Religious progressives emerging from ‘closet’ to balance traditional Christian right

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WASHINGTON – Being a spiritual progressive is like being in the closet in the 1950s, said a noted liberal activist.

Prominent feminist author and political consultant Naomi Wolf said breaking that taboo is a key challenge facing the emerging Christian left.

Wolf was the keynote speaker at The Institute for Progressive Christianity’s inaugural meeting in Washington in November. In her latest book, “The Treehouse,” she writes that years of devotion to her professional life led to a yearning for spirituality. As a progressive, she felt ashamed of her new spiritual desires.

The religious right, while embracing spirituality, is hostile to certain kinds of reason, she said. But secular progressives enforce a ban on spiritual talk, creating a “bizarre polarization” on the left.

“A new religious left will let us all come out of the closet,” said Wolf, who observes Judaism.

The rise of the religious left is a resurgence and not a new movement, said Rev. Leslie Tune, assistant director for justice and advocacy for the National Council of Churches USA, a group that organizes progressive Christian events.

The religious left is not lacking in prominent voices, agreed Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also serves as director of the center’s Evangelicals in Civic Life and Religion & the Media programs.

Cromartie said it’s only been in the past six to ten years that many on the religious left decided to regroup.

The Institute for Progressive Christianity is one organization that has joined with other like-minded groups, he said.

The institute began as a project of CrossLeft, a one-and-a-half-year-old blog that serves as an online clearinghouse and social networking hub for progressive Christians.

Stephen Rockwell, a director of CrossLeft and the Institute for Progressive Christianity, said the Democratic loss in the 2004 elections gave birth to CrossLeft.

“Moral values voters” became a catch-phrase that year, and together with CrossLeft founder Kety Esquivel, Rockwell said they wanted to disprove that Republicans had a corner on faith.

So they turned to the blogosphere.

Blogging is a form of “distributed leadership,” and “social entrepreneurship,” Rockwell said in an interview. “And we just wanted to see, could we do that in a progressive Christian context?”

The CrossLeft model isn’t about setting forth a vision and bidding others to follow it, he said. In the blogosphere, “we’re all producers, and we’re all consumers.”

The desire to bring balance to the relationship between the religious and secular is part of what led to the formation of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, said institute founder Rev. Mark Farr.

In the marketplace of ideas, Christianity had been “hijacked” by the religious right, Farr said. The right has been so successful in framing the public debate “because they’ve divided us” on issues like abortion and gay marriage, he said.

The institute, which has no party affiliation, “is largely a Christian response to a largely Christian problem,” said CrossLeft member Zeus Yiamouyiannis.

“One of the reasons a Christian right has been allowed to persist is because there hasn’t been a Christian response to it.” Yiamouyiannis said. “We want to provide that Christian response.”

The most glaring example of a need for Christian opposition to the religious right, said Rockwell, is in responding to people like Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, who last year caused a stir when he called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“It’s incumbent upon Christians’ to take Robertson and leaders like him to task, Rockwell said.

To work with the secular left within the Democratic party, the religious left also must learn to couch their positions in less theological language, Cromartie said.

Democrats narrowed the “God gap” slightly in the midterm elections among voters who attend worship services regularly, according to a Pew analysis of exit polls from 2002 and 2006. Republicans saw a slight dip in votes from regular churchgoers in the same period (59 percent to 55 percent), while Democrats gained votes in that same demographic (39 percent to 43 percent).

But overall, the God gap has widened, according to the Pew analysis, which showed that Democrats made their biggest gains — 12 percent — and Republicans their biggest losses — 8 percent — among voters who never go to church.

Many of those voters are not just secular, Cromartie said. They’re openly hostile to religion and its influence on politics.

The religious left has to find a way to talk to those people and say “you don’t need to fear us,” Cromartie said.

The Crossleft blog can be read at

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