A Cautionary Tale

Has progressive religion moved far enough away from patriarchy to do women and democracy much good?
By Frances Kissling
Autumn 2005

I was sitting in a senate meeting room a few months ago when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A US senator started talking about Jesus. She (and it was not Hillary Clinton, so keep guessing) said, “What I want to do is get on the floor of the Senate and ask, ‘What would Jesus do about the budget? What would Jesus do about poor children? What would Jesus do about health care?’” What I wanted to say was that the floor of the US Senate is not the place to invoke Jesus Christ. Most of us, whether we are people of faith or not, would vastly prefer that public policy be developed democratically, taking into account people’s views about what is needed for them to lead healthy and productive lives in relative freedom and peace.

I said nothing as I sent a private prayer of thanks to Jesus that no rabbis, imams, lamas or other non-Christian clergy were in the room. I vowed to send some money to the ACLU and People for the American Way who seem to have got it right in terms of a strategy to deal with the rising tide of religious conservatism that has gripped the US since the 1980s. It was in 1981 that an outraged Norman Lear founded PFAW as a vehicle to combat the flag-waving bigotry of the Moral Majority. To counter it, he went to the core of American democratic values: the values of the enlightenment, the idea of an America founded on a true secularism and one that understands the government derives its powers from the consent of the people, not the favored religion of the president. Religious leaders who shared that view of democracy joined with other opinion leaders in upholding those enlightenment values, and we all proved that the Moral Majority was neither moral nor a majority.

Yes, there has been some ebb and flow, with premature predictions of the death of the Right followed by overblown assertions about its growing power. The Moral Majority fizzled out to be replaced by the Christian Coalition which fused with the Republican Party—and that party won America in 2004.

Lambs to the Slaughter

The “God talk” and “theopolitics” that characterized the 2004 election campaign were particularly brutal. The culprits were not fundamentalist Christians, but the Vatican, a handful of ultra-conservative US bishops and conservative Catholics who were outraged that John Kerry, by becoming president, might destroy the notion that no Catholic can be prochoice.

[Democrats] wanted their own religious wing— and they wanted it to look different than the Democratic Party (not gay, nor ardently prochoice or pro-woman). They wanted “religion light,” respectable, preferably with a Roman collar or a wonderful Beaver Cleaver family.

This was an election with very high stakes for progressives. And, in the wake of the unprecedented attack on Kerry by Catholics, Democrats and a fairly wide array of secular groups turned their attention to the progressive religious community— a relatively weak and very fragmented set of players whose history in electoral politics was negligible but who were, nonetheless, eager to enter the fray. Needless to say: it didn’t work. While a full analysis of their effectiveness has yet to be presented, these groups claimed some important contributions. Notably, they claim to have registered 500,000 voters and put Bush on the defensive about abortion by producing research asserting that while abortion declined significantly under Clinton, the numbers went up under Bush. A few newspaper ads also appeared during the campaign season. But frankly, a comparison between the efforts of smaller newer Catholic Republican groups as well as the mammoth efforts of the traditional Christian right demonstrates that the religious left was no match for the religious right in outreach, exposure or delivery.

In spite of its weak showing, the progressive religious movement became the darling of the Democratic Party and some secular think tanks in the post-election frenzy over “moral values.” Having lost its way, if not its soul, in the dismal inability to articulate any values that characterized the Kerry campaign, Democrats decided they needed to figure out how to express their values in terms that would counter the God talk of Republicans. They wanted their own religious wing— and they wanted it to look different than the Democratic Party (not gay, nor ardently prochoice or pro-woman). They wanted “religion light,” respectable, preferably with a Roman collar or a wonderful Beaver Cleaver family.

The same standard of justice that applied to the values demanded of secular groups simply did not apply in the search for religious allies. A political party that had worked diligently to change the way the world looks at gender, sex and reproduction turned a blind eye to the beliefs and values of religious leaders on these issues if they could help give it a veneer of religious respectability.

There seemed to be few in the party or among its allies who had the slightest idea of the continuing struggle for social transformation going on in the religious world, or if they were aware of the struggle, they seemed not to care. Religious institutions and their structures are patriarchal, homophobic and utterly lost, as Daniel Maguire says, in the pelvic zone. While some progress has been made, justice, especially for women and gays, has been hard to achieve in most mainline denominations— and certainly in the evangelical and Roman Catholic community.

What Does a Left-Wing God Look Like?

Feminists and GLBT leaders in religious communities have been concerned observers of the growing alliance between so-called progressive religion and progressive Democrats. During the 2004 election and in the early post-election period, not a single religious group whose primary mission was GLBT rights or reproductive health and rights was welcomed to the coalition table. While some progress has been made, there is a long way to go and the jury is out on whether or not the emergence of a left-wing God (who looks a lot like Jesus) is likely to be much better for women or gays than the right-wing God.

When it comes to politics, the world of religion is judged by fairly lax standards. Where, one might ask, are the constituents that usually are necessary to gain one a seat at the table? For the most part, denominations themselves are not political players. (The exceptions of course are the Roman Catholic hierarchy and many of the black churches.) Concerns about tax laws and mixed Republican and Democratic church membership lead to reluctance on the part of mainline Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran and Unitarian congregations to formally engage in electoral politics. All of them have formal lobby structures on social justice issues, but most do not engage in either the culture wars or electoral politics.

This means that the political terrain is populated by a variety of very small, issue-oriented interfaith groups, theologians and individual charismatic pastors. A quick review of the list of groups that are part of current progressive religious coalitions shows, with few exceptions, small memberships (generally between several thousand to ten thousand) and miniscule budgets. Compared to giants like Focus on the Family ($136 million in 2004), the Family Research Council ($10.1m), Concerned Women for America ($11.5m) and even smaller groups like the American Life League ($7.4m) and Priests for Life ($5.1m), one cannot help but wonder what the Democratic Party and its allies are thinking. What will they gain in terms of a voting constituency or culture-shaping message that resonates with large numbers of believers when these groups have shown so little capacity to attract followers?

Whose Values?

But let’s forget such crass indicators of success or value and look more closely at what values are likely to enter the political discourse as a result of a left-wing God mediated or channeled by groups such as Sojourners, and individuals like Jim Wallis who has become the most (self-)promoted voice for this school of thought. There was no doubt that the senator who wished to invoke Jesus had been tutored by Wallis. Her mantra was the most frequently used sound bite from Wallis’s textbook, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, “I find 3,000 verses in the Bible on the poor, so fighting poverty is a moral value.”

Wallis’s strategy prior to the election was a resurrection of the strategy long discarded by People for the American Way: ignore the hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights and concentrate attention on the war, poverty and, when all else fails, invoke tolerance.

I have enormous admiration for and consider many of the leaders of this new movement my friends and allies. I support a progressive religious movement that opposes the war, works hard to end poverty and is committed to tolerance and democracy. In fact, the religious community has been substantially better on these issues than other progressive groups or the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton abandoned the poor, especially poor women, in his welfare reform program and John Kerry was a dismal failure in standing up to an unjust war in Iraq. I expect, however, my friends and allies to stand in a prophetic space, whether in the pulpit or the public square and speak out for justice and rights for all of God’s creation including women and gays.

I also expect secular progressive groups and the Democratic Party to insist that the progressive religious movement not take a pass on basic issues of human rights, however difficult that may be for them within their denominations. With a few notable exceptions, the current alliance between the emerging progressive religious movement and secular groups has not been held to high enough standards.

At present, the progressive religious movement is amorphous and has not yet articulated an agenda or even a mission statement or set of values that can generally be agreed upon by those who enter the sanctuary. The main coalition vehicle is the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy initiative. Its structure is still evolving and it is some way from having any policy positions. A second vehicle is the Freedom and Faith Forum organized under the auspices of the Texas-based Drive Democracy which is focused on grassroots outreach to people of faith through an imaginative and inclusive bus tour. Everyone is welcome on this bus, including GLBT and reproductive rights supporters, although again, the agenda is not yet carved in stone.

I expect, however, my friends and allies to stand in a prophetic space, whether in the pulpit or the public square and speak out for justice and rights for all of God’s creation including women and gays.

I worry about both, although I really worry about the Faith and Progressive Policy initiative. And perhaps unfairly, a lot of my fears are based on its desire to please and position Jim Wallis, about whom much has been written in Conscience (see, for example, Aaron Payson’s “The Politics of Jim Wallis,” Summer 2005). Wallis is one of those religious leaders that set the teeth of feminist religious women, particularly Catholics, on edge. While he identifies himself as a progressive prolife evangelical, his heroes are…the Catholic bishops. His speeches are full of references to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the so-called consistent ethic of life. He claims to speak for “millions” of progressive Catholics who are eager to support the Democratic Party but balk at its stance on abortion. His assurance regarding what Catholic teaching on abortion is and what Catholics actually believe is firm and unshaken by contradictory facts. (I would not be the least surprised if at some point in time Wallis follows another conservative leader, Richard John Neuhaus, and becomes a Catholic!)

CAP’s progressive coalition could position any number of Catholic women who better exemplify progressive Catholic thought on a range of social justice issues (Sr. Maureen Fiedler of Interfaith Voices, Sr. Joan Chittister, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Hunt are all preeminent progressive Catholic theologians who actually have a good scholarly background in systematic theology). Instead, CAP has used Wallis extensively in its fundraising and community-based forums on religion and politics. In its defense, CAP has shown a genuine interest in empowering and enabling a number of less-well known voices that should be heard on issues. Of special note is its promotion of the views of groups representing women of color on reproductive health.

But the positions taken by Wallis on abortion, and unchallenged publicly by any in the Faith and Progressive Policy initiative, are likely to damage women’s reproductive health and rights. Wallis’ views are hard to pin down. Attempts by interviewers to get Wallis to go beyond his well rehearsed and often-repeated sound bites on the issue are met with politician-like repetitions of homespun theology. He thinks abortion itself is morally wrong, but does not want to see it criminalized. His reason for such generosity is classically patriarchal beneficence: he doesn’t want poor women who are victims of poverty and injustice to suffer. There is no acknowledgement that a woman who is not a victim, but a thoughtful moral agent who could continue a pregnancy, might make a good decision to have an abortion. In his attempts to seek “common ground” with others, Wallis focuses on the “too many abortions” argument. But his common ground is very shaky. It does not, for example, include contraception. (Wallis has said he is in favor of contraception, but after fairly extensive review of his writing and transcripts of speeches and sermons, I can find no reference to contraception as a common ground means of reducing abortion rates.) Wallis’s common ground is abstinence-focused sex education, adoption reform (but he has provided no specifics on what kind of adoption reform he thinks would lead to a significant number of women choosing adoption over abortion) and better economic benefits and social support for women already pregnant who might then be able to choose to continue their pregnancy.

And here is where the progressive religious agenda gets interesting. Is Wallis genuinely interested in presenting evidence-based policy solutions that really can reduce the need for abortions, or is he using abortion as another way to push an antipoverty agenda? Are pregnant women a means to achieving Wallis’s agenda? (In case you didn’t get it, his is the classic means and ends argument.) There is absolutely no evidence that better economic benefits, jobs, child care or parental leave would lead to a significant decline in abortion. There is however substantial evidence that access to contraception (both regular and emergency contraception) would significantly reduce unintended pregnancy and thus abortion.

This overwhelming and admirable commitment to ending poverty and promoting policies that would do that has caught not only Wallis, but another newly important figure in progressive evangelical circles, Glenn Stassen. Stassen, who describes himself as prolife, but is publicly in favor of legal abortion, is the author of the study that claimed abortions went down under Clinton and up under Bush and hypothesized that the reason was Bush’s cuts in the antipoverty budgets. More recent research has proven that Stassen was wrong on the facts. Abortions went down under Clinton and have continued to go down under Bush (although at a much slower rate). Most importantly, data shows that Stassen’s conclusion—that the abortion rate went down under Clinton because of better support for poor pregnant women—is demonstrably wrong. Analysis by the Alan Guttmacher Institute of government data show that the reason for the decline during Clinton’s presidency was increased use of emergency contraception and better use of traditional contraceptives such as the pill. When I asked Stassen why he continues to make his claims, despite the facts showing otherwise, instead of supporting contraception as a way to reduce abortion, he passionately responded, “Because I want to make an antipoverty argument.”

Stassen’s case provides a classic argument against electoral involvement by religious leaders. He is a good man, sincere, honest and genuinely committed to women. But he shows how hard it is to be a prophetic and truly independent voice when you strongly support one candidate in an election. Perhaps I am naïve, but I expect more of my religious leaders than I do of James Carville or Robert Schrum. To the extent the progressive faith community sees itself as another vehicle for the revitalization of the Democratic Party—and a vote getter—and Democratic Party operatives also see it as part of the electoral process, religion is in real trouble and democracy not far beyond.

Frances Kissling is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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