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Saturday, March 5, 2005

Three liberal magazines assess Democratic options.

In a brief, fairly informal discussion of the future of liberal politics and the Democratic Party in tomorrow's New York Times Book Review, the editors of The New Republic, The Nation, and The American Prospect succinctly describe how "liberal" became a dirty word, what liberal foreign policy and economic policy should look like, and how the Democrats might become a majority party again. (I generally seem to end up somewhere between Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect and Peter Beinart of The New Republic, both of which I read regularly. I'd also say that a subscription to the Washington Monthly is worth having, too — yup, it's not just Kevin Drum's blog; there's actually a very good underfunded magazine hiding over there.)

Each editor also recommends a few key books, and I was pleased to see that Tomasky is paying close attention to non-right-wing Christians: He recommends Jim Wallis's God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Tomasky observes:

One of the Democratic Party's problems is that it doesn't have enough contact with its rank and file. Right-wing people in this country have a place to meet and talk politics — their churches, increasingly the megachurches in the exurbs. There's not a meeting place like that for liberals and for Democrats. I think it's a job of the new party chairman to initiate some conversations about the core principles of the party. This is not usually the job of a chairman. He's usually a mechanic. But I think this has to happen now, because otherwise, before they know it, it's going to be 2006 and they're going to be the party of prescription drugs again. And then it's going to be 2008 and there won't be any context for what the party should be.

Hopefully Howard Dean recognizes that the Internet isn't a substitute for finding ways to rebuild the social dimensions of liberal politics.

Could moderate and liberal churches effectively challenge right-wing churches as social bases for a political movement? Should they? I see pretty compelling reasons for churches to be alarmed and astonished at the way many conservative churches have sold out to the Republican Party, but I wouldn't feel a lot better if moderate-to-liberal Christians and other religious liberals thought they could provide a countervailing force by yoking their churches to MoveOn or the DNC. But I'm trying to work out in my own mind how the social energy of moderate and liberal churches relates to the health of liberal society and liberal politics. If not at least in part through the churches, where will we find the social base of a renewed liberal political movement?

("Left Behind," Barry Gewen, New York Times Book Review 3.6.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 5 March 2005 at 2:54 PM

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March 5, 2005 03:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Could moderate and liberal churches effectively challenge right-wing churches as social bases for a political movement? Should they? --

Yes. It worked for Martin Luther King Jr.

But he spoke with a genuinely prophetic voice. Liberals need to find a genuinely prophetic voice again; one that is stronger than the voices of conservative prophets like Falwell and Dobson.

(Incidentally, if we UUs remain afraid to use the language of the Bible and teach real Biblical literacy to our children, we forfeit our place on the larger stage even before the curtain goes up.)


March 5, 2005 09:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

ditto fausto

IMHO that genuine prophetic voice has to include supernatural belief. I don't think religious humanism will cut it. I met David Chappell recently, and now I've go this book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. What Chappell emphasizes is that the Civil Rights revolution was as much a revivalist movement among African-American Christians as it was a political movement, and that King believed in the providence of a supernatural deity, and it was this belief, which he encouraged in those who followed him, which gave them the strength to risk their lives in the face of violent racists.

I can remember as a young Orthodox Jew hearing Reform Jewish rabbis speak about Prophetic Judaism. But I thought they were bogus, because they made it seem as if the prophets were mere social critics, when it's obvious that, rightly or wrongly, the prophets thought they were inspired by a supernatural entity.

In God's Politics, Jim Wallis has a similar take. He argues that reading the Bible as metaphor or as literature will not provide sufficient inspiration for people to take real risks for social justice.

Dressing up secularism in Biblical language will not fool anyone. The key is to take the Bible seriously, but not literally.


March 6, 2005 08:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

I agree that the basic question is whether liberal churches proclaim and embody a genuinely prophetic message. I've written about a few aspects of this question on several occasions: "Talking about the 'L-Word'," "James Luther Adams's Examined Faith," and "Can a Prophetic Preacher Bring the Congregation Along?"

I want to put in a word of caution on something my friend TransparentEye said. While I would say personally that I don't know how I would root my own sense of religious commitment outside of my discipleship to Jesus, I would also say that I think religious humanists might very well be able to offer a prophetic vision in their own terms. In fact, the UU ministers I've known who were involved in the civil rights movement have been religious humanists who weren't afraid of Jesus or the biblical prophets: They recognized the kinship, and if they interpreted the prophetic impulse in post-Christian and non-theistic ways, they at least took the Bible and religious commitment seriously. So I don't want to draw a hard and fast line there.

I do think, however, that UU congregations face a daunting challenge: We have to grapple with the basic issue of religious commitment, discerning and sharing a religious vision that is both compelling and transforming. We have to learn how to be transformative congregations. And we have to find much greater clarity about how our religious vision transcends the political passions that, at the moment, are probably felt more religiously by many UUs than any other aspect of their Unitarian Universalism.

I'll soon post some highlights from a great New Republic essay about the prophetic role of churches in American history. If you're a subscriber to the magazine, you can read the article now: "Faith Full" (E.J. Dionne Jr 2.28.05).


March 6, 2005 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't want to imply that theists are better people than humanists. People who are "God-fearing" and therefore act righteously are arguably acting in their enlightened self-interest rather than altruistically. A humanist who acts righteously without any expectation of gaining the afterlife is truly noble.

But that's what makes it so hard. Theism allows a religious leader to ask followers for sacrifice that will be rewarded in the afterlife; humanism calls for a higher level of altruism.

Obviously, one can't trim one's beliefs for strategic reason. One believes what one believes. But it is my sense that the Democrats have the humanist vote locked up already; it is the low-income theists they are losing to the GOP. If so, the religious leaders who can best reach them are theists in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jim Wallis.

Perhaps liberals could invest in leadership develoment training to spot "talent" in the ministry and educate them about political communication. Certainly, a lot of money has flowed into the Religious Right, and they have a number of leadership development institutes.


March 6, 2005 10:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well, we seem to be having two related conversations here at the same time. I happen to think Christian churches are better positioned to lead a prophetic movement than Unitarian Universalist congregations, for two simple reasons: They can tap directly into the prophetic tradition and they're much, much more broadly distributed in American society than our small band of 1,000+ UU congregations.

But the other conversation happening here is how can Unitarian Universalist congregations also become prophetic. For some congregations, this can only happen if they learn to engage the biblical traditions more seriously — not for strategic reasons, but for more fundamental reasons. However, the very thought of taking the biblical tradition seriously deeply intimidates many Unitarian Universalists; does this mean that they cannot also act prophetically? I'm not so sure. Religious humanists are unlikely to lead a broad social movement, but their congregations can still find ways to transcend political partisanship and act powerfully in their local communities.

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