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Can the Cause of Economic Justice Revive the Religious Left?

Washington — The religious left was never as cohesive and effective as the religious right. But a new report based on interviews with religious progressive leaders finds that the Obama era may have further weakened Democrats’ interest in the non-secular.

The recent report from the Brookings Institution argues that religious progressives could be heading for a renaissance if they can focus on what some see as the civil rights issue of our time: economic justice.

The report, by the institute’s Governance Studies Program, is based on polling and interviews with many of the top players of Washington’s religious left. This includes John Carr, formerly of the U.S. Bishops Conference, evangelical writer Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform Jewish movement.

It starkly lays out the challenges facing religious progressives — activists and voters who see their faith lived out through social justice, particularly work for such causes as immigration reform and limiting budget cuts for the poor.

Religious progressives played a massive role in everything from the New Deal to ending slavery. Can they again be as influential?

The report, co-written by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., argues that the success of Obama and the Democrats in 2008 “led not to a redoubling of interest on the progressive side of religion, but quite the opposite. . . . Engagement with religion has atrophied.” Many saw 2012 as a year when the gap widened between secular and religious progressives because Obama and other Democrats had gained traction by pushing on socially liberal issues such as abortion and contraception — on which there is not unanimity among religious progressives.

The report lays out the key challenges for religious progressives, including:

∎ The numbers. Even as the religious conservative movement is failing to attract younger people, 56 percent of Republicans call themselves religious conservatives, while only 28 percent of Democrats call themselves religious progressives.

∎ Religious progressives are not homogenous and thus not as cohesive. Their views on abortion and gay marriage can vary, and their congregations are more politically diverse and thus harder to rally.

∎ Democrats are ambivalent about the role of religion in politics.

∎ The decline of the unions, a key partner for religious progressives.

∎ Growing divisions within the Catholic Church, the country’s largest source of money for grass-roots, faith-based organizing, over priorities and whether the church can work with liberal groups on something such as food stamps if they disagree on something such as gay marriage.

But amid the long list of problems, the report sees perhaps a bright future for the religious left.

One reason is demographics. A far bigger share of younger Americans call themselves religious progressives (34 percent of those ages 18 to 33) than religious conservatives (16 percent of the same group).

Another is the model offered by the Civil Rights movement, which the report says “interwove religious and civic themes”... and was so successful because it was so ecumenical. We may be at such a moment, the report argues.

“Just as the civil rights movement spoke to a widespread desire in the nation to perfect the post-war social contract to include African-Americans, so do new social movements on behalf of greater equality and mobility speak to a broadly felt need for a new social contract.”

Michael Wear, who worked on faith issues for the Obama White House and faith outreach for the 2012 campaign, said there’s an optimistic sense of “sort of hitting the re-set button” — of being a real uniting force on economic justice in particular.

Religious progressives must “keep faith at the center” and not completely blur lines with secular progressives, Wear said. Especially in a party that seems still uncomfortable with religion.

“There is very much a feeling of being lifted up (by the Democratic Party) when it’s convenient and there been discomfort or even hesitation when we aren’t deemed necessary. That concerns a lot of people,” Wear said.