a direct influence on the election (and likely make an endorsement in the primary). It has missed the people, particularly in religious communities, who will probably end up influencing the election in a more indirect but significant way.
That said, here is the Telegraph's rather interesting disclaimer about the list:
When in doubt, we have leant towards those likely to be most influential in the future rather than those whose careers and impact lies in the past. But some historical figures cast such a long shadow that it would have been perverse to have excluded them.
The mere holding of a high office did not guarantee inclusion, though it was often an important factor. The future influence of some figures will depend largely on whether the candidate they are associated with wins their party's nomination or the presidency. Certainly, a year and a week from today, these lists will probably be very -- though by no means entirely -- different.
Now consider whether the people on this list will exercise future influence or whether they're just "historical figures" casting a "long shadow."
On the conservative side, the closest religious figure in the top 20 is Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor who's now running for president. He's definitely among the future influential people. On the other hand, Focus on the Family president James Dobson appears at number 26 (one spot in front of Christopher Hitchens), former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is at 70 and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins is number 81. There are others on the list who express religious sentiments regularly, but that isn't their primary purpose.
On the liberal side, the list of religious figures is a bit shorter: Former presidential candidates and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson (number 44) and Al Sharpton (88). That's it. Apparently the emerging religious left hasn't given notice to the folks across the pond that they have influence these days.
From my perspective, this is a fairly significant oversight. There was no room for Jim Wallis of Sojourners, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It? Or is it too difficult to pin him down as a liberal?
The challenge with some of the religious leaders is that they are difficult to pigeonhole on the right or left. Where would you place Rick Warren, if you think he should be on there at all? Perhaps that is this list's fundamental flaw. What about the leaders of the Episcopal Church? Do Mike Gerson's efforts to make the Republican Party more aware of Catholic social issues make him somewhat significant?