Navigation

The Fragmenting Religious Right & The Emerging Progressive Faith Networks

With election season looming, you have the media hyping mobilization by the religious right around social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Just this weekend, the Los Angeles Times highlighted the recruitment by the religious right of 5000 "patriot pastors" to mobilize around issues like fighting stem cell research and distributing voter guides keyed to support rightwing politicians.

Yet while there is justifiable focus on the turnout machine by the religious right, the reality is that the 2004 election saw increased turnout not just by conservative religious group but by progressive denominations as well, as a recent Pew Forum study documented.

In fact, a Center for American Values survey found that by a margin of 85% to 12%, Americans say issues like poverty and affordable health care are more important issues than abortion and same-sex marriage. Too often the media has bought into the religious right's argument that "values voters" just care about hot-button social issues, yet most in the survey saw candidate honesty, eliminating poverty and protecting personal freedoms as more important "values" than stopping gay marriage or restricting abortion. Even among the most traditional evangelicals, 67% thought poverty and affordable health care were more important issues than abortion and same-sex marriage.

These finding confirm what a broader Pew Research Center report found-- that social conservatives who made up much of the base of the Republican party still side with progressives in feeling "too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies" and support stricter environmental regulation, raising the minimum wage, and guaranteeing health care for all Americans.

As this Dispatch will detail, this tension at the base of the religious right is creating active conflict among religious conservative leaders, even as progressive religious leaders are strengthening their organizations and religiously-inclined community organizations are increasing their organizing across our nation.

More Resources

Splintering of the Religious Right

One sign of division on the right is the civil war breaking out between the business-backed conservatives and religious right leaders. An example was former GOP Majority Leader Dick Armey, saying last week that "James Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies," labeling the Focus on the Family leader as engaging in "high demagoguery." Since Armey is now President of FreedomWorks, one of the key corporate-backed lobbying groups in DC and in statehouses around the country, this is a serious declaration of war between previous political allies.

The Evangelical Conflict over Climate Change: But the most serious conflicts are now happening within the religiously conservative movement itself. A clear example was when evangelical leaders this year created the Evangelical Climate Initiative to address climate change and clean up our environment, based around a statement signed by 86 initial evangelical leaders, including Rev. Dr. Leith Anderson, Former President, National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rev. Ron Sider, President, Evangelicals for Social Action and Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of mega-seller The Purpose Driven Life. This was organized by the even older Evangelical Environmental Network, which includes a range of groups including the Texas Baptist Convention.

Denouncing this effort in an open letter were other rightwing evangelicals tied to the more traditional political rightwing, including James Dobson, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, former Watergate criminal, now religious leader Charles Colson, Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, and Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association.

Other Divisions Among the Religious Right: This conflict forced the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents 51 denominations and 10 million people, to abstain from taking a stand on global warming. In a sign of other divisions, the NAE took no position when the war in Iraq started due to the stalemate between anti-war and pro-war factions.

Similarly, when Dobson and others on the far right objected to US funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, because a small portion of its funds go to distributing condoms and providing clean needles to drug addicts, evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and even Pat Robertson stood up to Dobson in defense of the Global Fund as critical for saving lives around the world.

The "Other" Baptists: As the Southern Baptist Convention moved sharply to the theological and political right in the last few decades, dissent has broken out throughout its institutions. Baptist colleges have cut ties to the Southern Baptist Convention to protect free thought on their campuses. In 1991, a large number of Southern Baptists formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, including 1800 partner churches and 13 theology schools and seminaries, as an alternative to the rigid fundamentalism of the SBC. An even more progressive group of Southern Baptists have broken off to form Mainstream Baptists.

Most significantly, leaders of these dissident Southern Baptist groups have begun a dialogue with the northern American Baptists (from which the Southern Baptists split in the 19th century over the issue of slavery) and with the African-American Baptist denominations. This year, former President Jimmy Carter (a former Southern Baptist himself) convened a meeting where various Baptist leaders committed to exploring building a North American Baptist Covenant dedicated to "promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity." Significantly, all of these Baptist groups together include 20 million members, more than the 16 million members remaining in the Southern Baptists.

More Resources

Progressive Denominational and Ecumenical Religious Action

These "other Baptists" are just one part of the more progressive wing of religious denominations.

  • Along with the African-American Baptists, black churches of a range of denominations continue to play a vital role in mobilizing their members around issues of racial and economic justice.
  • The American Friends (Quakers) continue to be leaders in a range of peace and social justice efforts.
  • The United Church of Christ has made an appeal for tolerance and acceptance a centerpiece of an aggressive outreach campaign by that church.
  • The Catholic Church leadership, while often splitting from progressives on social issues, has also been an aggressive ally in fighting for living wages in communities across the country and defending justice for immigrant families, most notably Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney declaring that priests and nuns would defy any law requiring them to turn in undocumented congregational members to the authorities. And the Catholic Pax Christi USA continues to work for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world with 20 regional chapters within the United States.
  • And a range of Jewish, Muslim and other denominations are actively involved in progressive campaigns for justice in communities across the country.

Church leaders are also working across denominations on a range of ecumenical social and economic justice campaigns.

  • The National Council of Churches has long history of standing up for economic justice, including its Let's Justice Roll project which has supporting minimum wage and living wage campaigns across the country. It also has an online outreach arm, Faithful America, that has mobilized people of faith around issues of war, poverty, education and global justice.
  • Five mainline denominations -- the Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church -- issued a joint statement rejecting Bush's proposed budget as unjust to those in need and calling for more resources for health care, food and finding the global AIDS crisis. Similar joint denominational statements have been made in states ranging from Minnesota to Kansas in support of more state funding for education and fighting poverty.
  • The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility brings together religious organizations to encourage them to use their financial investments in a more socially responsible way.

Newer efforts have been working beyond the denominational leadership to bring together pastors in a more pro-active way to promote a progressive religious community.

More Resources

Community-Based Religious Organizing

One of the keys to strengthening progressive faith efforts is directly organizing congregational members to take action on behalf of social and economic justice. Based on the organizing strategies of Saul Alinsky, a number of faith-based organizations have built strength from the bottom-up in communities across the nation, bringing congregations together with labor locals and other non-profit groups to build political strength:

  • The Industrial Areas Foundation, based mostly in the Southwest, has built vibrant organizations like COPS in Texas and BUILD In Baltimore, the latter helping in the early 1990s to enact the first living wage ordinance in the country which helped spark a national movement to raise worker wages.
  • The PICO National Network has one thousand congregations and one million families in 150 cities, working on a range of campaigns, from building affordable housing to supporting expanded health care access for families.
  • Gamaliel has sixty regional affiliates in 21 states representing "over a million multi-faith, multi-racial church-going people who work on social justice campaigns," including its Minnesota-based affiliate Isaiah, which helped lead the campaign for legislation promoting equalizing resource allocation to suburbs and inner cities to promote more equitable metropolitan planning.
  • The Direct Action and Research Training (DART) Center has 20 affiliated organization in six states and has helped train over 10,000 community leaders in support of faith-based community organizing.

Other faith-based organizing efforts have been based even more strongly in the labor movement. Interfaith Worker Justice works to build relationships between labor leaders and congregations while supporting a network of worker justice organizations and projects like Labor in the Pulpits, co-sponsored with the AFL-CIO, to encourage union members to serve as guest speakers in congregations to speak out about their faith, work and the union movement.

More Resources

Conclusion: Building on Progressive Faith-Based Movements

These progressive faith-based efforts do not have the national coordination of the religious right and have not, thankfully, been subordinated to one political party's purposes, as so much of the religious right apparatus has, but they have had important successes in promoting progressive victories and are a vibrant base for additional organizing by progressives of faith.

Since the media often gives less attention to progressive faith-based groups, a key is for progressives themselves to give more attention to these organizations and encourage religious progressives active in their congregations to organize their churches, synagogues or mosques to join these networks or get more active in these social justice aspects of their faith.

Especially as divisions grow among the ranks of the religious right, it is an especially fruitful time for progressives to promote an alternative definition of what it means to be a "values voter" and what faith-based politics should mean in building a just society.