Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.
Some culture warriors just won’t come out of the trenches.
On Friday Tony Perkins sent Family Research Council email subscribers a newsletter titled “No Surrender,” which compared the culture wars to the Cold War and misrepresented Third Way’s “Come Let Us Reason Together” on multiple counts.
Referring to the supporters of paper, Perkins says “some people want to bring the ‘culture wars’ to an end by quitting the fight for core moral principles.”
None of the statements of support for the paper advocate abandonment of anyone’s core moral principles, nor does the paper itself. In fact, the papers’ authors and supporters repeatedly point out that the success of the paper rests on the fact that it honors the principles and values of both non-evangelical progressives and conservative evangelicals.
One of Perkins’ core moral principles is “the unalienable right to life of every unborn child,” and Come Let Us Reason Together describes and supports a comprehensive abortion reduction policy, which advances this principle. Yet for some reason, Perkins feels compelled to distort this fact using artful omission.
It also suggests uniting around the goal of reducing abortion by distributing contraception — even though abortion has skyrocketed in the years since the introduction of the birth control pill. [Note the specious logic.]
Among its central provisions, Ryan-DeLauro calls for sex education with an abstinence emphasis and medically accurate contraceptive information, better access to contraception for low-income women, after-school programs for kids, and help for parents on communicating their values to their teens. It also expands Medicaid coverage of pregnant women and S-CHIP coverage of children, addresses domestic violence against pregnant women, helps pregnant women and young mothers stay in school, and expands adoption assistance.
Speaks for itself.
He also takes some liberties interpreting the paper’s statement on sexuality issues.
It says that homosexuals deserve the same “public benefits” (i.e., marriage or civil unions) as others.
Protecting the human rights and dignity of all, even for those with whom one disagrees, is not only a consistent thing to do; it is a proud American tradition and a high moral and religious calling. America was founded on the principle that all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and one of the deepest insights that is common to virtually all faith and moral traditions is that we should want for our brothers and sisters the same protections, public benefits, and opportunities we want for ourselves.
No legislation to protect the human dignity of gay and lesbian people should or need abridge the religious liberty of religious communities.
I don’t see any mention of gay marriage or civil unions in here, but I can see how Perkins might read it in between the lines. Note however that he didn’t ask the study’s authors, who are very accessible, what they meant, and note that he excluded the sentence in the report that follows the one he quotes, which directly addresses FRC and the religious right’s long-held objection to pretty much any legislation that does anything for homosexual Americans. Perkins’ assessment is more self-serving than thorough.
Perkins also has the temerity to say that “civil dialogue is possible” amidst this series of dubious assertions. Yet in addition to shading the truth about Third Way’s report, he takes a derisive tone by repeatedly using the word “progressive” in quotes, as if people who identify themselves as progressives use the word as some ruse, or as if the term itself is illegitimate.
Perkins proves himself a resolute culture warrior by attacking Third Way’s report, and in so doing shows why the culture wars are bound to produce nothing but division and mistrust. War is inherently destructive, and the metaphorical culture war is no exception.
One of my great pleasures here at Faith In Public Life is putting together the daily newsreel. It is a fun process, and it forces me to take a pretty wide view of what’s going in faith and politics news. On Fridays I like to take a look back at the way things unfolded over the course of the week. The week-in-review will become a regular Friday feature here, but next week I’ll instead be live-blogging the Family Research Council’s “Washington Briefing.” (That’s the artist formerly known as the Values Voters Summit.)
The past two weeks have been chock full of stories that pointed to seismic activity on the right. Ever since Salon.com’s Michael Scherer broke the story on September 30 that religious right leaders were threatening to back a third party candidate if Giuliani got the GOP nomination, stories about the Religious Right’s political future (or lack thereof) have surfaced every day, largely by design of Dobson, Perkins, et al. If I were so inclined (and allowed), I could spend an entire day clipping video of Religious Right leaders on cable news and Sunday morning shows.
But by the end of this week, The Great Right Rift started to feel more like a shift in the wind. Stories of the cataclysm that will inevitably follow Giuliani’s inevitable nomination shared space with news that the religious right was beginning to take a shine to Romney, and Giuliani agreed to show at the Family Research Council’s straw poll next weekend. Turmoil abounds, and a schism is definitely possible, but the situation’s beginning to look less like armageddon and more like politics.
As readers of this blog are well aware, there was this paper about “common ground” released this week by some groups called “Third Way” and “Faith In Public Life,” but a different story about common ground was my favorite news item of the week. As first reported in Time and Newsweek, 138 preeminent Muslim leaders and scholars sent a letter to Christian leaders appealing to interfaith harmony and peace. (Full text of the letter here.)
Why care? Because getting such a broad and prominent group to sign onto a single statement of peace shows that all that talk about Islam being a religion of peace isn’t just a bunch of politically correct nonsense. Says Time:
It points out that both religions are founded on goodwill, not violence, and that many of the fundamental truths that were revealed to Muhammad — such as the necessity for the total devotion to God, the rejection of false gods, and the love of fellow human beings — are the same ones that came to other Christian and Jewish prophets.
Because of this, the letter says, Muslims are duty-bound by the Koran to treat believers of other faiths with respect and friendship — and that Muslims expect the same in return. “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — as long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”
With Christians making up about 33% of the world’s population and Muslims making up around 22%, the letter says that finding common ground, “is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders.” It is, instead, essential for the survival of humanity.
The New York Times noted that no Wahhabist signed the letter, but that doesn’t invalidate this gesture of solidarity and peace. We can all hope that this bears greater fruit, but the statement is a blessing in and of itself.
This afternoon Pastor Dan revisits the discussion of Third Way’s “Come Let Us Reason Together,” and I’m glad to see him put his initial reaction in context and qualify one particular statement from his original post. Two of the paper’s authors, Robbie Jones and Rachel Laser, have posted a diary response to his criticism of their work over at Street Prophets.
Yesterday I said that Dan viewed the paper as something it was not meant to be — a Democratic strategy memo. In response, or perhaps just coincidentally, today Dan explains the grounds for treating it as such:
The study itself mentions voting patterns and common political ground. Seems fair to analyze the partisan implications. In fact, thinking through the partisan implications of religious life is pretty much what we do here, except when we’re doing the vice versa. So of course I’m going to pick it apart to see what it might have to say about the next couple of elections.
This contextualizes and clarifies Dan’s initial response, which I originally thought of as entirely beside the point of the paper. I better understand it now, but what I read yesterday was not an analysis of partisan implication, but an evaluation of the very worth (or lack thereof) of the paper:
Come to think of it, why any of this? I really can’t see any point to this study other than to provide an intellectual foundation for people who’ve already decided that the future of the Democratic party lies in attracting “persuadable evangelicals.” As we come closer and closer to the possibility of a true political realignment in this nation, though, that strategy seems to make less and less sense. It’s nice to know that we might be able to pick up a few evangelicals here and there, but what we need to know is why that would be preferable to concentrating on winning many more non-evangelicals who are solidly and consistently in agreement with the party’s core positions.
That’s one place where Dan and I differed originally, and it was the basis of my original blog post. However, in his subsequent post, he drops such absolutism while also managing to stick to his guns:
I’m really not trying to be snide here. There is value in this conversation over the long haul, but in the foreseeable future, evangelicals are going to be the base of the Republican party. And given current voting patterns, I’m just not convinced that there’s enough middle ground to be worth contesting. So what’s in it for people like me?
A fair question, Dan, and a hard one for me to answer. You highlight the study’s observation that “Evangelical diversity of views has not translated proportionately into diversity of voting,” as support for a “why bother” approach to evangelicals. My answer to that would be “you should bother because diversity of views has not translated proportionately into diversity of voting.” Where there is dissonance there is opportunity.
As you’ve said, you approach “Come let us reason together” from a partisan political perspective. That perspective is valid, but certainly not the only valid one. The end of the culture wars, toward which “Come let us reason together” is a step, certainly would have massive electoral implications, so the paper is bound to be discussed within that context. But the paper’s stated purpose, while politically significant, derives its significance not from any effect it may or may not have in the next election, but rather from it’s suggestions for moving beyond the climate in which intractable division thrives.
I do not wish to make Third Way’s study some kind of silver bullet, but until we dare to believe that we can overcome the bitter stasis of the culture war, politics will be nothing more than incremental whittling at the margins, and progress on consensus issues will continue to be upheld in the greater partisan freeze that is the inevitable fruit of wedge-issue politics.
Third Way’s “Come Let Us Reason Together” has already received plenty of attention. So far it’s been the subject of a Newsweek feature, an op-ed column in the Washington Post, and blog commentary, notably by my friend Pastor Dan at Street Prophets. The variety of these reports speaks to the diverse perspectives on religion and politics, even within the ranks of progressives
EJ, while certainly a faithful and religiously informed person, approaches it as a secular political journalist, saying that Third way “takes a step toward religious conservatives by acknowledging the legitimacy of many of their moral concerns,” and treating it as a self-evident good.
Pastor Dan, coming from a progressive religious activist perspective, offers a different take:
Furthermore, as the study’s authors themselves point out, more than half of American evangelicals live in the South. Assuming that the Democrats do a bang-up job with the modernists and even attract a few centrists, that means they’ll win one-half of 2-5% of the electorate in the areas that make up the Republican base. That’s just not enough to put a state like Alabama into play, and even in a swing state like Virginia, the smart money is on the non-evangelicals in the D.C. suburbs…Forgive me for thinking that no matter how closely aligned young evangelicals are with the rest of the public on issues, 74% support for Republican candidates means they’re not ripe for the plucking by Dems
Dan’s talking about electing Democrats tomorrow, but taking a more long-term view, I can’t think of why it isn’t worthwhile for progressives and evangelicals to build some basic, shared understandings that can turn Deal-breaking Wedge Issues into merely Serious Issues. One question beyond Dan’s analysis and Third Way’s report are the criteria by which people determine that they are conservative. Leaving aside the half of evangelicals who label themselves moderate or progressive, how many self-identify as conservative because they think liberals hate God and love abortion? That is a topic that must be addressed before “Come Let Us Reason Together” can be written off as electorally insignificant. (Note: I agree with Dan that conservative demagogues bear great responsibility for such negative perceptions of liberals.)
Whether centrist and conservative evangelicals are “ripe for the plucking” right this minute is beside the point. “Come Let Us Reason Together” is not a Democratic strategy memo for 2008. It is an effort to establish a basis for communication and cooperation between two large groups that have had neither in recent years. And dialogue is essential to healthy democracy. It proposes grounds of agreement that seem mundane to Dan, and that’s fine, but they are meant to foster mutual respect and enable productive communication between people who think of each other in such caricatured terms as baby killer or woman oppressor, libertine or theocrat. Before you can say to another person, “come let us reason together,” you must believe that you are talking to a reasonable person. By establishing what some people might view as “so what” shared understandings, we at least establish that each other can be reasoned with. That might seem a small step, but the first one always is, and right now the end of the culture war is ripe for the picking, so we should get to stepping.
Although I’ve lived in liberal Washington, DC for the past year, I’ve spent most of my adult life out in “Jesusland.” I have known many good people who automatically voted Republican because of same-sex marriage and abortion, to the exclusion of all other issues. I want these people to open themselves to progressive candidates who seek justice and peace, but I recognize that abortion and same sex marriage are not going away, and that people are not going to magically flip on the issues or decide that they don’t matter any more. Establishing a common framework is thus critical to outgrowing the poisonous divisiveness that has sullied our public life.
Whether or not working on this is electorally necessary for Democrats is beside the point.