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Riverside Church
12.26.03
Society and Community:
The Christian Left?
More on This Story:
Overview

The Gale Encyclopedia explains:
Since the 1970s, the Religious Right, often known as the "Christian Right" or the "New Christian Right," has referred to a coalition of organizations and individuals with three major goals in U.S. politics: to get conservative Protestants to participate in the political process, to bring them into the Republican party, and to elect social conservatives to public office."

The goal of the Christian Right has been largely to influence public policy to adhere to what are frequently referred to as "family values" or "traditional values." Some of the best-known issues at the heart of the movement are opposition to abortion, rejection of homosexuality as an accepted lifestyle, and support for prayer in public schools. Some of the most visible groups on the Religious Right include the Christian Coalition of America, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, and the Traditional Values Coalition.

The Christian Right was once considered a "noisy but ultimately ineffective political force" until it suffered multiple blows in the 1988 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which led to a reinvention of the movement. The leaders identified the movement's weaknesses and developed a more sophisticated understanding of what moved American politics, adopting a "new set of tactics in the service of the same policy goals that animated the first generation." The leaders of Christian conservatism, who had earlier been opposed to playing the political game, were now "mainstreaming the message" for broader appeal.

Also, where leaders had previously been mainly religious figures who saw compromise as moral weakness, new voices of the Christian Right were political conservatives who were accustomed to the strategy of cooperation, realizing that their goals would be best reached in small steps, that "incrementalism is the surest path to success in political competition."

While the Religious Right has been increasingly vocal on the political stage, up to this point, there has been no similar religious political movement from the left. In an effort to change this situation, a coalition of moderate and liberal religious leaders have started an organization to mobilize voters in opposition to the policies endorsed by the Christian Right. The new group, named the Clergy Leadership Network, will have no official ties to any political party, but will "operate from an expressly religious and expressly partisan point-of-view." The CLN seeks to address such issues as economic inequality, American foreign policy in Iraq and other nations, civil rights in the age of increased national security, healthcare reform, and environmental protection.

The first national liberal religious group focusing on partisan political organizing and electoral issues, the CLN committee is mainly made up of Protestant Christians, but includes Catholics and Jews, and hopes to attract Muslim participants as well. The group qualifies for Section 527 tax status, a new tax-exempt designation for entities organized to accept contributions or make expenditures for the pupose of influencing the "selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any individual to Federal, State, or local public office or office in a political organization, or the election of Presidential electors." As such, it is exempt from rules that govern many other non-profit religious organizations and political action committees; it can raise unlimited funds from donors, provided all income and expenditures are disclosed to the IRS. The Clergy Leadership Network cannot donate money to candidates, but can use money raised to run its own television and print ads. These are likely to gain prominence over the coming election year.

The CEO and chairman of the Clergy Leadership Network, Reverend Albert M. Pennybacker, explained, "The Christian Right has been very articulate, but they have been exclusive and very judgmental of anyone who doesn't agree with them. People may want to label us the Christian Left. But what we really are about is mainstream issues and truth, and if that makes us 'left,' then that shines even more light on the need for a shift in our society."

There is very little data, and certainly nothing conclusive, on the impact of religious political movements on public policy. And so the question stands: can the Christian Right or the "Christian Left" make their political agendas count in Washington? Talk about it on the discussion boards.

Sources: About.com; Clergy Leadership Network; Gale Encyclopedia of Popular Culture; Media Alliance; Internal Revenue Service; NEW YORK TIMES

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