1. Sebelius Confirmation Fight Shows What "Pro-Life" Means.
Though their attempts failed, Religious-right groups goaded Republicans to filibuster the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius to be Health and Human Services Secretary, who was confirmed yesterday with a 65-31 vote. But some early supporters of the former Kansas governor were oddly silent as the religious right renewed its opposition after Sebelius vetoed anti-choice legislation last week.
Catholics United, an anti-abortion group that supported Sebelius early in the process because of her commitment to "abortion reduction," did not defend her against the post-veto religious-right onslaught. James Salt, Catholics United's communication director, said that the group was still supporting Sebelius and that it trusted Sebelius was correct that the vetoed bill would be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge in court.
"More importantly though," he added, "I hope this action leads Governor Sebelius to redouble her commitment to reducing abortion as the next Secretary of Health of Human Services. Now more than ever our nation needs leadership that can move us past the politics of division and toward commonsense common-ground solutions to the abortion debate. For Catholics United, that means making sure that women and families have all the support they need to choose life."
In other words, not to prevent unintended pregnancies but to make it less likely that women facing them will choose an abortion. That's the rift in the "abortion reduction" debate Barack Obama will have to navigate as a result of his decision to elevate faith voices in the discussion.
2. Where Does the Religious Left Lie?
At the Sojourners' Mobilization To End Poverty event this week, there was an unmistakable political message: The Obama moment is also the Sojourners' moment.
Sojourners, headed by evangelical activist Jim Wallis, hosted what organization spokesperson Jason Gedeik, in an e-mail to reporters, called "the first significant mobilization of the Religious Left in the Obama era." The event was attended by about a thousand activists who lobbied members of Congress to bolster funding for a domestic social safety net and for nongovernmental organizations helping the poor around the world. But it also served as a showcase for Obama administration policy-makers' close relationship with these religious activists, and with Wallis in particular.
Wallis frequently referred to his friendship with the president and noted that he speaks daily with Joshua DuBois, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). Wallis also serves on the OFBNP's advisory council, which was formed to give policy guidance to the president.
The Sojourners event featured a panel of White House policy-makers whose bailiwicks include addressing poverty-related issues. Each member of the panel, which included DuBois and environmental adviser Van Jones, emphasized a close ideological relationship between anti-poverty policy and faith. They also emphasized the need to cultivate the relationship between the White House and faith groups in order to accomplish administration goals.
While Sojourners is indeed a leading anti-poverty evangelical organization, there was one problem with its self-characterization as the "Religious Left." As Ted Olsen catalogued at Christianity Today, Wallis himself has spurned the label, preferring to position himself as a nonpartisan centrist. In a conversation with Olsen, Gedeik added that labels don't matter -- the real story is the mobilization of activists.
Sojourners can call itself what ever it wants, but political positioning does matter. If Sojourners defines the religious left, what does that make religious activists agitating for more structural change to the economic system and for sexual-justice issues -- some fringe freak show that fails to fit within the acceptable bounds of the Obama administration's outreach?
3. Religious Left Speaks on Economic-Justice Issues.
Dan Schultz, the proprietor of the Daily Kos spin-off blog Street Prophets, earlier this month called for investigations of the players in the Wall Street catastrophe. This week, he criticized Sojourners' "religious left" label, adding that the group is "still coming at it from the frame of poverty relief, rather than economic justice. If it were truly progressive, we'd be hearing about meaningful economic reforms and more about unions."
Moving beyond charity, another religious-left figure further amplified the movement's push for changes in the economic system. In a sermon to the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles this weekend, Peter Laarman, a minister and the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, drew a connection between a society that would tolerate torture and one that tolerates an economic system that accepts "extreme inequality and injustice as 'normal.'" Allowing predatory lending practices to continue in our economy, Laarman said, constitutes "the infliction of intolerable pain is left to the tender mercy of a ruthless and unaccountable power."
It's a harsh comparison, but Laarman said the "connection between violence and predatory lending is what makes pushing back against the banks a compelling religious issue."
4. Pro-Sexual-Justice Religious Left Calls for End to Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Funding.
For all his talk of "abortion reduction" as one of his centrist goals, Wallis remains committed to the idea that, in Gedeik's words to me this week, abortion is the "taking of a human life." That's theo-conservative, not theo-progressive talk. There is a religious left that emphasizes the moral agency of women to make reproductive choices, something Wallis does not.
But progressive, pro-choice religious activism is not limited to abortion. It includes a panoply of reproductive-justice issues. This week, a group of religious activists continued their push for the government to end abstinence-only sex education and fund comprehensive sex education.
The Religious Institute on Sexual Justice, Morality, and Healing, which has gathered over 900 pastoral signatures in favor of comprehensive sex education, hosted a briefing this week for congressional staff. Activists, including pastors, made a religious case for teaching medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education in the nation's public schools.
According to Bill Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the White House has assured activists of its commitment to comprehensive sex education. "It's a new day in this town," said Smith at the briefing. Obama is "the first president in American history who supports unequivocally a comprehensive approach to sex education."
But in the end, it's not about religion but science. "If science is in," Smith said, "abstinence-only is definitely out."
But for Obama, and increasingly for Democrats, the issue is also about satisfying religious constituencies to the right of the Religious Institute. Science is in but so is religion.
5. Democratic Strategist's New "Grass Roots" Network Focuses on "Traditional Values."
An architect of the Democrats' faith outreach strategy has launched a new "grass roots" network emphasizing "traditional" and "fundamental" values.
The American Values Network is the brainchild of Burns Strider, who worked as Hillary Clinton's faith-outreach coordinator after establishing the Democratic House Faith Working Group while an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He now works as a political consultant, providing faith-outreach strategies to Democratic candidates.
Like Wallis' Sojourners, the American Values Network is positioned as "progressive." But it's hard to recognize religious-left views in its Web site. Instead, the site seems aimed at convincing conservative evangelicals that Democrats aren't so bad. Diane Winston, a religion and media scholar at the University of Southern California, described it as "amateurish" and "thick with platitudes."
Strider launched Faithful Media with Christian music promoter Rick Hendrix. According to his Web site, Hendrix has also worked with Mel Gibson to compile an album of songs to "complement" his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. Hendrix is contemplating a run for a House seat from North Carolina in 2010, as a Democrat.