It was a modest and, I thought, obvious proposal that I put forward two weeks ago on this page: That liberals give up the notion of creating a cohesive religious left movement that could act as an effective counterforce to the animus of the religious right. Instead, I argued, liberals would do well to claim our own moral agency by virtue of our own humanity and the essential values of liberalism, which encompass the most admirable tenets of the world's great religions.
My jumping-off point for this thesis was the latest strife in the Episcopal Church USA, which is riven with controversy over its 2003 installation of a gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and last month's election of Kathleen Jefferts Schori, a woman who supports the gay bishop, as the American church's chief prelate. With all of the mainline Protestant churches engaged in similar internal battles, I argued, it was counterproductive to expect the leadership of these grand old faiths to hold, for the rest of us, the line against the religious right.
A lot of folks had a lot to say about this argument. A colleague who does extraordinary work tracking the nefarious activities of the religious right cheerfully accused me of stabbing him in the back. Episcopalians, both liberal and conservative, seemed to be the most offended. At The Green Knight, a well-written blog which appears to be the work of a liberal Episcopalian, the anonymous knight himself was the most succinct in articulating a common critique:
The reaction of people like these folks and these and many others has been to get organized, tell the story of what's happening, and start to push back. We're having an effect, too; even the media's beginning to find out about it now. And just at that moment — Stan tells us not to bother. Nice.
Well, actually, that's not what I said. I said that the movement in which the knight apparently takes part will never be an effective counterforce to that of the religious right in the world of secular politics. As for the media finally beginning to take notice, that's what I thought 10 years ago when I began covering the religious left. Sure, the obligatory AP stories and the occasional New York Times item will appear, but the regular, "likely voter" the pollsters love will remain unlikely to know of such a movement's existence. Why? Because, unlike the right, the religious left has no media empire of its own; the right does not rely on the kindness of the wire services. Over the course of the last 10 years, I have seen no serious attempt on the religious left to build a comprehensive, integrated media empire of its own.
Meanwhile, another Episcopalian respondent helpfully noted an error I made in the haste of meeting my deadline regarding the funding mechanism of the Episcopal Church. Confusing provinces with parishes, I stated that nearly half of the church's 22 provinces had broken with it, deprived it of funding. Provinces actually denote regions around the globe that make up the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church USA is a part. What those 22 provinces have actually done is refuse, within the Anglican Community, to have any contact with the American church. The point I had hoped to make was that a number of individual congregations — no one can state definitively how many — have either broken away from the Episcopal Church USA or stopped paying their required contribution to the central body. The phenomenon is goaded by such right-wing outfits as the American Anglican Council.
Which brings us to an important point made by The Green Knight, a missing piece of the story I told in my article: Organized right-wing pressure groups have deliberately and stealthily acted to bring about the current internal schisms within mainline churches. Indeed, the progenitor of the strife within the Episcopal Church — as well as the other mainline Protestant churches — is the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), a right-wing outfit that enjoys significant funding from Richard Mellon Scaife, and on whose board sits a number of right-wing notables, including Mary Ellen Bork, wife of the spurned judge. I first wrote about IRD in May of 1996, documenting the organization's smear campaign against Rev. Philip Wogaman who, at the time, served as pastor of the church attended by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I also wrote of the strife it sought to foment within the Protestant churches. (See this excellent piece by Frederick Clarkson for more details.)
I am not saying that liberals should abandon the battle with the likes of the IRD. If anything, far more of us need to be involved in a fight we have been too happy to cede to a dedicated few who could use a bit more cash for carrying out their work. But it is precisely because, as the Knight says, the IRD and its allies have achieved their goal of distracting the mainline churches with internecine battles that we should change tactics and move away from the idea of a movement that parallels the religious right. The might of the right demands an asymmetric strategy on our part, one that deprives the right of an internal base from which to wage a viral campaign.
Further, to target only churchgoing voters with a moral message is to miss a huge opportunity. It is often said that the United States is one of the most religious nations on earth. This truism no doubt stems from the fact that a famously huge majority of Americans believe in God. Conventional wisdom all too often conflates these believers with churchgoers when, in fact, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) some 40 percent of people who identified themselves as belonging to a particular denomination or religion did not attend religious services in houses of worship — nor did anyone in their households. (Because of the way the question was worded, we do not know how many non-churchgoers live in households where others attend religious services.)
That's a lot of people — people who likely derive their ethics from a particular faith tradition but who may not respond any better to the words of a religious liberal than they do to a religious righty. But they most likely will respond to ideas of right and wrong, and to language that sets these ideas in grand prose. (See: King James Bible.) If secular liberal politicians would simply engage the better angels of a broad, and often unchurched, electorate, they just might win.
By Adele M. Stan
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved