Political voices of religious left
Counterbalance to right's agenda gathering in U.S.
By Lois K. Solomon, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, July 24, 2006
Tom Tift believes it's time for spiritual discourse to take a left turn.
Tift, a staffer at First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton, wants to ignite a Palm Beach County movement that swings religious talk in America away from the right. He says the Republican Party has dominated religious-political discussions for too long.
"The left needs to find its spiritual voice in American politics," said Tift, 55, a father of two raised as a Baptist. "It's a grass-roots effort to change the spiritual focus of the nation."
Tift has joined the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a national group founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner of California. The group seeks to refocus national religious discussions away from abortion, gay marriage and school prayer and to issues such as poverty, health care, peace and disarmament.
He hopes to start a Palm Beach County chapter in the coming months.
More than 1,000 people attended the Network of Spiritual Progressives convention in Washington, D.C., in May. The strong turnout was one of several indicators that the religious left, which many say has been dormant since the 1960s civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War era, is regaining strength.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., advocated the fusion of religion and liberal politics during a speech last month. The first Progressive Faith Blog Con, or bloggers conference, took place last week in New Jersey. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Democratic Faith Working Group to make Democrats more comfortable as they talk about religion. And several books have been published in the past year denouncing the prominent role of religious conservatives.
Among them: God's Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and Lerner's The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From The Religious Right.
Lerner inspired Scott Lewis, of Pembroke Pines, when Lerner spoke in Miami three years ago. Soon after, Lewis, who is Jewish, started a chapter of Lerner's spiritual network. The group meets monthly in Miami-Dade County.
"A lot of people in the right wing claim the religious high ground, but their ideas are repulsive to a lot of people who think of themselves as religious," said Lewis, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Miami.
The chapter, with attendance ranging from six to 15 members, has been studying Lerner's writings and deciding which issues to tackle publicly. Members come from various backgrounds, but most have lost ties with organized religion, Lewis said.
The religious left still has a long way to go to become a dominant political force, said Allen Hertzke, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.
"It still is a movement more among activists in churches and certain other cadres rather than a mass phenomenon," Hertzke said. "I don't think progressives win when they challenge the Christian right on things like gay marriage. They succeed on issues like corruption in Washington, the bungling of the war in Iraq, tax breaks for the rich and squandering our future with debt."
Hertzke said a coalition of black pastors advocating civil rights, Hispanic Catholics rallied by immigration restrictions and white progressives who favor issues such as stem-cell research and abortion rights could become a natural coalition of the religious left.
But some evangelicals also believe Christianity has strayed from core social issues and seek to refocus. In recent years, they have issued statements on global warming, AIDS and poverty.
"Baptists are just now getting more into this," said the Rev. Patrick Moody of Northwood Baptist Church in West Palm Beach.
A recent Gallup poll indicates Americans might be tiring of government entanglement with religious questions. The poll showed the percentage of Americans who think the federal government should promote "moral values" fell from 60 percent in 1996 to 48 percent this year.
Ray Armstrong, 62, a psychologist in Miami, grew up Catholic but today considers himself a "non-affiliated Christian." He joined the Miami Dade-Broward chapter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives to counter what he sees as the punitive nature of America's most vocal religions.
Lois Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6536.
Copyright © 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel