A new spiritual skyline

1 2 3 4 | 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.


React >
Ready to enter the fray? Step into the Forum, or write a Letter to the Editor.
Like what you just read? Give Inthefray.com a buck.

Also Inthefray >
The model Jew
written by J. Irving Israel | illustrated by Vasus Das | Interact | April 9, 2001
When being a good citizen means giving up Filet-O-Fish

Editors’ Picks >
If ordered through these links, a portion of the sale goes to Inthefray.com

Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America
By Mark Silk
University of Illinois Press, 1995
Purchase this book through Amazon.com (click here for paperback) or Barnes & Noble (click here for paperback)

Caricaturing Lieberman

Religion in black and white

‘Taking back God’

The story behind the story

A new spiritual skyline

Story Index