Progressive Christian Weighs In on Influence of Religious Left

WASHINGTON – Democratic senators recently tipped their hat to the broad faith community for their support on economic and social justice issues and appealed for a continued commitment.

"We thank the faith community for being with us every step of the way," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) at a faith media roundtable discussion Wednesday.

"We would not have passed the Recovery Act, we would not have passed the extension of unemployment benefits, we would not have passed healthcare ... without the strong voice and commitment from the faith community to keep us on track that in fact the budget is a moral document and that everything we do here involves priorities and values."

Her comments served as a reminder to the increasing influence of the "religious left" in recent years.

The Rev. Jennifer Kottler, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has no doubt that progressive Christians have had significant influence in the latest "legislative victories."

While there wasn't a lot of success in their efforts to raise such issues as poverty in the 2004 election, Kottler said that they've focused on getting more of the progressive Christian voice out there "so that it's not only the voices on the right that are getting through."

"We've seen legislative victories not just at the national level [and] it hasn't just been within the last year, or since President Obama took office, but there has been legislative victories that have been influenced by progressive faith voices for many years leading up to the 2008 election," Kottler, director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners, told The Christian Post Friday.

Some, however, have questioned the extent of their influence.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Wednesday, "The question for me, that I am trying to figure out is, where does the faith community's role begin and end?"

"How far can they go?" she asked.

Though she was referring to the broader faith community, Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post said she addressed a question that many "Democrats ask privately: How influential, really, are faith groups on the left?"

"She was making the point that some groups aren't interested in politics or are limited by law in how active they can get, but it's true that the religious left hasn't produced powerhouses like the Christian right did," Boorstein wrote.

In response, Kottler, who has been working in politics for the last eight years, pointed out that progressive faith groups have less resources compared to the more conservative ones. Moreover, they use "softer tactics," she said.

"I think among more progressive faith groups, we're kind of big tent people. We're going to consider and look at a variety of ways to solve a particular issue. So you're not going to see the kind of very narrow 'this is what's going to happen and we're going to beat this home until we can't beat it any longer,'" she explained. "That's a difference in tactic and in style. Maybe the legislators consider that to be less influential."

What progressive religious voices can offer though is "the kind of moral cover that legislators need in order to do the right thing," Kottler said.

"They can point to progressive groups ... on the left and say 'I know this is the right thing to do. We've been getting a lot of pressure from the faith community on this issue,'" the Washington, D.C., minister explained.

"I know that in my experience there are a lot of really good people who are elected officials who want to do the right thing, who want to hear from people of faith across the board to try and get a feel for what is the moral issue here, how do we address that, how do we make sure we're providing that perspective in the legislation that we passed – not necessarily a religious perspective but a moral perspective."

The media roundtable on Wednesday focused on "shared values" and "common ground."

Abortion and marriage remain a major point of conflict between the political left and more conservative Christians, but Stabenow showed little concern.

From the conversations she's had with various faith communities, Stabenow said she doesn't get the impression that those two issues are the most important. There's a broader agenda, she said, noting that people of faith have come to her wanting to talk about poverty, peace, jobs and protecting God's earth.

"It's very easy to stereotype issues and have them be very narrowly defined, and the goal of reaching out broadly is to debunk that and talk about ... a larger set of shared values," she said.

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