Spiritual Progressives or Religious Left?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 28, 2006 — 4 Comments

Ever since the rise to power of the “Religious Right” in America, concerned centrists, leftists, and even some on the secular right have wondered where the counterbalance was in American politics. Democrats, since before the 2004 election have worried over the “God Gap” and how they can crack the “Bush Code” and reach out to religiously minded (read: Christian) voters. Since then two men have become focal points of what some are branding the “Religious Left”, the Reverend Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine. But some, including Martin Edlund of Slate.com are pointing out that the two men have perhaps incompatible visions for a religious counter-movement.

Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner

“Lerner and Wallis often get lumped together, and frankly, the religious left has been so marginal until now that it hasn’t much mattered. The confusion is understandable. Both are veterans of the student movements of the 1960s who have been agitating ever since for a progressive politics consistent with their reading of scripture. They more or less agree on the big liberal faith issues, poverty, pacifism, the environment…But as their movement becomes a bigger target for the religious right and Republican Party they may have to start keeping their distance from each other in order to continue building it.”

The problem is one of inclusion and focus. Lerner is a “big tent” spiritual progressive, his recent conference to kick-off his new Network of Spiritual Progressives featured not only left-leaning Christians but “scores of liberal Jews, fewer Muslims, and a sprinkling of Buddhists, Sufis, Baha’i, Wiccans, Native American shamans, and various metrospiritual seekers” according to Edlund. Meanwhile Wallis is focused on winning moderate Catholics and evangelicals who are more concerned with poverty and the environment than gays and abortion.

The real question in my mind isn’t if there is going to be a “Religious Left”, the question is if we are going to have a “Religious Left” or a “Spiritual Progressives” movement. The difference to some may seem a trifle, but for those who adhere to a minority faith the issue is one of recognition and inclusion. Lerner’s movement is messy and all over the place, it welcomes “fringe” groups (like modern Pagans). It doesn’t have a timetable, and is more concerned with building long-term connections between different faith groups. Wallis on the other hand is far more pragmatic. He wants votes and to shift the public’s focus from “righty Jesus” to “lefty Jesus” (from gays to the poor). You can guess who the Democrats are cozying up to in anticipation of the 2008 elections.

The problem with Wallis (and those like Wallis) winning the crown of the new “Religious Left” is that it sidelines other faiths into cheering on their favorite version of Jesus instead of crafting a multi-religious counter-message to conservative Christian talking points. That strategy may win more votes in the short term but it won’t build a long-lasting movement in the shifting sands of American religion. While the values of Wallis may be more in line with the “spiritual progressives” than with the conservative Christians currently in power, we shouldn’t forget that much is left unsaid when you replace a “conservative” evangelical with a “moderate” one.

There is a reason why prominent religious conservatives like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback are willing to speak at conferences held by Wallis. Because his views on abortion and gay marriage fall right in line (for the most part) with theirs. His focus at the moment just happens to be on poverty, but once candidates he advises attain office you can expect that the more “conservative” elements of his platform will gain more attention. Recent political contortions by Hillary Clinton can give you a preview of what to expect.

While I hope for Lerner’s big tent, I fear that the (actually) compassionate conservatism of Jim Wallis will win the day. If so, expect any faith that doesn’t mention “Jesus” to be quietly asked for donations, and to hand out leaflets so long as they tuck in their pentacle necklace. If we’re lucky we might even get ringside seats for the (electoral) battle between the Christian sects.

Jason Pitzl-Waters