|A new spiritual skyline
| 5 | INDEX
The reality that the media failed to grasp
was this: American religious practice has changed significantly over the
past several decades.
"There was indeed a time in the 1980s when the perception abounded that
‘Christian’ involvement in politics meant Christian Right," writes
Jim Wallis, a
Christian social-justice activist, in the magazine Sojourners. "But that
hasn’t been true for some time now." What does today’s emerging religious
topography look like? Wallis gives a few examples of its left-leaning
bent, such as the fierce opposition of Catholic bishops to capital punishment,
increased military spending, and notions of welfare reform "that neglect
poor working families."
Religious communities have long had a hand in political and social activism,
in areas that span the ideological spectrum--from civil rights to temperance,
or from nuclear disarmament to "family values." But for the last few decades,
it seemed as if left-leaning activists had no business invoking God. Then
Lieberman came along, announcing that his faith inspired him to be outspoken
on issues such as the environment, health care, and foreign policy.
Lieberman deserves credit for doing his own part to bolster the new movement
of faith-inspired political activism, Wallis says. "Joe Lieberman’s strong
advocacy for religion in the public square further establishes a place
for moderate and even progressive faith perspectives ... Thus the Religious
Right is now only one of the many voices on issues of political ethics,
as it should be."
Though perhaps a bit overstated, this more inclusive view of American
religious life does reflect real developments. It recognizes that while
many orthodox religious groups oppose abortion, they can be strong proponents
of workers’ rights, arms reduction, racial equality, and the environment,
and that while liberal religious groups are pro-choice, they can still
hold fast to "family values" and raise concerns about public morality.
The union of religion and political centrism will only grow stronger in
the future, according to Silk, the director of the Center
for the Study of Religion in Public Life. "As the first president
of the new millennium slouches towards the Oval Office," Silk writes,
"a chastened Christian right and a more religiously engaged center and
left seem to be creating a new kind of religious politics in America."
For the truth is, today’s religious groups are liberal as well as conservative--and
today’s liberals are more welcoming of religion than ever before. Clinton,
after all, "has been the most religion-friendly president since Eisenhower,"
Silk affirms. Under his presidency we saw the Religious Freedom Restoration
Act, legislation enacted in 1993 that made it easier for individuals
to seek constitutional protection for the free exercise of their religious
beliefs. Five years later Clinton signed the International Religious
Freedom Act, which puts religious persecution on top of the U.S. human-rights
agenda. (Media coverage of the two acts, not surprisingly, was scant.)
Now, with George W. Bush in office, we
can expect religious activism to grow stronger--and not necessarily in
a conservative direction. Consider the newly established White House Office
of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which will provide federal funding
to religious groups that offer social services. Welfare reform, as Daniel
Borenstein has said, "marks the emergence of the religious middle in politics."
That is, as federal government has stepped away, progressive religious
groups are pouring more of their energies into fighting poverty--and are
finding themselves reinvigorated by a new spirit of volunteerism.
For Wallis, Lieberman’s candidacy signaled a movement of religious progressives
and centrists into the public arena and under the media spotlight. "What
the senator from Connecticut has done," he writes, "is to spark a fascinating
and important discussion about the proper roles of religion, values, and
public policy that will be with us far beyond the election."
But no such conversation was sparked. This should come as no surprise.
After all, journalists were stoking the fire with rotted wood from another
era. Rather than being judged on his own merits, Lieberman was equated
with the religious right. Rather than being seen as part of an emerging
religious center, he was linked to the early eighties and the conservative
platform that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. The coverage of
Lieberman in the 2000 campaign made evident a collective myopia among
journalists where matters of religion were concerned--and a sizeable gap
between religion as it is portrayed in the news, and religion as it is
lived by real people.
If a new spiritual skyline is rising, it is one still obscured beneath
the scaffolding. Journalists themselves must rise to meet its challenge.
If the coverage of religion is to expand from the ideological poles where
it currently resides--and into the gray area in which most religious practice
actually takes place--they are the ones who must find creative new categories
for their analysis.
And the rest of us will watch the horizon with fear or joy, as a new religious
order slouches toward Washington.
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Irving Israel | illustrated by Vasus Das | Interact | April 9, 2001
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