Fifty years ago this month, former Arizona senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater published his famous book, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” Goldwater accused liberals of ignoring human needs beyond material satisfaction in the opening chapter of his tome: “The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.”
I’ve never considered this criticism to be valid, but I must acknowledge Americans have often been given sufficient reason to think of left-of-center figures as cold technocrats. Today’s Democratic politicians claim spirituality but refuse to articulate how their spiritual ideals enlighten a vision of reform. As the former Clinton Administration advisor Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in his 2006 bestseller, “The Left Hand of God,” over a thirty-year period Democrats granted the Republicans a stranglehold on the politics of spirituality.
For many Democrats, the mention of spiritual political leaders conjures up the image of a fire-and-brimstone evangelical preacher encouraging the flock to support the war in Iraq or combat abortion in the street. Understandably, many Democrats would prefer the party take a neutral stance on issues of faith, or even avoid discussion of spirituality completely.
Yet the party’s aversion to faith is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout American history, the tradition of the spiritual Left has been rich: The New Deal was brokered by Social Gospel theologians, Catholic priests and nuns in the social justice tradition, and Reformed Jewish lawyers among others. The Civil Rights movement was cultivated in Southern Black Baptist churches. The feminist, environmental, and anti-war movements were spiritual if not religious in nature. It is only since the Reagan administration that spiritual politics has focused on saving the moral individual rather than creating a just society.
But the tide can change again—and it can change right now. Given current economic hardship and the decreasing influence of the Religious Right in the Republican Party, the Democrats should build an interfaith spiritual coalition to oppose the alliance between the political and religious Right.
The Religious Right is losing much of its influence on Republicans. Some of this is due to a vacuum of obvious leadership; Jerry Falwell passed away in 2007, “Focus on the Family” founder James Dobson left his organization five weeks ago, and much of Pat Robertson’s influence has dissipated. However there has also been a shift of the conservative base. In 2008, the Republicans nominated a presidential candidate who once referred to leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance.” Last month, Washington Post writer David Waters noted that the Tea Party movement and in general the rising pseudo-libertarian element on the right, lacks Christian evangelical leaders and rhetoric. The issues the Religious Right exploited during the Bush era—same-sex marriage, abortion, and prayer in schools—are absent from the Tea Party agenda. William F. Buckley’s old alliance between national security hawks, free-market ideologues, and religious social conservatives is splintering.
Although it’s unclear exactly how the Republicans will adapt to the waxing of the Tea Party and the waning of the Religious Right toward November, the focus of the party will not be on spiritual decay so much as expansion of federal power. Three weeks ago political commentator Glenn Beck urged Christians to leave churches that preach a message of social or economic justice. Since the incident, the evangelical preacher Jim Wallis, with support from many social conservatives, has launched the “Million Christians for Social Justice” campaign to oppose Beck.
Although not all Americans make moral decisions with religion as a guide, the majority does. The most recent “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” illustrates that more than half of Americans attend religious services regularly and pray daily. But 48 percent Americans consider the Republican Party friendly to religion, as opposed to only 29 percent who think the same of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians need speak at churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples just as much as they need to shake hands at union meetings, city halls, and corporate boardrooms. In the 2008 election, the Obama campaign made significant headway with faith-based voters by going on Christian Radio, talking to religious media, and speaking strongly about issues Republicans refused to address in a moral context: poverty, immigration, healthcare, and the environment. Democratic congressional candidates must emulate this strategy and shed the stereotype of condescension toward faith.
The Democrats would be wise to invoke the rich tradition of King, Lincoln, Whitman, and Huerta and Chávez: progressives who brought their faith to bear upon politics. There are signs of hope on the horizon. A few weeks ago, President Obama’s Faith Council issued a set of joint recommendations for how the federal government can better collaborate with faith-based organizations to face the problems of the recession. As reform efforts continue, Democrats have can gain traction by becoming the party that encompasses the “whole human”—rather than socioeconomic concerns detached from moral premises.
Raúl A. Carrillo ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.