National Edition

Religious progressives celebrate rise, with eye on lurking perils

Published: Monday, April 28 2014 11:30 p.m. MDT

Then Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during a forum on faith, values, and poverty hosted by Sojourners/Call to Renewal at George Washington University, Monday, June 4, 2007, in Washington. Religious progressives hailed a report noting their recent successes last week, but a principal advocate says unresolved tensions lurk behind their rise.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

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The rising romance between self-identified "religious progressives" and the Democratic Party might not deliver lasting results, according to political observers and even the progressives themselves.

The progressives are enjoying a moment in the sun, thanks to "Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives," a report issued last week by the Brookings Institution — a left-leaning Washington think tank — which portrays the Obama-backing religious coalition as being on the rise, while those religious and social conservatives who backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are in a group whose ranks may soon decline as the country's demographics change.

Yet all is not promising on the left, Brookings fellow and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said last week. "Religious progressivism will never constitute the same homogeneity of the religious right," he said. "Despite this, a religious voice will remain essential to movements on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and on behalf of the middle class, who are under increasing pressure."

And Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist who helped the late Jerry Falwell organize the Moral Majority in the 1970s and 1980s, predicted believers on the left will ultimately be as disappointed as those on the right have been the past decade.

"The left is not going to be any more successful than the right" in wedding religion and politics, he said in a telephone interview. "Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world, and people who misuse him on the left or the right misrepresent him and do him a disservice."

'Awesome' blue-state God

Paradoxically, 2004 marked the beginning of President Obama's national ascendancy, with the then-Illinois state senator delivering a rousing Democratic convention speech about those who "worship an awesome God in the blue states." But the defeat that year of presidential nominee John Kerry by then-President George W. Bush served as a wakeup call, Dionne said.

"Democrats discovered God in the 2004 exit polls," he said. "When (Democrat Bill) Clinton was president, he was very fluent in talking about religion and his faith. … He had the issues he had, but one of the issues he didn't have was being tongue-tied about his faith."

Following Clinton's presidency, there was a "period where Democratic politicians were unable to talk about faith," Dionne added.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and political observer, agreed, saying at the Brookings event launching the report, "After 2004, Democrats had a need to 'get religion' and understand what went wrong."

But the "Faith in Equality" report issued a stark reality check for religious progressives, saying victories can be fleeting.

"The success of Obama and the Democrats in 2008 led not to a redoubling of interest on the progressive side in religion, but quite the opposite," stated the report, based on formally convened conversations with many religious progressives. "With electoral victory won, many Democrats — as well as progressive funders and organizers — turned their interests elsewhere. Engagement with religion atrophied, and with it a variety of organizing efforts."

Indeed, in 2012, there was no major shift among religious voters. A post-election Public Religion Research Institute survey found that among Romney supporters were a small segment (7 percent) of religiously unaffiliated and a whopping 75 percent identifying as white Christians, according to the Brookings report.

"By contrast, fully 25 percent of Obama’s voters were religiously unaffiliated, 34 percent were white Christians while the rest were a diverse array of African-American and Latino Christians and followers of other faiths," the Brookings report stated.

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