Saturday, June 04, 2005

Soliciting Suggestions

Editors Note: This is a post I am going to submit to Josh Marshall's wonderful new site Talking Points Memo Cafe. I am soliciting suggestions or critiques before I post there because I feel this issue is so terribly important I don't want it to vanish into the ether. All comments are welcome.

In order to win elections consistently, the Democratic Party in particular and progressives in general must learn the language of faith. The proof of this can be clearly found in Sojourners breakdown of Zogby’s polling results after the 2004 election: 78.7% of respondents said that religion/spirituality was very important or somewhat important in their lives. In that same poll, 66.1% of respondents said that faith and values were either very important or somewhat important in deciding their vote for president. And yet, throughout the 2004 campaign, the only strong statement on faith from the Democratic party came from Barak Obama at the Democratic National Convention when he declared: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States. There was no Democratic follow up to that statement and Republicans boldly and falsely claimed the mantle of the party of morality and faith and seemed to control every square inch of the religion debate outside that one statement.

Republicans should not be allowed to make those claims unchallenged. Democrats have a deep well of religious and spiritual progressives from which to draw support but they simply do not do so. Beliefnet did a story on the findings of the Pew Religious Forum on the religious groupings in American politics. Their findings were very straightforward:
The Religious Right and the Religious Left are almost exactly the same size. The former has had a much greater impact for the past 25 years largely because of superior organization and drive.
The inability of those on the religious left to make their message heard bears this theory out. The statistics from Zogby cited by Sojourners on this could not be clearer. When asked during the campaign did you see or hear messages from only religious conservatives 34.3% answered yes. Another 37% felt they had heard from both religious conservatives and liberals. Only 0.8% had heard messages from only religious liberals. So, religious conservatives managed to reach 71% of respondents and religious liberals reached, at best, 38% of respondents. Democratic and progressive voices are not being heard on this subject. Even more threatening to progressives: the Republicans have set their sights on traditionally Democratic constituencies, using their “moral authority” and appeals to faith to woo these voters.

At the same time, voters were very concerned with issues that the religious left can speak on with moral authority. The war in Iraq is an obvious one, but also important are social concerns with poverty, economic inequality and health care, all of which are areas in which the religious left has played an important role in the past. There has been a lot of discussion on TPM café about where ideas for new progressive policies might come from; after all progressives cannot simply defend ideas and programs from the past. Religion, spirituality and faith provided the impetuous for many of the progressive policies in the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. There is no reason to think that they could not be fertile ground for new ideas once more. Not drawing upon the religious left may have lost the Democratic party more than just the presidency.

Why hasn’t the Democratic party capitalized on this? There are several religious and moral messages progressives can carry and there is an audience willing to listen. Perhaps the Democratic party is too wedded to secular ideas, much the same way Republicans are deeply entwined with the extreme religious right. Discussions on this topic on progressive websites often seem to devolve into flame wars. Some atheists and agnostics become very defensive, and for good reason. For the past thirty years whenever the worlds of religion and politics coincide it seems to result in an attack on science, education and progressive values (actually the argument could be made this has gone on for millennia). There is good reason to resist the idea of faith controlling politics. On the other hand, in those threads, religious progressives express feelings of being left out or alienated from progressive spheres. Some even feel that their rationality is called into question merely because they have some kind of religious faith. None of this is productive.

There are many other stumbling blocks in the way of this happening, but for anything at all to happen, first there must be a conversation on the subject. In the Republican party that conversation could begin very easily; it started with everyone agreeing they were Christians. For Democrats and progressives this is much harder; we must encompass members of all Christian denominations. Beyond that the language must be inclusive to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, Wiccans and so on. That will be a difficult proposition at best. But I believe it is possible and indeed worthwhile. Perhaps we can unite around the concept of social justice.

Which brings me to my conclusion: Talking Points Memo Café is the ideal place for a table devoted to issues of faith and progressive politics. On other progressive websites, spiritual issues appear and disappear as single posts or diaries. There is no development in the conversation. I have visited progressive religious sites, but the problem there is that secular folk are not attracted to these places, so there is no dialogue taking place. Talking Points Memo Café offers much to keep atheists and agnostics involved in the site; the likelihood of their participation in discussion at a faith/spirituality/religion table is much greater. Because the table would be a permanent fixture, conversations would have time to evolve; already that is occurring at some of the other tables. If the reader moderation feature works as I think Josh envisions it, this may help calm flame wars. Here is an opportunity; we should seize it.