Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Two "Religious Lefts"

Jim Wallis. Photo courtesy Sojourners.

Even though I've been involved in mainline American Protestantism for about 15 years and now, and I'm an ordained pastor of one of those mainline Protestant denominations, my roots are grounded in the traditional Black Church and Evangelicalism. In many ways, I classify myself as a "Liberal Evangelical" a mixture of conservative theology and liberal social action.

Slate has an interesting article on two strains of the so-called "religious left." One is led my Michael Lerner, who leads the Jewish magazine, Tikkun and the other is Jim Wallis who heads Sojourners magazine. The writer talks about how these two social movements could affect the Democrats in 2008. Here's the writers take on Michael Lerner's recent gathering of religious liberals:

There was a strong Christian presence among the 1,200 attendees at the NSP conference, but it leaned heavily toward liberal denominations. Quakers and Unitarians outnumbered Evangelicals and Catholics. They were joined by scores of liberal Jews, fewer Muslims, and a sprinkling of Buddhists, Sufis, Baha'i, Wiccans, Native American shamans, and various metrospiritual seekers. Even secular humanists were welcomed.

Together the attendees all prayed in concentric circles, sang John Lennon's "Imagine" (with the line "and no religion too" tastefully amended), and meditated while eating vegan boxed lunches. At times they seemed like a flock of black sheep. My breakout group of eight—led by a stunning Jewfi woman (Jew + Sufi = Jewfi) in ventilated Crocs sandals—included Unitarian and United Church of Christ pastors, a retired scientist looking to marry faith and reason, and a gay former Christian fundamentalist turned theatrical performance activist. Everyone was highly motivated, but I couldn't help wondering: How big can such a constituency be?

Lerner is undaunted by such concerns. His vision for the NSP is intentionally quixotic, and he doesn't expect to sway elections anytime soon. In fact, he's positively phobic of short-term thinking lest it compromise his vision. That vision, in Lerner's words, is "a new bottom line in American society" whereby policies and institutions are "judged efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring." The conference's Spiritual Covenant with America included more concrete proposals on everything from corporate responsibility to foreign policy and the environment. But its scattershot approach puzzled some attendees. I tagged along with one on a Capitol Hill visit at which he handed the list to his Congressman's staffers and urged them to "just pick one thing, I don't care what it is. "

While Lerner is dealing with the more abstract, Wallis is more pragmatic. He wants to affect a change in the heart that will translate to the ballot box:

Wallis, on the other hand, is more focused. He wants to influence two voting blocs that will be critical to the 2008 election, moderate evangelicals and Catholics. His plan is to focus on poverty, an issue he believes all Christians can get behind, rather than ceding the floor to gay marriage and abortion, which the religious right uses to estrange Christians from the Democratic Party.

Wallis may be on to something. A 2004 Pew poll found that most evangelicals support increased spending on anti-poverty programs, rigorous environmental protection, and the fight abroad against HIV and AIDS. Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals (which represents some 45,000 churches and 30 million members nationwide) and the Evangelical Environmental Network have become increasingly vocal in their support of these Democrat-friendly faith issues.

Wallis' conference this week, Pentecost 2006, will bring hundreds of Christian activists to Washington to promote a Covenant for a New America aimed at eradicating poverty at home and abroad. Unlike Lerner's conference, Wallis' isn't going to be dominated by the liberal fringes: Among the speakers are Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas, two of the most prominent voices on the religious right.

I think if the Democratic Party is interested in getting back some of these moderate evangelicals, they would be wise to follow Wallis and not Lerner. Lerner's path is one that I'm familiar with. I've been part of and seen religious coalitions of the left and center that tend to be fuzzy minded and in the end, rather in effective to the onslaught of the far right. However, I think Wallis' track is more in line with past movements like the civil rights movement of the last century. Wallis and many like him are more interested in dealing with the issues at hand; combatting poverty, dealing with HIV/AIDS, and tackling global warming. Wallis' movement also could even change the Republican party as well. There are many religious Republicans who care more about the "least of these" than they do about gay marriage. Notice that among the speakers at Wallis' conference is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a very fundamentalist Republican who nonetheless is interested in issues like HIV/AIDS and Darfur. Lerner's view is basically a nice gathering of liberals who like listen to each other and sing "kum-ba-yah."

American Evangelicalism has never been monolithic. The problem is that for far too long, the Pat Robertsons of the world have been the loudest voices. There has long been a stream of evangelicals who believed in social change, but they have not attracted the attention of the wider public. I believe that will change.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Latin America's Two Left Feet

If you have been paying attention, you might have noticed Latin America's leftward swing. Leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Brazil's Lula are dominating the political scene. While some hard core conservatives think this is all bad news and that all of the political left is the same, there are some interesting things going on in the Southern Hempisphere: some good and some not so good. Former Mexico Foriegn Minister Jorge Casteneda writes in this month's Foriegn Affairs about the fact that there are two lefts are taking root in Latin America: one that is more social democratic in the best sense of both words, and the other more populist and authoritarian. It's a good read and Mr. Casteneda gives the US some advice on how to deal with a left-leaning Latin America.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Compassionate Conservatism's Last True Believer

Former Clinton aide Bruce Reed writes in his regular Has-Been column for Slate about the resignation of Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and the true end of a strain of conservatism that had higher ends than lower taxes and fretting about Adam and Steve holding hands. Reed notes Gerson was interested in using government and faith to combat national issues like poverty and after a meeting between Clinton and Gerson's then boss, former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, there was some hope among Dems that there could be a "kindler, gentler conservatism."

It didn't end up that way, and Reed places blame on Karl Rove and the president as well:

I've never looked in Bush's heart, but judging from the way he talks about education or immigration—even without Gerson at the teleprompter—there's enough compassion to have led the country down a different course. The hollowing of compassionate conservatism was a conscious choice—wrong on the merits and even on the politics. Ultimately, Bush decided that the lesson the country tried to teach Republicans in 1995 (do the right thing) paled alongside the lesson he learned from his father's defeat in 1992 (do the right's bidding).

Well, read the whole thing. I'm not one who thinks that conservatives can't be compassionate because I've seen it. There are many good conservatives who spend their time tackling poverty, helping those with HIV/AIDS and protecting the environment. I really believe the president has a compassionate side and if he had listened to that instead of Mr. Rove, we might have a different adminstration and maybe, just maybe the GOP wouldn't be so nervous about losing seats come November.

Reed notes that back in 2000, as Bush and John McCain battled it out for the GOP nod, it was really the Arizona Senator, not the Governor from Texas that was really interested in having the Grand Old Party serve a higher puprose. I wonder if that's still true today. Even moreso than Bush, McCain really believes that conservatism should mean more than being against gay marriage or spending as "drunken sailors." You could see touches of that strain of conservatism in his commenncement address to Liberty University. I want to believe that, to paraphrase a line from a now-canceled TV series, that McCain will be McCain and revive and give real meaning to "compassionate conservatism" after all.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

No One is Safe. No One.

I got into a bit of an argument two years ago with a friend who was talking about seminary professor that we both know. The professor in effect agree with the Osama bin Laden's pre-election broadcast that said that Sweden would not get attacked by Islamists because they don't have policies that hurt Muslims. I know this prof wasn't a lover of the terrorist, but he thinks US policies are to blame at least in some part, for things like 9/11. Change policy and they will leave us alone.

Patrick Belton from Oxblog reminds us that this struggle is global and the Islamists don't distinguish between those who supposedly have clean hands and those who don't. We've seen how terrorists have targeted Canada and France, two nations that didn't support the war in Iraq and have been critical with the US on many issues. As Patrick says, someday even Sweden might not be safe.

I'm not saying nations who oppose the war in Iraq have "to get in line" and stop criticizing the US, in fact, I think we need to hear criticism (something this Administration is not good at). What I am saying is that groups like al Queda have a bone to pick with the modern world and they don't really care where you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the war in Iraq. This threat of terror is something that people from all walks of life must take seriously and work to end because it affects everybody.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

On The Republican Party, Part Two

As a moderate Republican (feeling everyday like a "failed Republican") there are days I feel like a spouse who knows their partner is sleeping around with some cheap whore. These days the GOP is sleeping with the far right Christianists and doing all it can to please them with silly things like a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, a flag burning amendment and trying to get rid the estate tax (which I will explain in a later post). This "sleeping around" has caused moderates Republicans and independents like myself from not being so crazy in supporting the GOP this fall.

In a worthwhile op-ed Sarah Chamberlin Resnick, the head of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership talks about how the party needs to reach out to independents if they want to remain in power come fall.

She hits some important notes in the op-ed. If the Dems do gain more seats it will be at the expense of those moderates who have stood against the far right on many issues:
In what may be the cruelest of ironies, if Republicans are punished by independent voters in the midterms, it will be the centrist, independent Republicans from the Northeast who will be the most likely victims. For Democratic strategists and left-wing interest groups hoping for a Speaker Pelosi, a Republican legislative agenda that plays only to the conservative base this year is a dream come true.

Resnick suggests the party focus on the basics and less on the wedge issues.

All of this is very good, but don't hold your breath that it will happen. I think the party as it is has welded itself to the far right base and is not planning to change course anytime soon. What's sad is that we might see good moderates like Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Linc Chafee in Rhode Island be defeated and make the party more radical and less open to change. In a way, this happened to the Dems a decade ago, when the crushing defeat of 1994 sent a good number of Southern, moderate Democrats packing and leaving the party more liberal than it used to be.

With that said, I think the GOP's tango with the Christianists will come at a price. Charging RINO shares a piece in the LA Times (see the "failed Republican" link above) about how many frustrated moderates are leaving the Republican party and joining the Democrats. Now, if there is a state that was incredibly Republican, that was Kansas. However the focus on gay marriage, evolution and abortion has sent some moderates packing. What was once the state that had solid Republicans like Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, now has a state attorney general that wants to impose his far right agenda under the guise of protecting children.

Jeremy hope this is the start of a trend. While I don't want to see good moderates leave the party, I share that hope. The GOP needs to realize that parties are won by the center, NOT by clinging to a base of nuts. I'm not crazy about big government liberalism, but big government conservatism (in the form of banning gay marriage and other "values" issues) is even scarier.

Friday, June 09, 2006

On the Republican Party, Part One

Jeremy over at Charging RINO has some stinging parting words for former House Majority Leader Tom Delay who exited the House yesterday (and probably off to a lucrative lobbying and speaking career). Jeremy pins Delay with doing more damage to the Grand Old Party than any other person:

Tom DeLay has done more damage to the House of Representatives, the Republican Party, and the political climate of the United States than any other single person in recent memory. I am not sad to see him go, and I hope that his departure will signal the start of a reversal of the trends he perpetuated and exacerbated in recent years.

Good riddance, Mr. DeLay.

As I opined in an earlier post, Mr. Delay was but a symptom of a wider problem. In my view, he was but one slimy pol who was interested in enriching himself and his patrons. While I'm glad that he's out of the picture, don't think for a moment that Democrats and Republicans are going to start holding hands, singing songs of bipartisanship. As I said, in the April post, it's what Andrew Sullivan calls the "Christianists" that are the problem.

While I'm glad that Delay no longer has Congress to kick around anymore, the only way those of us who are interested in bringing the GOP more to the center is by getting more involved in the party. Delay's departure doesn't necessilrily mean the trends he was involved in will reverese automatically. They will only reverse because rank and file moderates in the GOP have had enoough and will work for change.

I leave you with what I said back in April:

If you are a Republican dissatisfied with the far right, then you need to stand up and say something. Get involved with some of the Republican organizations that are trying to change the party. I have links to them on the right of this page. Give money to those Republicans who are working for change. If you are centrist, find some way to support causes that can push back on the far right agenda.

Cheering Delay's demise might feel good, but it isn't worth a plug nickel in changing the party and the nation as a whole. Put down the party streamers and get to work.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

al-Zarqawi: Taken Out

While I don't believe in celebrating the death of anyone, even evil people (my Christian beliefs), I do think the death of al-Zarqawi is a necessary step towards trying to bring some order to Iraq. One wishes the US had done this a few years ago.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Gay Marriage: It IS an Important Issue

With no big surprise, the Senate rejected cloture on a vote for a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. During this whole debate, I keep hearing people who are against the ban that this is a distracting issue and that government should focus on more important issues like immigration or health care.

I'd like to set things straight (no pun intended): banning gay marriage can be a distracting issue, but the issue itself is not. This is a REAL issue for those of us who are gay and either have or plan to have significant others. Listen to the story of a same sex couple living in Minneapolis:

In the spring of 2002 we experienced a life changing event that made us realize just how many rights and privileges we were denied as a gay couple unable to marry - the same rights and privileges that some married straight couples take for granted.

I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and admitted with an extremely high fever and difficulty breathing. While the doctors and nurses were working with me, Jim stayed at my side answering the same question, "And who are you?" Over and over Jim explained that he was my partner and yes, we did have the power of attorney and health care directive that permitted him to be there and to make decisions regarding my health care. If we had not signed those papers just 2 weeks prior to my admission, he might have been prevented from being with me as I fought to live. As it turned out, I was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia and AIDS. This was only the beginning of a long struggle to regain my health.

Since that time, we have done a lot of research into the marriage benefits we don't have and how it affects us now that my health is such a large issue. Things like hospital visitation are covered with the health care directive and power of attorney as long as the health care facility has a copy of the paperwork.

If I need to quit my full-time job at DHS, I would not be able to get health care through my partner's employer, also DHS. Neither of us would receive the retirement or death benefits spouses normally receive. If I needed nursing home care, the house we own together could be taken from Jim to pay for my nursing home care. If I die, Jim would not be able to claim my body from the morgue and my family would have the right to contest my will and try to claim my property because Jim is not "next of kin".

I repeat: for gay people, this isn't a distracting issue. It's about life and death.

So to all my fellow bloggers and others: please stop saying things like, "let's focus on other issues." Because for people like me this is an important issue.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Some Questions about the Left

After reading this post on Oxblog, as well as another one by Reason's Cathy Young, I have to wonder: why is it that some (not all, mind you) on the Left are so anit-American? Why are they so quick to compare America to Nazi Germany and yet give truly racist or authoritarian regimes like Saddam's Iraq or even the Soviet Union get a pass.

The United States is not perfect. I'm not one of those Republicans who sees America as God's chosen instrument that can do now wrong. We've done plenty wrong. But it seems to me we need to put this in perspective and to compare the US to a genocidal regime like the Nazis is just plain wrong.

I opposed the invasion of Iraq. I am not happy with a lot of the Bush Adminsitration's foriegn policy. But I don't think I live in a fascist state with a wimpy media. Even though the Bushies want to curtail our civil liberites, I don't live in places like China where you have to be careful what you say.

I guess I don't get it.

Monday, June 05, 2006

"Rogue Nation"

The United States is a rogue nation that practices torture and detainee abuse and does not follow the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions. It is inviolation of human rights agreements and the U.N. Convention against torture. It is legitimizing torture by every disgusting regime on the planet. This is a policy mandated by the president and his closest advisers. This is the signal being sent from the commander-in-chief to his troops: your enemy can be treated beyond the boundaries of what the U.S. has always abided by. When you next read of an atrocity of war-crime or victim of torture by the U.S., just keep in mind who made this possible. Keep your eyes not just on the troops but on the people giving them the orders.

This is not from some wild-eyed lefty, but from Andrew Sullivan. The thing is, I have to agree. I'm not some crazy anti-American, but it is sad to see how this Administration is weakening the Constitution in the name of security. This President says that the terrorist hate us because of our values.

I agree with the President, but he is doing a damn good job at destroying those values. All bin Laden has to do is sit back and watch.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Throwing Some Coldwater on "Unity08"

The latest chatter in the Centrist blogosphere is about Unity08, an effort to get a Republican and a Democrat to run as "unity ticket" ala the Union Party ticket if Abe Lincoln and Andrew Johnson in 1864. Jonathan Alter raves about the new effort calling it "open-source politics." He cites the recent success of Howard Dean and John Kerry in using the Internet to rally support:

"Last time, Howard Dean and later John Kerry showed that the whole idea of "early money" is now obsolete in presidential politics. The Internet lets candidates who catch fire raise millions in small donations practically overnight. That's why all the talk of Hillary Clinton's "war chest" making her the front runner for 2008 is the most hackneyed punditry around. Money from wealthy donors remains the essential ingredient in most state and local campaigns, but "free media" shapes the outcome of presidential races, and the Internet is the freest media of all."

In a recent series of article in the The New Yorker Ryan Lizza explains that the Internet is a great tool in getting a third party off the ground. Again, Howard Dean is used as an example:

But then came the Internet—and Howard Dean’s campaign.
The Dean campaign proved many things, but its most enduring legacy may be that it gave us a glimpse of the beginning of the end of the two-party system. First, he showed the next budding Ross Perot how to manage a 50-state ballot-access project easily and cost-efficiently. It is not widely understood, but candidates running in the presidential primaries of the two major parties also must qualify for the ballot of every state they want to contest. Dean was the only insurgent Democratic-primary candidate in history to qualify in all 50 states, a stunning organizational achievement. Using a ballot-access function of the campaign’s Website, Deaniacs in every state had downloadable petitions and details about the rules for their state. Goals were tracked in real time. “Both parties have set up nominating and ballot hurdles, so an insurgency can’t happen,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s first campaign manager and now an evangelist for a third party. “We blew through that in 2003.”
The second hurdle—fund-raising—also has a technological solution. Dean proved a message candidate could work outside any established infrastructure and raise massive amounts of money. After Perot, the assumption was that only a self-financed candidate could mount a credible third-party challenge. Dean exploded that conventional wisdom.
Dean’s campaign not only suggested that the traditional obstacles to starting a third party are surmountable, but it also raised questions about the purpose of the two parties themselves. What assets, after all, do the Democratic and Republican parties bestow on a nominee? There was once a time when the parties served a policy role for the presidential candidate. The nominating convention was a time when delegates drew up a party platform for the candidate to run on. No more. Candidates routinely ignore the platform—in 1996, Bob Dole famously said he hadn’t read it—and run on their own issues.
What’s left? The other assets parties offer are a fund-raising infrastructure (e-mail lists, donor databases) and an organizational infrastructure (county chairs, precinct captains, local volunteers). But the parties no longer have a monopoly on these two networks. A charismatic candidate can build his own alternative fund-raising base overnight and collect an army of volunteers in a matter of weeks. In fact, with the rise of political groups known as 527s, which raise money (often from billionaires like George Soros), run ads, and turn out voters, the parties have already gone a long way toward outsourcing their core activities. The only assets controlled by the two parties that can’t be reproduced by an entrepreneurial independent are their distinctive brands, the value of which is in steep decline.

The Internet can be a good tool to get ideas out there, but there has to be a whole lot more than this. I have to agree with Weekend Pundit that Unity '08 seems more like a political version of American Idol. There is no platform and no attempt to really build a movement. It seems like it will get a lot of people who are on the computer a lot, but may not do much else.

I know there are a lot of Centrists that are gaga for this and I want to believe that this might have a chance. However, from my background, I'm not so certain. I think the wiser approach is to work and support those centrist candidates that are out there. Give of your money and your time. Volunteer. Write letters to the editor to support your candidate. Volunteer with centrist organizations in both parties. It's not sexy as Unity '08, but I think it will do a lot more than simply putting our efforts in something that at least from my view isn't going to get very far. It's not that I don't think "Open Source Politics" isn't a good idea. It's just that you have to do more than set up a webpage or run a blog. That's the easy part. To create a movement, you need to work at getting your message out to the media, host house parties to get people interested, doing things like door knocking and getting candidates to major events.

In the past few years, I've been involved in supporting moderate Republican candidates. It isn't sexy work and at times is damn frustrating, but in the end, I think this more pragmatic approach will pay off more than some kind of "net convention."

One more note. Some are upset the current moderates or reformers in both parties have to do this balancing act to be presentable to the rabid base. I think some Centrists want this political Jesus that is unsullied by politics. A lot of people loved McCain early on because he seemed to have that Messianic air about him. Of course, he didn't win because of that. People, we have to accept the fact that there is no savior. Political parties are made up of various people and candidates have to try to be all things to all people. All politicians (at least those who want to win) have to bend a little at some point. We might not like it, but that's they way it is in a democratic society.

Centrists have to stop dreaming of the perfect candidate or perfect party and get back to earth and fight for change. It's not going to happen with dream candidates or even a dream third party. I'm not against third parties, but I am saying that if we want something to happen, we need to work for it and know it won't be prefect.

Sorry to be the contrarian.