Can the religious left sway the '08 race?

Democratic presidential candidates are speaking openly about faith, competing for 'values voters.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

John Edwards spoke about how prayer helped him get through the death of his son and his wife's cancer diagnoses. Barack Obama repeatedly invoked the biblical phrase "my brother's keeper" as he spoke about poverty and injustice. Hillary Rodham Clinton credited her faith with getting her through her husband's infidelities. [Editor's note: The original version misquoted the Bible and may have inferred that Mr. Obama did the same.]

This was no garden-variety political presentation by the top three Democratic presidential candidates Monday night on the campus of George Washington University, in the shadow of the White House. The forum, sponsored by the progressive Christian group Sojourners, represented the boldest indication yet that the "religious left" is building as a political force, no longer willing to cede "values voters" to the religious conservative movement that has long formed the activist base of the Republican Party.

The candidates' easy willingness to appear at the forum also represents a watershed for the modern Democratic Party: Intimate discussion of faith, and how it informs policy views and personal behavior, is no longer an arms-length proposition at the party's highest levels.

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"It's an important strategic move for all these people – not to say their faith isn't genuine," says Jim Guth, an expert on religion and politics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "But I think they recognize that in a very closely divided electorate, any ability they have to peel off moderate religious conservatives or centrists, by making it clear they're comfortable with the language of faith – that's a political advantage and wise strategy and maybe good policy and good politics."

In an ironic twist – following a 2004 election in which white Evangelicals went 80 percent for the Republican, President Bush – today's top Democratic contenders may be more comfortable fielding questions on religion than today's top Republicans. On the GOP side, Rudolph Giuliani is a Roman Catholic who is on his third marriage and who takes liberal positions on social issues; John McCain is an Episcopalian, but, like Mr. Giuliani, rarely mentions his faith. Mitt Romney describes his Mormonism as central to his life, but it's a religion that leaves many voters uncomfortable – and could make him an awkward fit for conservative Evangelical voters. The three top Republicans have been invited by Sojourners to appear at a forum in September.

Still, experts on religion and politics agree that the religious left has a way to go to catch up to the religious right in organizational strength and that there are structural barriers that could prevent it from happening.

"When you look at religious progressives, generally, they come in many different varieties," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Some are theological liberals who happen to be politically liberal, some are theological conservatives who happen to be politically liberal, and some are a bit of both, Mr. Green says. And they come from different backgrounds – evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant. So while religious conservatives can easily organize within their congregations, for the religious left it is more complicated. Also, adds Green, "people on the liberal side of these debates tend toward ecumenism and interfaith. A lot of Reform Jews might be considered part of this. Certainly, black Protestants would be part of this."

A look at the numbers also shows a religious left that is still on the beginning end of a trajectory movement leaders hope will make it a major force in shaping political and policy debate. At this week's four-day Pentecost conference sponsored by Sojourners, there are 600 people in its attendance. At its height in the mid-1990s, the Christian Coalition could summon 4,000 people to Washington for its annual convention. And while that organization has faded, the religious right's top mass gathering – now sponsored by the Family Research Council and allied groups – was able to draw 1,700 attendees to a Values Voter Summit in 2006, with another scheduled for this fall, according to Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Each side emphasizes different issues, and so the rise of one is not necessarily dependent on the decline of another. For the right, abortion and gay rights have long been the driving issues, while on the left, poverty is the top issue – and was the focus of Monday's presidential forum. The Iraq war, climate change, energy, and the environment have also grown in importance among religious liberals, and the rise of those issues in public consciousness in the past couple of years has also given religious progressives more to rally around.

On the left, many political religious activists disagree over abortion and gay rights, and so those issues are not central to the movement. The founder and organizer of Sojourners, the Rev. Jim Wallis, is an Evangelical Christian who calls himself pro-life, but it is the issues of poverty and social justice that animate him in the political sphere.

Religious conservative leaders say they welcome the rise of a religious left and see it as a validation of their own entry into politics in the 1970s, after a long period when the blending of religion and politics on the right was seen as anathema.

"I think it points to the success that Christians have had," says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "It means we're no longer on the outside looking in. Faith has very much permeated the political process in this country."

But to some activists, especially those who are fighting to maintain strict separation between church and state, the growth of a religious left raises the risk that the public loses sight of the proper place of religion and faith in government.

"My concern is that merely mentioning religious matters or using religious language is not a way to run a political campaign," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The bad news is that the religious left could begin to use religion in the same way that the religious right does…. We already have too much religious rhetoric in what should be a secular-oriented campaign."

But, he adds, it's "possible for right and left to talk about values and explain the source of their beliefs, and that's an important part of the public dialogue."

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