This piece originally appeared on IntellectualCapital.com.

Is God a Republican?
The Invisibility of the
Religious Left

by Adele M. Stan

July 1, 1999

The 2000 presidential race has barely begun, and already God-talk is falling from the lips of the contenders. The conversion of George W. Bush from party boy to born-again Christian has become a standard paragraph in countless profiles of the man anointed to be the savior of the GOP. Elizabeth Dole has a basic stump speech on the subject of her own rebirth which she trots out for appearances before religious groups. Al Gore, too, has cast himself as a man of faith, even appropriating a position from his Republican foes, that of government support for faith-based social work programs.

When Bush and Dole speak of their faith, it's clear to whom they direct their appeals--the foot soldiers of the religious right. But when Gore speaks of his faith, whom does he address? Is there a religious left, or, for you New Democrats out there, even a vital religious center?

A host of groups

In reality, there exist a number of politically active groups across the ideological spectrum that define themselves as religion-based, and no shortage of such on the left and center-left. There's the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Equal Partners in Faith (a coalition of social justice activists), the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), Dignity (a group composed of gays who are practicing Catholics), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and numerous others, not to mention such heavyweights as the American Jewish Congress and the National Council of Churches.

Why don't I know about these groups, you may ask. Why don't I see their leaders on the Sunday talk shows?

Compared to the media presence of the religious right, the religious left seems to be nearly absent. Yet it does have some effect on public policy and perception, though not as blatantly as does its right-wing counterpart. Remember the media attention given the rash of church burnings suffered by African-American communities a few years back? As President Clinton toured the sites of burned churches, at his side stood the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, secretary general of the National Council of Churches (NCC), a body that represents a coalition of 33 mainstream Protestant denominations. Campbell had made the church-burning issue a personal mission, garnering the attention needed to turn a string of obscure incidents into a national story. Recently Campbell turned up again in her usual fashion--unidentified in a news clip view of a media event--this time at Jesse Jackson's side during his voyage to Serbia, where he won the release of three captured U.S. servicemen from Yugoslavian President Slobodon Milosevic.

Wither the grass roots?

At a more grass-roots level, one finds the hand of Rev. David Dyson of the Equal Partners in Faith coalition in the church-based letter-writing campaign that shamed the clothing retailer, The Gap, into signing an agreement to allow outside monitors to keep tabs on the working conditions in the garment factories of its overseas contractors.

Still, on the left and center-left, one finds nothing like the nationwide electoral evangelism of the Christian Coalition (which recently lost its tax-exempt status because of its political activities), nor the pastoral politics of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family empire, of which the Family Research Council (FRC) is but one of many offshoots. (FRC is the outfit from which right-wing presidential candidate Gary Bauer is now on leave.)

When Al Gore speaks of his faith-based values, his petition to the faithful is likely targeted at Americans who have little knowledge of the religious-left groups listed above, but whose political and moral views diverge significantly from those fostered by the religious right. If this sector of the electorate is important enough to win the courtship of a major presidential candidate, why, then, are the leaders of the religious left and center-left virtually invisible to what should be their natural constituency?

A structural problem

The answer is complex: it has to do with vast differences in the structure of left and center-left movements as opposed to those of the right, differences based partly on ideology and theology, but largely on the manner in which foundations from opposite ends of the spectrum dole out their dollars.

On the first point, it's well known that the anti-authoritarian left is an unruly crowd that is unlikely to rally around a single leader in the way in which the right-wing proletariat is prone to respond to the appeal of, say, a Pat Robertson or James Dobson. Furthermore, both Robertson and Dobson built their movements via self-produced mass media. Robertson began buying up small radio stations in the early 1960s and then picked up a television outlet; these became the basis for his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which flourished in the age of cable TV.

Dobson spread his word through the production of a radio show in which he leveraged his authority as a psychologist to dispense child-rearing and family management advice laced with a heavy dose of Christian-right moralizing, and today produces material in a range of media. No left-wing believer has ever marshalled the resources to create such networks.

Differences in the mode of belief between left and right play a role, too. While right-wing leaders offer a message of certainty about God's will for His people, the intellectualism of left-wing leaders encourages a theology in which God speaks in symbols and metaphor--not absolutes. Not exactly the stuff of dramatic, made-for-TV evangelism.

Flawed funding formula

But, more than anything, the way in which liberal foundations fund liberal organizations has a great deal to do with why the religious left lacks presence on the national scene. Despite their more limited portfolios, right-wing foundations get more bang for their buck by funding the operating budgets of such right-wing think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, while the big liberal foundations only dole out dollars on a project-by project basis in various disciplines, thus balkanizing the left into pro-choice groups, pro-labor groups, human rights groups, etc.

Solid funding for multi-issue think tanks allows right-wing organizations to create an integrated policy agenda that can be sold to legislators as a cohesive program.

Don't be fooled by the secular-sounding names of the right-wing think tanks; both Heritage and Free Congress were founded by Paul Weyrich, a major architect of the religious right, and the names of religious-right figures sprinkle the rosters of both. The religious left has no real counterpart to Weyrich's policy machines. (For an excellent explanation of this phenomenon, see Michael Shuman's piece in the January 12, 1998 edition of The Nation.)

And liberal foundations rarely support the work of an individual writer in the way that big right-wing foundations do. The ideological and wonkish texts that often influence policy debates and give birth to talking heads rarely command a liveable advance from a commerical publishing house. A grant of $20,000 or so to a writer can make a vast difference in that writer's ability to do the research and writing to promote a foundation's policy interests. Right-wing foundations will
often support the work of secular writers whose views support the religious-right agenda.

Take the anti-feminist Christine Hoff Sommers, for example. Her screed against the feminist establishment, Who Stole Feminism?, hit the bookstores via the largesse of the Olin and Bradley Foundations, even though it was published by Simon & Schuster. As soon as the book was published, Sommers was a frequent guest on the talk shows watched by policy makers and political junkies.

If the religious left is to make itself known to the general public, it will need the cooperation of foundations that fund it, and some pragmatic strategy on ways to get its message out. In this time of great change and uncertainty, people need a sense of moral certitude in the positions they take; only the religious left can provide this for the liberal agenda. The holier-than-thou language of the religious right cannot be effectively countered with secular reasoning alone. The idea of the third millennium has real resonance for people--even those who worship only casually or not at all. If the patrons and leaders of the religious left fail to wake up to the reality of the new age, they will have failed their mission, however heartfelt it may be.

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