Deep in the heart of the reddest county in a red state, a new grass-roots movement is taking shape that means to break the religious right's hold on the rhetoric of Christianity by developing a network of activists on the “Christian left” that can be mobilized to support progressive causes.
Founded by Jacksonville, Florida, businessman Patrick Mrotek, the Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) says its purpose is the “reclaim” the Christian faith from the extreme religious right.
The Reverend Timothy F. Simpson, a Presbyterian minister and the group's director of religious affairs, said in an interview Wednesday that the Christian left has for too long allowed the Christian right to be the public face of his religion in America. “The language of our faith has been placed in the service of policy ends that don't reflect the Gospel, and we have become deeply troubled over that,” he said.
The Christian right, he says, in the persons of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson, has come to stand for bigotry, intolerance, and division. Simpson says that his organization will try to repair the damage done by the right's insistence that the United States is a “Christian nation” that ought to be governed according to their narrow interpretation of Scripture.
“I understand that the truth can be spoken by Muslims, and the truth can be spoken by Jews. The truth can be spoken by atheists,” said Simpson. “And listen: An atheist who stands for the interests of the neighbor, an atheist who stands for the interests of poor people at the margins, for the oppressed, is worth more than a hundred Christians who have made their bed with the fat cats, because that atheist is actually articulating the ends of the kingdom of God.”
CAP was officially launched Wednesday, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., and on Thursday, its leaders returned to Jacksonville to hold a second launch event, this one in front of Jacksonville's First Baptist Church.
The choice of the location is significant because the pastor of First Baptist is Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who made headlines at the group's annual meeting in 2002 by denigrating Islam and referring to its founder, Mohammed, as “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
“We will hold a press conference outside of the First Baptist Church to say while we recognize you as brothers and sisters in Christ, we see things very differently in terms of what the Bible is calling us to do in the public sphere, and we believe that you all -- through your affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party -- have abandoned the values of our founder, Jesus Christ,” Simpson said.
CAP launched its Web site last month, and, with no advertising, has already attracted thousands of signatories to its “Jacksonville Declaration,” a statement of principles that, among other things, explicitly disavows the politics of the religious right:
“We must tell you now that you do not speak for us, or for our politics. We say ‘No' to the ways you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals. We do not support your agenda to erode the separation of church and state, to blur the vital distinction between your interpretation of Christianity and our shared democratic institutions. Moreover, we do not accept what seems to be your understanding of Christian values. We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed and injustice.”
Simpson says that the group has also recruited community organizers in 20 cities across the country -- people who, like the groups founders, don't recognize their religion in the rhetoric of the Christian right.
“I'm a minister,” he said. “We go to church. We are fully plugged into the life of our community. We are the Sunday-school teachers. We take up the offering. We watch the nursery. We fix the church suppers. That is our life, too, but we understand that the Gospel is calling us to do very different things than just hobnob with the wealthy and lay down moral cover fire for the invasion of Iraq.”
But Simpson said the group would attempt to emulate the religious right in at least one respect: organization.
“What we would like to do is to have the capacity to do, in many ways, what folks on the right have so masterfully done for the last quarter-century. That is to mobilize a field force -- boots on the ground -- of people that will respond to issues, that will make their voice heard from the perspective of the Christian left,” he said.
CAP's core principles include commitments to economic justice, environmental stewardship, equality for homosexuals, effective prevention -- but not criminalization -- of abortion, peaceful solutions to international disputes, and universal health care for all Americans.
Simpson also railed against what he characterized as a small minority in the Democratic Party who believe that religious rhetoric has no place in the politics of a secular government.
“One of the great problems of the Democratic Party,” he said, “is that the 5 percent or so [of its members] who don't want any religious rhetoric at all, and who do not represent the mainstream of American political or religious life, have been allowed to call the cadence in the [party]. And when that happens, Democrats get their butts kicked. Because people in this country are believers.”
For Republicans and Democrats, he said, openness to religion “is clearly the winning strategy in this, the most religious of the Western industrial democracies. You just cannot ask people to check their faith at the door of the public-policy arena and expect to resonate with any significant segment of the electorate, because that's not where people are. And folks on the left have just got to deal with that.”
Simpson characterized Democrats who are opposed to the injection of religion into politics as “extremists,” saying that he can call for more religion to influence politics while still advocating a clear separation between church and state.
“What we think the extremists in the Democratic Party fear, and rightly so, is a Christian takeover,” he said. “We're trying to emulate the style of [the Reverend Martin Luther] King, which is more to speak to the government than to become the government -- which is what the folks on the right are doing.
“What we want to do is tell that fringe movement that you can talk about your faith without wanting your faith to become the exclusive faith of the nation.”
Rob Garver is a freelance journalist living in Springfield, Virginia.