At the risk of grinding an old ax, I'd like to call attention to an article by Michelle Cottle that's up on the New Republic web site. Reviewing the reception on the Left to Sen. Hillary Clinton's abortion speech from last week, and to the Rev. Jim Wallis' emergence as a spokesman for how progressives can address people of faith, she says Clinton's approach makes a lot more political sense. Her main argument is that Wallis is telling lefties too much of what they want to hear--i.e., that true Christians are more worried about poverty than sexual issues--while Clinton is trying to broaden the Democratic Party's appeal to people who think otherwise. without abandoning progressive policy positions.
I tend to agree, with a few qualifiers. For one thing, I love Jim Wallis, who has been perhaps the most compelling figure on the Religious Left for many years. And to the extent that Wallis is out there reminding everyone, including his co-religionists, that fidelity to Holy Scripture does not necessarily, and in fact, does not obviously or logically, involve homophobia or anti-feminism, he is serving a function that transcends politics.
But I share Cottle's concern that many of Wallis' disciples among secular-minded Democrats are not terribly interested in the following the steps of Jesus, but in taking the path of least resistance in dealing with negative perceptions of the party among many people of faith, and among cultural traditionalists generally. That path is simply to take conventional Democratic policy positions and wrap them in God-Talk.
Jim Wallis can obviously pull this off, because for him God-Talk is how he talks all the time. But in the mouth of your basic Democratic politician, telling people that Jesus wants to preserve Social Security or withdraw from Iraq will sound both disingenuous and insulting.
Meanwhile, Sen. Clinton is doing something entirely genuine that defies all the stereotypes about Democrats: trying to find common ground on which people who violently disagree on abortion can stand. Sure, Right-to-Life activists won't applaud, but the larger group of people who are troubled by the frequency of, and motivations behind, abortions may, if Democrats continue this approach. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Clinton is doing something that goes well beyond the abortion issue: making it clear that in defending individual rights, Democrats are not ignoring the social implications of individual decisions that worry many Americans. In other words, she is taking seriously the belief of cultural traditionalists that the blessings of modern life carry a cost in the quality of our overall culture in a way that negatively affects our future as a people and as a country.
Cottle's also right that Wallis' interpretation of Christianity, much as I share it, will not quickly or certainly prevail among Christians who have been led to confuse cultural conservatism with the universal demands of their faith. My own simple formulation of the political challenge this poses is that politicians who want to prove something to people of faith need to articulate (to use the Christian formulation) both Old Testament and New Testament values: a clear sense of right and wrong along with an inspiring call for love for one neighbors, and even for one's enemies.
If Democrats, religious or not, learn to speak with the moral certainty of the law and the prophets, then people of faith might not only be reassured, but could well start demanding that Republicans learn to speak with the charitable impulses--and commandments--of the Gospels.