Published July 13, 2004
NEW YORK – Concerned over the growing influence of the religious right in the political realm, several groups have recently formed to cast a different light on the faithful's ability to mix religion with politics.
Some of these newly established organizations claim to be non-partisan while others stake out territory on the political left. But they all say they share a desire to offer a more progressive view about the role of faith in politics than the conservative voice of the religious right.
Among their latest efforts — last month, the left-leaning Center for American Progress (search) hosted its inaugural conference of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C., aiming to join together clergy and scholars of several faiths with political leaders and policymakers. That followed the first national meeting of the Clergy Leadership Network (search) in Cleveland, Ohio, in May.
Additionally, the online advocacy group FaithfulAmerica.org has entered the political front line by addressing social justice issues. It began airing advertisements on June 15 on Arabic television stations apologizing for the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.
"What we've seen is a resurgence of a social justice ethic, a desire to match faith with action," said Tom Perriello, co-director of FaithfulAmerica.org, which raised about $175,000 through the Internet to pay for the ads that they say were needed after the "moral failure" of the United States on the prison abuse scandal.
Perriello said the group is not concerned with partisan politics, but rather intends to act in the "prophetic tradition" to "unite faith communities across the divide on issues of global justice that are receiving insufficient attention."
The Center for American Progress' Faith and Policy conference included more than 350 political and religious leaders who reflected on the progressive spirit of the civil rights movement to come up with its vision of social justice. Melody Barnes, a senior fellow at the center, said the conference agenda aimed to "give voice to people who are religious and spiritual and also progressive who feel their views are neglected in the public dialogue.
"We wanted to remind the public and the press of the spirit of a more progressive time. This is not something new," Barnes said.
Officials at the Clergy Leadership Network said the group was formed in November 2003 as a non-profit, political advocacy organization to counter the influence of "religious right" groups like the Christian Coalition (search), the Traditional Values Coalition (search) and the Family Research Council (search).
CLN claims it does not take specific issue stances, but under the leadership of the Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker, a Disciples of Christ (search) minister from Lexington, Ky., and the group’s president and CEO, CLN is promoting a national change in leadership.
"Having new leadership is at a critical stage for the U.S. Without an administration change, the country will continue to digress on domestic issues and internationally with our relationship to other countries," the Rev. Nathan Wilson, a CLN founder, told FOXNews.com.
Wilson said CLN hopes to appeal to those who value the common good, things like equality, fairness and concern about neighbors. Those qualities, he argues, are lacking in the current administration.
"No one questions the personal faith of the president, but the problem I see is how the faith is being translated into policy," Wilson said.
Religious groups in recent years have rarely taken on a partisan, left-leaning political role, but instead have formed as conservative, evangelical missions with greater visibility and influence on the right. Exit polls have confirmed that those who attend church frequently vote Republican by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Representatives of those right-leaning religious groups say they don’t believe groups that appeal to the left will have much of an impact.
"The liberal religious group calling for action doesn't work because it doesn’t have a broad appeal. Unlike the religious right whose political involvement is born out of the scripture, it's the reverse process for the left," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Perkins said he believes groups like CLN are motivated more by politics than faith.
"It doesn’t concern me that they’ve formed a group," he said.
Dr. Charles Kimball, professor and chairman of Wake Forest University's Department of Religion, said he believes a great religious divide exists in America today.
"What I observe going on is a deeply divided religious group both theologically and politically," he said.
Kimball, the author of "When Religion Becomes Evil," explained that the rise of the influential political right mirrors the changes in religion in America.
"What we've seen is decline in the membership of mainline churches and a rise in the evangelical churches," he said. What's more, "this segment of the American Christian community is very politically active."
Despite the prominence of the religious right, Kimball said he believes groups like CLN "will have a widespread appeal."
CLN has already appealed to the Rev. Dr. George Hunter, professor of Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. Hunter calls himself an evangelist and conservative theologically, but said he feels he is progressive on social issues. In a recent essay, Hunter made the case for evangelicals to not remain in the "pocket" of one party.
"For too long, the Republican Party has been able to take the support of Evangelical Christians for granted, and has advanced little of our agenda in return," Hunter wrote in the essay entitled: "Why Evangelical Leaders Should Be Involved With Both Major Parties."
He added that both major parties need more people who are "ambassadors for Christ" first and who "know better" than to be co-opted by the ideological wing of either party.
While the two religious sides continue to differ in their beliefs, they do have one thing in common, Kimball said.
"What both sides have in common is that it’s appropriate to bring faith into the public policy arena," he said.