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Can the religious left sway the '08 race?

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

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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.

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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."