Time Magazine Covers Progressive Faith - 30 Years Later

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Rev. Ron Stief Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

A quick search of Time magazine covers since I left high school (1975) reveals that unless I missed something, prior to this month's feature on Democrats and Faith, the last time anything even closely resembling progressive faith and politics made it to the cover was in 1977. It was, you guessed it, our beloved Dan and Phil Berrigan with the headline "Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans."

It has been a long dry spell. Covers in the three decades since (1977-2007) feature a virtual rogues gallery of the religious zealots who have been running this country since the mid-1970s -- Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Jim Dobson, and yes, the empty chair of the Oval Office of Time's 2004 cover story (Faith, God and the Oval Office). Here, the editors sensed there was a new faith movement with Democrats afoot, but the Democrats were too timid and afraid to find out what it was -- thus ensuring that President Bush would regain his throne.

The empty chair of the Oval Office in early 2004 is where this month's story in Time began, and where this first phase of Time's reporting will likely end with the 2008 Election. This is the election where religious progressives will not just assert themselves electorally, but will get credit for shaping an election where swing candidates of either party will need to promise to get us out of Iraq, increase non-military foreign assistance, end discrimination against gays and lesbians, restore environmental sanity, and re-build an economy that has long neglected health care, tax fairness, and social equity.

Of course, this dream platform of religious progressives doesn't always play out quite so cleanly on the ground in the rough and tumble of electoral politics, as the some bloggers have pointed out. Some now fear that religious progressives who link with candidates may be helping to build a "new socially conservative" faction of the party by avoiding divisive issues like gay rights and abortion and sticking with issues that have broader appeal. Yes, healthy skepticism of the role of the media in reporting the mixing of faith and politics is always appropriate, though the last time I looked, the Democratic Party really does do a better job covering the priorities of religious progressives. Trying to hope that religious progressives will cave to the middle might be what the media wants, but this isn't what they are getting, and it's only a matter of time before they figure it out.

For example, religious progressives by and large resisted the temptation to listen to Democratic candidates and the media who were afraid that our criticism of the war would play into President Bush's hands early in the 2006 election cycle, before it was "popular" to be against the war. Beholden to neither political party, the Washington, D.C. Office of the United Church of Christ, which I was directing at the time, made a decision to join with our colleagues in Move On and others to make the utter moral tragedy of the Iraq war a central theme in our election 2006 outreach to our churches. The prominence of the Iraq war in the election and the results for the Democratic Party make the point without a need for further comment from me.

Another example was when Evangelicals, Protestants, Quakers, Catholics and many others (including myself) joined for a historic act of civil disobedience on the steps of the Cannon Office building organized by Jim Wallis and Sojourners in December 2005 to protest the immoral cuts slated for the poor in the FY 2006-07 federal budget. Democratic operatives counseled against it, worried that breaking the law for justice would embolden the law and order right wingers, yet the effect of this action is widely recognized to have done just the opposite. It bolstered wavering Democrats who knew where the moral imperative was in the debate, yet were just plain worn out and about to cave under the pressure of President Bush and the then-Republican controlled Congress (though the battle was clearly going to be lost).

Both of these political organizing drives of the religious community leading up to the 2006 election, framed specifically in the realm of electoral politics, emboldened Democrats and even a couple of Republicans, to be better progressives. Not better conservatives. This is a movement of people of all faiths in dialogue with political leaders, mostly Democratic, about how to lead on moral issues that go beyond the old religious right boxes of faith, flag and family, abortion, guns and gays, and it is anything but conservative.

That the press is paying attention to the personal faith of the leading Democratic Presidential candidates (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards) is simply based on who these particular candidates are. All are deeply religious, while respecting clear boundaries between faith and secular life. None of the candidates so far have exhibited tendencies to try to take advantage of the faith community as simply a constituency, nor should they. Yet all have claimed their rightful role as moral leaders of this country who can help lead the transformation of American civic and religious life into a future that is less mean-spirited and more open to truth, justice and fairness. This is the religion of the founders of this country, equally cognizant of the moral demands of justice and insistent on the social demands of religious freedom through strict separation of church and state.