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Liberal Religious Groups Decry Own Failure to Inspire Activism

When Americans think of religion’s influence on political and social policy these days, what comes to mind is the religious right — and for good reason.

The political left is today grounded in a secular point of view that not only leaves out of the discussion the overwhelming majority of Americans who identify themselves as religious people, but also ends up being used by the religious right to lay sole claim to the voice of religious authority, said leaders of liberal religious movements at a conference here recently.

Progressive religion is failing to inspire liberal political activism and, in the process, failing to make much of an impact on the political policies which shape the lives of most Americans, they said.

“We have too often been indistinguishable from the left wing of the Democratic party,” said Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical Christian who founded and is co-publisher of Sojourner’s magazine, a Washington-based publication offering a liberal take on the Christian social mandate.

“We have been too willing to give up our very religious identities that give our political involvement its prophetic” context, Wallis said.

He, along with leaders of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Churches and the Catholic church offered a frank self-critique during the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center-organized Consultation on Conscience.

It was sponsored by the Interreligious Public Policy Briefing ’97, which is a joint effort of several Christian and interfaith organizations, as well as of the Religious Action Center.

“We need to talk about how liberal religion can recapture the public square,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said in his remarks introducing the panel discussion.

“Conservatives and fundamentalists on the religious right remember what we have forgotten: That America is the most religious of modern democracies.”

Citing the fact that progressive religion provided the impetus for the abolitionist, disarmament and civil rights movements, Yoffie said that today’s liberals have abandoned religious language.

“Perhaps liberals are no longer religious. Perhaps we are lost without the towering religious figures we had in the past. Perhaps we’ve misunderstood church-state separation,” he said.

Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, agreed, suggesting that political liberals have over-interpreted the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

“Religion should be separate from the state, but not from the society in which we live,” she said.

Her organization represents most of the country’s mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

Underlying the overall problem, according to Yoffie, is the fact that “with regard to social justice we are insufficiently radical. We are too often unable to sustain spiritual indignation.”

Another central problem is that religiously motivated liberals have abandoned any focus on standards of personal morality and behavior, he said, “leaving it to the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells,” referring to two politically conservative and influential evangelical Christian leaders.

Father Bryan Hehir, a leading Catholic theologian who teaches about social activism and foreign policy at the Harvard University Divinity School and its Center for International Affairs, was on the panel.

A Jewish perspective was presented by Leonard Fein, who is a veteran progressive political activist and writer.

Now working as director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, Fein was a founder of Moment magazine and of Mazon, a national Jewish anti- hunger organization. Fein has also taught political science on the faculties of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University.

In a speech studded with references to Torah, Fein said that many Jews, in the process of assimilating, have left behind the sense of “permanent outsiderness” that it takes to “abjure the golden calf or golden elephant or golden donkey,” comparing the scramble for political status to idol worship.

As a first step toward overcoming the sense of futility which proves debilitating for many progressively minded, religiously motivated people, Fein suggested that political activists focus on telling their success stories, rather than their failures.

Citing a synagogue in Southern California that recently hired a full time caseworker to work with abused children, Fein also suggested that people start small rather than try to change federal legislation right off the bat.

That synagogue’s program “isn’t fancy,” he said, “but it’s God’s work.”

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