[Paleopsych] Economist: Churches and politics: The religious left
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Churches and politics: The religious left
Nov 18th 2004 | CHICAGO AND MINNEAPOLIS
Well, it does exist--but not in an organised way
THE next time you are in Minneapolis, you may like to visit St Joan of
Arc church. Its weekend masses are packed; the congregation has
doubled to 4,000 households in the past 12 years; the median age of
its members is much lower than that of most other churches. It sends
do-gooders to a sister parish in Guatemala, and professional musicians
often stop by to jam at mass. This liberal Roman Catholic church hit a
bump recently when conservative critics complained to Rome about some
of its practices, including an open door for homosexuals. The bishop
tried to intervene, but met a wall of protest from parishioners. St
Joan's pastor, Father George Wertin, says that he is mindful of the
church's teaching, but remains committed to inclusiveness and social
There has been much hand-wringing among liberals about the growing
influence of conservative Christians, particularly since so many
voters cited moral values as a key reason for re-electing George Bush
on November 2nd. But there is a religious left in America, too; and
some of its leading members want a louder voice.
"We intend to be as articulate and aggressive as our evangelical
counterparts," says Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from
Pennsylvania who leads the National Council of Churches (NCC). The
country's largest ecumenical group, representing 36 Protestant,
Episcopalian and Orthodox denominations with a total of about 50m
members, the NCC was a force for change in the 1960s and 1970s, but
has seen its influence wane since then. Now Mr Edgar, himself a
minister, says that it seeks a renewed discussion of "public values"
like poverty and war, not just the "private piety" of abortion and
homosexual marriage. "When Jesus met the woman at the well, he didn't
ask her sexual orientation. He loved her."
Not everyone is convinced of this approach. Jean Bethke Elshtain, of
the University of Chicago's divinity school argues that focusing on
"nitty-gritty" issues like poverty and war is a hard sell. "No one
wants poverty, but there are so many proposals to deal with these
intractable social problems." She worries that the clergy is more
liberal than its parishioners are.
First breed, then retain
Numbers are on the conservatives' side. Data compiled by the NCC show
that at least half of Americans go to religious services once a week
or more. Within that number, the Roman Catholic church, reinforced by
immigrants, has seen its numbers rise. So have the generally
conservative evangelical, Pentecostal and Mormon churches. The more
moderate Episcopalians and "mainline" Protestant groups such as
Methodists and Presbyterians, continue their long decline, albeit more
slowly in recent years.
Few churches are undivided in their ideas: consider the Episcopalians'
ructions about the appointment of an openly homosexual bishop. But the
trend has been to the right. A survey several years ago of more than
1,200 congregations in America reported that nearly 60% of the clergy
described their congregations as theologically conservative, compared
with 29% moderate and 11% liberal. The congregations of most of the
new megachurches that have sprung up across the suburbs in the west
and South are conservative. Slower-growing New England had the largest
proportion of liberal churches.
Mike Hout, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley,
points to two things favouring conservative churches: demography and
"retention". The softer sort of Protestants have not been breeding as
prodigiously as evangelicals have. Moreover, conservative churchgoers
are more likely to keep their children in the flock: as many as 85% of
the children of evangelicals become adult members of similar churches,
whereas liberal Christians are a good deal more likely to lose their
children to secularism. The Presbyterians, good for them, have now
"closed the retention gap".
What passes for the religious left still patently lacks the
organisation of the right. Divinity students at the University of
Chicago launched a website (thereligiousleft.blogspot.com) days
after the election, and gathered for their first meeting this week.
Protestants for the Common Good, formed in 1995 to counter the impact
of the religious right, has an overtly leftish agenda. Larry
Greenfield, an ordained Baptist minister who works with the group,
sees growing "re-engagement" that he hopes will match the civil-rights
and Vietnam-war struggles of the 1960s.
Mixing religion and politics, of course, can be a nasty business.
Safety precautions had to be taken at Presbyterian churches across
America this week after a threat that churches would be burned if an
"anti-Israel" policy was not reversed--an apparent reference to the
church's decision some months ago to divest itself of companies doing
business in Israel.
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