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Common Ground Isn’t Always on the Right

August 24, 2007, 5:55 pm | Posted by Dan Nejfelt

A recent Mother Jones article (not yet online) about Hillary Clinton’s membership in the secretive Fellowship prayer group and the relationship between her faith and her politics makes some fair observations, but it is also laden with misunderstanding and insinuation.

A conspicuous example is the contention that when the Fellowship “convinces politicians they can transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics…the politics always move rightward.”

By its very nature, a politics that transcends left and right requires an ideological flexibility and innovative mindset that enables us to find common ground. This can incorporate several dynamics: liberals moving right, conservatives moving left, finding original solutions, recognizing shared ideals, or any combination of these. To say that among Senate coreligionists the politics always moves rightward ignores not only these other possibilities, but also the recent record of distinctly leftward shifts.

Take health care. Conservatives will always stick to their rhetorical guns about health savings accounts, consumer choice and such, but look at their votes. Shortly before the August recess, 18 Republicans voted for a Democratic program to spend $35 billion to cover 9 million uninsured children, not with tax credits or subsidized health savings accounts, but at the full expense of federal and state governments. That is a leftward swing, even if it’s not universal healthcare.

Take global warming. While we don’t yet have greenhouse gas emission caps or a carbon tax, religious groups and scientific consensus are pressing Republican Senators leftward into the realm of reality. James Inhofe is a stalwart of climate change denial, but only a few years ago his was considered a mainstream conservative position. Talk is cheap, but it’s hard to say there’s been a rightward swing when their entire frame on the most pressing and financially consequential issue of our era has been discredited.

It is certainly possible for a shadowy religious group to exert rightward pressure on liberal members who seek common ground solutions. The Mother Jones article even provides a couple of examples. However, to say that these liberals bridge builders always become more conservative is to ignore the fact that the common ground isn’t always found on the right.

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7 Responses to “Common Ground Isn’t Always on the Right”

  1. Beth says:

    I would add as support to Dan’s description of the leftward movement of conservatives on the environment the decision of the Christian Coalition in Alabama to add the environment to its issue portfolio (an article about the shift was on FPL’s news today ).

  2. Jeff Sharlet says:

    Dan, as a co-author of the piece in question, I have to take issue with your characterization of our argument. We most certainly did NOT suggest that all common ground work trends rightward. We made no argument about common ground work in general. Rather, we made the argument that the Fellowship’s version of common ground work trends rightward. We make that characterization based in part on five years of research and the review of thousands of Fellowship documents covering seven decades of the organization’s work. There have been instances where liberals have maintained their liberalism, and instances where conservatives who were also bigots have abandoned certain bigotries, but none where conservatives have moved leftward on any philosophical or political issue.

    That has no bearing on the larger question of common ground work; it’s an argument about one specific organization.

  3. Dan says:

    Jeff, I’m glad to hear that you’re not espousing the cynical view of common ground work that I inferred from your article. You’ve done a remarkable job investigating the Fellowship, and I wouldn’t presume to challenge your command of any factual matter or claim any privileged knowledge of my own.

    One of my responsibilities at Faith In Public Life is scouring the headlines for stories about religion in politics, and in the course of that I find no shortage of common ground emerging, and not all of it is rightward. I inferred from your argument that I would find no member of the Fellowship in support of any of these, such as the recent bipartisan expansion of SCHIPS. But now I see that you meant that no leftward common ground emerges amongst Fellowship members within the context of Fellowship cells or meetings. If this is a further misunderstanding, please enlighten me.

  4. Jeff Sharlet says:

    Dan, I will say I’m skeptical of common ground work, but I won’t go so far as to say it’s impossible. The problem arises from core assumptions of conservatism and liberalism. Conservatives believe in identifying fundamental truths and standing by them; compromise may be necessary, but it is never a virtue. Liberals and progressives, however, believe that a fair society is built by taking into consideration as many perspectives as possible. Compromise, for them, is often a sign of virtue.

    Thus “common ground” between people who want to compromise and people who do so only reluctantly tends to favor the latter. This isn’t my analysis — it’s that of Chuck Colson, the religious right leader, in letter to the head of the Fellowship. Colson boasts that he can sit pretty while liberals in search of common ground come to him.

    The Fellowship, as far as I know, has never resulted in a leftward tilt. It has achieved a few worthy objectives — there’s a case to be made that the Fellowship persuaded its former client Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi to join Mandela’s government rather than opposing it with arms. But that’s not left — for the Fellowship members, that’s smart business. And all too often, such business ends up with bad results, even when it looks good — such as the Fellowship-brokered “peace” deal between Rwanda and Congo, a disastrous intervention that likely made that conflict worse.

    But this isn’t a case of clumsy do-gooders — the most common Fellowship diplomacy occurs on behalf of foreign leaders almost nobody could love — dictators, death squad organizers, embezzlers. Their justification is that Christ loved everybody. True enough. But that doesn’t mean killers get a free pass to murder, with U.S. arms, no less.

  5. Dan says:

    Colson’s comment seems analagous to Chris Hedges’ observation that tolerance advantages the intolerant. Both point out the danger compromise poses for progressives, but I wonder if common cause on new issues, as opposed to rapproachment on existing conflicts, necessarily fits into the rightward dynamic you see in the Fellowship. I’m thinking specifically of Darfur here. Have you seen any Fellowship engagement on the issue? Talk is cheap, and inaction speaks volumes, but it seems like the genocide there has made humanitarian intervention a more bipartisam concept. In the religious commmunity, Darfur transcends right and left, rather than falling upon the continuum. Is it so with the Fellowship?

  6. Jeff Sharlet says:

    You raise an interesting point, Dan, about the possibility of new issues transcending left and right. To some extent, I agree — Sam Brownback probably does more good by raising awareness of Darfur than he does harm by casting it as a Christian-Muslim conflict within Christian conservative circles and proposing “free market solutions” to African poverty. So I have common ground with Brownback about the importance of Darfur. But that’s where it ends, and we shouldn’t be so naive as to pretend that our differences don’t really matter. Another religious right figure frequently celebrated for his common ground work, Rick Warren, is a case in point. We lefties agree with Warren that AIDS must be a MUCH huger priority. Good — common ground! But it ends there, because Warren promotes African religious leaders who blame AIDS on homosexuality and fight vigorously for the repression of LGBT people. So the “existing conflict” shades the “new issue.”

    As for the Fellowship — they’d certainly say they transcend left and right. And, in a sense they do — they’ve discovered a whole new way of causing harm. A case in point there might be Somalia, where in the 1980s they brought Democrats and Republicans together in support of the genocidal dictator Siad Barre, on the premise that by praying with him they could sway him toward better behavior. Instead, they gave him a free pass to kill, which he did, in horrifying numbers, while Fellowship politicians championed their new brother in Christ on the Hill. With the best of intentions, I’m sure. I’m certain, too, that those fine intentions are solace to the dead.

    I don’t think we need to dispense with left and right critiques to do common ground work. On the issue of environmentalism, for instance — God bless Richard Cizik, but let’s also remember where we part ways. Cizik believes in free market solutions to environmental problems, based on a reading of evangelical theology that implicitly equates deregulated capitalism with the grace. Progressives don’t see it that way, and that means that sooner or later, they’re going to butt heads with conservative environmentalists. That’s fine. All of our arguments will grow stronger. But only if we remember that there is a real argument, in the most religious sense of the word, to be had.

  7. Dan says:

    Jeff, thanks for continuing our discussion.

    I certainly agree that conflicts should not be glossed over in an effort to preserve meaningless consensus, and that argument is often necessary. I should clarify that I don’t see common ground necessarily as total assimilation of a shared viewpoint. For instance, if Joe Biden and Sam Brownback both backed intervention in Darfur, I’d call that ground pretty common, regardless of how Brownback frames the issue.

    The environmental example is a very instructive one. Indeed, conservatives who now engage the issue don’t agree with liberal solutions, and that’s where the necessary argument begins. I see four possible ends of this: a right win, a left win, a cobbled-together nightmare reminiscent of No Child Left Behind, or innovation. So beginning with common ground can lead to conflict, and then ultimately, maybe, a liberal victory. Common ground should not be an end in itself, but it can convene conflicts that lead to liberal wins.

    Whether or not this has happened, does happen, or can happen is the essence of our discussion. You have many disturbing example of it not happening, and I’m enjoying continued probing for issues on which common ground has pulled conservatives left. I’ll be looking for this dynamic to continue in the realm of healthcare. Health Savings Accounts were once the panacea of the Right, but now conservatives are coming around on more liberal solutions such as SCHIP. What makes this “common ground” instead of just a plain old win? The fact that conservative votes are what’s putting it over the top.