The Religious Left

Could a healthy dose of religion rejuvenate the left?


| January 27, 2005


In the wake of another tough election day, Democrats have been wringing their hands over the phrase 'moral values,' which pundits deemed decisive to President Bush's victory and encompasses a set of hot button issues pushed by religious conservatives -- particularly an opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

Hordes of Democratic voters have since chided Republicans for using intolerance to motivate their base. Some religious leaders were dismayed as well, not only because Republicans exploited religion to win, but because Democrats didn't.

Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner argues that Americans are spiritually bankrupt, hungry for values to bring people together, and desperate for an antidote to materialism and selfishness. Stepping in to fill that void is crucial for the left if it wants to stop rational folk from turning to right-wing churches and synagogues.

Jim Wallis, the editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners and author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, agrees -- noting that leaders on the left need to respect the secular while rallying social justice activists to tap into religion. He holds up Martin Luther King Jr. as the archetype for this approach: 'With his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, King persuaded, not just pronounced.'

Some may doubt that such a tack could work with liberals, renown for their distrust of religion. But Steven Waldman of beliefnet says this is a misconception, and in a column memorably titled, 'Perverted, God-Hating Frenchies vs. Inbred, Sex-Obsessed Yokels' he uses statistics to back up his claim.

Of course, non-believers are wary that the phrase 'moral values' is becoming synonymous with religion. Opposition to the war, concern for the poor, and support for environmentally sound policies are, after all, morally rooted positions shared by agnostics and atheists. As comedian Jon Stewart noted while wrapping up an amicable interview with Wallis earlier this week on The Daily Show, 'Works without faith, is still pretty good.'