Krista's Journal: A Keen Observer of the "Religious Left"

October 2, 2008

When I use words like "refreshing" and "thought-provoking" to describe this conversation with Amy Sullivan and next week's with Rod Dreher, I'm also divulging the longing that preceded the creation of these programs. I've so badly needed different and deeper public conversation about the presidential race and some of the larger ruminations it When I use words like "refreshing" and "thought-provoking" to describe this conversation with Amy Sullivan and next week's with Rod Dreher, I'm also divulging the longing that preceded the creation of these programs. I've so badly needed different and deeper public conversation about the presidential race and some of the larger ruminations it stirs. I've been watching both Amy Sullivan and Rod Dreher for years, and am happy that I waited until now to grab them both. When I first became aware of them, they were young up-and-coming journalists. They are still young, relatively speaking, but their journalism and wisdom have matured. We need wisdom — not just information, not just analysis — at this moment in American life, and in this election season. Yet politics in the raw tends to skew rather than serve the critical questions an election brings to the surface of our common life. We name what is most important, paradoxically, when we are least able to come together to address it. Last week, as the first presidential debate in Mississippi loomed, I wrote in our blog about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August, where I was brought to ponder the legacy of race in America that Oxford, Mississippi and its campus embody. Whoever won or lost when Barack Obama and John McCain met there on September 26, the fact that they debated in that place represents a larger cultural triumph that we've scarcely drawn breath to notice. Religion, similarly, has been thrown into relief variously as an issue/problem/factor in this election, but with little even-handed reflection and less sense of perspective. I for one have been fascinated from the first by a presidential campaign that has reversed some of the pat generalizations about religion and politics of recent years. Most basically, there is this: we have a Democratic candidate who is very comfortable speaking about his Christian faith, and a Republican who is not. Amy Sullivan grew up, as she tells it, surrounded by people who were liberal because of their faith. Her parents kept pictures of Jesus and Bobby Kennedy side by side in their home. As the Religious Right got most of the press for the last few decades, Amy Sullivan never stopped following the lesser-told story of the Left's response to the Religious Right. And she never lost her historical perspective. So Howard Dean's "favorite book of the New Testament" may still be Job, and Al Gore and John Kerry were famously reticent about their faith and relatively ill at ease with religious energies and issues. But the only two Democrats to win the White House in the last three decades, lest we forget, were Bible-quoting born-again Christians, comfortable with devout, diverse religiosity. Sullivan has some informative and provocative thoughts about how and why the Democratic party lost sight of that tradition and may now be recovering it. And you'll hear other voices to illustrate her observations: Bill Clinton palpably at home in a Pentecostal church in 1993; Barack Obama at an Evangelical church in 2007; Obama's lengthy (and largely unreported) reflection on the morality of abortion at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church this past August; and Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, pronouncing at that gathering:

"Over the past few years, many have had much to say about our efforts to 'bring faith' to the Democratic Party. With all due respect to the commentators and my friends in the media, we didn't need to bring faith to the party. Faith was already here."

Daughtry should know. She served in the Department of Labor in the Clinton administration, but she is also a part-time minister of a Pentecostal church. In another of those little-covered stories which Amy Sullivan describes with fascinating detail and perspective, this year's Democratic convention featured first-time-ever invocations and benedictions by diverse faith leaders every day; an interfaith caucus that met for discussion through the week; and a robust reflection on abortion that welcomed pro-life Democrats to the table. And so it turns out that on the liberal side of U.S. political life, religious people and energies are diverse and complex — as diverse and complex, predictably, as this aspect of life in American culture and the U.S. population as a whole. Next week, with Rod Dreher, we'll shine our light on the Right, for some similarly revealing complexity and diversity below the surface. Stay tuned.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap
Author: Amy Sullivan
Publisher: Scribner (2008)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages

Amy Sullivan's book did not get nearly the praise it deserves. After a very personal opening section -- which may have misled reviewers -- it yields to a lively and erudite telling of the history and evolving present of the "religious left," with insight and attention few others have even attempted to bring to this story.

Voices on the Radio

is a national correspondent for TIME Magazine, author of the book The Party Faithful, and was previously an editor for The Washington Monthly.

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