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Column: Reflections on E.J. Dionne talk on religion and politics

October 11, 2009

Here’s my latest faith column.

Full text:

As religious left emerges, so does a more complex landscape of faith and politics

Saturday, October 10, 2009

After recently hearing Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaim the death of the religious right at First Baptist Church downtown, I got to thinking about the current state of religion and politics.

Dionne’s talk on Sept. 24 was sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as “a mainstream response to the Religious Right,” and drew several hundred Central Texans, many of whom I recognized as Christians who have publicly supported gay rights, immigrants and homeless and poor people.

Dionne spoke their language. The self-described progressive Catholic and author of the recent book “Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right” said liberals have embraced the role of faith in the public square.

It seemed that after years of religious conservatives dominating politics and after years of feeling unwelcome among liberals, people of faith on the left had found their voice.

It hasn’t come easily. Dionne reminded the audience of the “values voters” of 2004. On that presidential election day when several states’ ballots featured a same-sex marriage referendum, exit polls reflected a moral concern among voters who turned out because they oppose gay marriage.

Those people were voting on their values, the media reported. But what of the folks whose voting choices reflected their concerns about the environment and the war in Iraq? Why, Dionne wondered, were they not considered “values voters” as well?

We’ve increasingly heard believers citing their religious tradition to support universal health care and ecological stewardship. The political battle lines are no longer drawn between the religious right and the secular left. The supposedly godless liberals are quoting Scripture, too.

Which, Dionne stressed, shouldn’t surprise people. This country has a long history of religious people working for what we would think of as liberal causes. That desire to speak for oppressed groups still moves people of faith today, he said.

Young Christians care about poverty, AIDS in Africa and the environment, he said, not just abortion and gay marriage.

I saw evidence of this in the last presidential election when I interviewed Christians in their 20s and 30s about issues.

But though it’s true that Christians across the political spectrum have begun to embrace a broader range of issues, abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other “life” issues have not taken a back seat.

I checked in with Larry Linenschmidt, who is in contact with a variety of Christians through the Hill Country Institute of Contemporary Christianity, which he directs. Abortion, Linenschmidt said, still matters.

“I think the body of Christ is very committed to sanctity of life issues,” he said. “And that includes the whole thing with human life from conception to embryonic stem cell research … to how do we deal with an aging population? How do we deal with dignity for the human person?”

Christians should be focused on a variety of issues, he added. “And the kind of change that we’d like to see needs to be at the heart level more than at the political level. In that sense we may be at a crossroads.”

That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t raise their voices in the public square and seek to influence the culture, he said.

It’s worth noting that some high-profile evangelical leaders have faced a conservative backlash for speaking out on the environment or immigration as a matter of Christian ethics. And on the other side, many Christians feel let down that their left-leaning brethren seem so resistant to their concerns about abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Maybe that’s when religion becomes too entangled with politics, when believers begin towing the party line.

It can be a dangerous dance, the pairing of politics and religion. Believers risk becoming beholden to a political ideology. They risk losing their humility. Not to mention compassion for their fellow believers.

That will not likely change. As the religious left re-emerges, I don’t think we have witnessed the passing of the religious right. I do think religious liberals will have to be careful not to become as shrill and dogmatic as they’ve accused their conservative counterparts of being.

But I wonder if something else is taking shape, perhaps a more fertile middle ground where political alliances fade and Christians of all stripes can find shared concerns.

Dionne said that at the heart of his argument is the notion that religion should hold the world to higher standards. I’ll bet believers on the right and the left would at least agree on that.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 12, 2009 1:24 pm

    I appreciated your column on Oct. 10. I am one of the people you are referring to! Here is my non profit media site – The Free Souls Project,
    Would you be willing to meet with me sometime and brainstorm ways to broaden the awareness of my work?


    Chuck Freeman

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