Following up on Dana's post about the Third Way Come Let Us Reason Together Governing Agenda: the Third Way is once again partnering with the organization Faith in Public Life to present a decidedly tepid, incremental agenda as evidence that "progressives" and evangelicals are joining hands to "end the culture wars."

As Dana (and Ann) point out, characterizing advocacy of full equality for LGBT people, or for reproductive rights and sexual health, as a "culture war" demeans and distorts these issues as petty, partisan bickering, rather than human rights concerns. Some of the endorsers of the Third Way Governing Agenda, notably the Revs. Sam Rodriguez and Joel Hunter, both endorsed the gay marriage bans on the ballot in their states (California and Florida, respectively), yet they are not accused of stoking the culture wars; they are lauded for trying to end them through efforts like the Governing Agenda.

While Democrats perceive an electoral benefit to appealing to center-right evangelicals, and there's nothing wrong with building coalitions on some issues with constituencies that disagree with you on others, it's dishonest to portray the policy prescriptions in the Third Way Governing Agenda as representative of the progressive movement.

On abortion, it's heartening that the group is now emphasizing prevention of unintended pregnancies rather than criminalizing abortion. But Hunter, the Florida megachurch pastor at the forefront of the movement of centrist evangelicals who have caught the eye of Democratic politicians, remarked that "life in the womb is sacred to God" and he still favors an end to legal abortion. While endorsing the inclusion of gays and lesbians (but not transgendered people) in the protections of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, one Governing Agenda endorser, Jonathan Merritt, founder of Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, nonetheless commented that "God's ideal is heterosexuality." The group took no position on civil unions, much less gay marriage. And when I asked Hunter and Rodriguez, who is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, both of whom serve on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Evangelicals, about the NAE's position on homosexuality, which includes statements that homosexuals should pray for deliverance and seek "reparative" therapy, they said they were unaware of such positions. (I sent them a link to the policy and will report any response they provide.)

On other issues, the NAE urged Congress and the incoming administration to pass SCHIP, the health insurance program for children. There's nothing at all objectionable about this -- although I don't recall them pressing President Bush on it when he vetoed it -- but it falls short of being an overall progressive agenda on health care reform. The group is also pushing for an end to torture, an issue for which one of the coalition's members, David Gushee, has commendably been at the forefront, and for comprehensive immigration reform.

But glaringly absent from the Governing Agenda is a call for full reproductive freedom for women, including access to reproductive health services, including abortion services. That was something progressive participants in a Center for American Progress panel on reproductive rights this morning emphasized as integral to addressing both global and domestic poverty -- issues these evangelicals say are at the top of their agenda.

Yet as evidenced in Dan Gilgoff's coverage in U.S. News and World Report, the Third Way/Faith in Public Life effort is portrayed in some quarters of the media as representative of progressive religious people. This suggests, inaccurately, that there is indeed some sort of progressive religious consensus on giving up advocacy for full LGBT equality, or for full reproductive, including abortion, rights, in the name of "ending the culture wars."

To the contrary, though, there is a long-standing religious progressive commitment to reproductive and LGBT rights that continues, unwavering. And in the face of the Third Way/Faith in Public Life media and advocacy campaign, there is a growing groundswell among self-identified religious progressives that the Third Way/Faith in Public Life initiatives fail to represent them, and indeed marginalize their views and eclipse their existence. Peter Laarman, the president of Progressive Christians Uniting, told me, "I don’t have anything hostile to say about Faith in Public Life or Third Way. I think they’re honorable people and they work really hard. They’ve accomplished a lot within their own terms. The question that I have, and it’s not any kind of hostility or sharp criticism, is a kind of disappointment, because I had hoped that the goal had been from the beginning to build up the progressive religious voice, and that overarching goal has been lost along the way somehow."

Faith in Public Life, which was formed in the wake of the 2004 election at the Center for American Progress and later spun off as an independent organization, has portrayed itself as a Washington clearinghouse and umbrella for progressive faith organizations. But its emphasis, Laarman added, has been on "highlighting the significance of moderate evangelicals and Roman Catholics, which is disappointing. I don’t say this out of any bitterness or resentment [but] if we had some of the resources that went into [Faith in Public Life and Third Way], and those resources went in to building a progressive phalanx, then we’d be getting somewhere."

--Sarah Posner

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