Religion enters stage left

progressiveOne of the big stories of last year was President Barack Obama's religious outreach efforts. And yet the rise of politically liberal religious groups was horribly undercovered. Instead we saw a lot of stories about how evangelical Christians were broadening their areas of interest. It's a weird blind spot considering that the religious groups supporting President George W. Bush and Republicans in general are always well noticed by the media. So it was wonderful to see Jacqueline Salmon and Michelle Boorstein's piece in the Washington Post story: "Progressive Faith Groups Now Trying to Shift Debate: Activists Optimistic That Obama Will Back Causes:"

With a president they view as more sympathetic to their causes, progressive religious activists are pushing the new Obama administration for aggressive action -- on poverty, the environment and social justice issues -- that would mark a significant shift in the faith agenda that dominated the Bush years.

Many faith groups close to President George W. Bush focused on abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. But now, liberal and centrist evangelicals and other activists say they are getting a voice and trying to turn the debate.

"The last administration showed no interest in talking to a large chunk of the religious community," said Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "We're already seeing change. . . . This administration, so far as I can see, is not making a similar mistake."

The change, however, represents more than a new agenda. It also sets up potential conflicts for President Obama, who has reached out to religious activists across the spectrum. He runs the risk of alienating supporters and detractors alike as his administration attempts a dialogue on a host of issues and begins new policies, such as his decision this month to lift the ban on federal funding to international groups that provide abortions and abortion counseling.

I hope we'll see more discussion of Obama's religious outreach during his administration and this is a great and even-handed response -- straightforward while also quite interesting. It provoked some thinking on my part -- not so much for this story but as we proceed on this topic.

Progressive? Is this the best descriptor for religious groups who advocate for liberal political aims? I have used the term regularly in the past and can argue for its use. But I've heard from people all across the spectrum who don't like it. Some on the right say that it implies people who don't share a belief in, say, higher taxes are regressive or oppressive. Some on the left think that it denigrates the theological basis and grounding for their views. What do you think? Is that the best term out there or what would you prefer? It is somewhat funny that religious groups on the right are frequently called the religious right or Christian conservatives but we don't see much use of the terms religious left or liberal Christians. So maybe I should ask what are some better terms for all the varied religious groups that engage in the public square.

Another thing is that quote saying that the Bush administration didn't talk to a wide variety of religious groups. It comes from someone identified only as an academic but is there only one perspective on the matter? Would Bush administration officials or their supporters agree with that? The story says that the administration reached out to a "diverse mix of religious groups" during the transition, particularly as it related to the Faith-Based Initiative program. But I'm not sure that a similarly wide variety of religious groups weren't involved in President Bush's planning efforts. The groups mentioned in this article were definitely part of Bush's FBI talks.

While the progressive groups are emphasizing social justice, many also are urging Obama to help reduce abortions. The fight over the issue has always been complex and is likely to become even more so. While many liberal groups say they want abortions reduced, other antiabortion groups remain adamant about seeking a prohibition.

Catholic bishops, for example, will find Obama a "mixed bag," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute and a professor of politics at Catholic University. While many of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' positions on social justice align with those of the Obama administration, the bishops' firm opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research will put them at odds with the president.

"Clearly for the bishops, first and foremost, are these life issues," Schneck said. "While they're certainly willing to work with the Obama administration on everything else, for them the key to a long-term relationship with the administration has to revolve around abortion."

This is a good example of why I refrain from using the term social justice. Basically, I have no idea what it means. I understand what it means in terms of Catholic social teaching. But the foundational principle of Catholic social teaching is the sanctity of all human life and the inherent dignity of every human person. But I don't think protecting all human's right to life is what is meant in this story's use of the term social justice. Does it mean equal allocation of society's benefits -- another definition of social justice? Or what? I just don't know what that term means and see no reason against being very specific about what it does mean in an article like this.

Still, even though I'm busy quibbling over here, I love that this article provides an introduction to the opportunities and challenges religious groups face with the new administration. It doesn't sugarcoat the rough road ahead and neither does it focus only on trouble spots. As it is, many religious believers find themselves not perfectly aligned with any politician or political party. The Obama administration needs the help of religious groups that are favorably inclined to some of its views and mortified by others. It will be a great story to follow and perhaps the perfect prism to view some of the larger political challenges President Obama faces.

The story explores other areas of dispute as well. One early victory for some religious groups was President Obama's support for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. But some are disappointed at his creation of a task force to study whether the CIA should be able to use additional interrogation techniques. (I'll add that I can't imagine they're terribly happy about extraordinary rendition either.) The piece also mentions the growing brouhaha over Obama's campaign pledge to end the rights of religious groups receiving federal funds to prefer the hiring of coreligionists.

It's a great story and only made me disappointed that similar pieces weren't a bigger part of the media cycle leading up to this point. Particularly considering that these groups have powerful allies in both houses of Congress as well. The rise of the religious left/progressives/insert-other-term and what they do with their new found power deserves more attention.

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