Religion in a different voice; politics of a different tone

by Joan Chittister

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Two issues consumed me this week: one an interview, the other a
ttconference. They are distinct events but, I am convinced, very deeply
ttconnected, as well.

In the first event, an NPR interviewer out of Florida asked me a
ttquestion that began like this: “We know that the last election was decided
tton moral values ...”


“Correction,” I interrupted her. “The last election was
ttdecided on some, on a few moral values. We ignored the rest of


The second event took place in Washington, D.C., May 17-20, the
tt“Spiritual Activism Conference.”

To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t expect many people to come.
ttIt opened with an early morning session. What’s more, it was a kind of
ttopening before the official opening of a three day event. At a jamboree like
ttthat, nobody goes to every session, however committed they may be.


By the time I got there, 30 minutes before the session was to start, the
ttchurch was packed to the rafters; more than 1,100 people were registered and
ttwalk-ins streamed in. It was a conference of “Spiritual
ttProgressives,” almost all of them officially representing an organization
ttrather than simply themselves.


If there is any single phenomenon going on in the world of politics
tttoday, it is clearly the proliferation of small religiously inspired groups
ttintent on relating public issues to traditional moral principles.


The only difference between this situation and the national political
ttworld of the 2004 election is that this time the groups have a leftist, a
ttliberal or a progressive bent -- depending on whatever euphemism appeals to
ttyou. Once caught off-guard by the political sophistication of the religious
ttright -- the breadth and depth of its national organization and its
ttsingle-issue public agenda -- progressive groups this time are clearly intent
tton providing another voice, a new accent to the language of religion on the
ttnational scene.

Many of the liberal groups are long-established supporters of a
tttraditional populist agenda: Tikkun, Sojourners, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of
ttReconciliation. Many more are newcomers to the political scene, fresh and
ttintent but small and basically separate from one another in everything but
tttheir common concerns about ecology, poverty, the social safety net, peace and
ttU.S. foreign policy.


The list of conference supporters itself was a clear reminder to those
ttwho substitute demographic dominance for political philosophy that the United
ttStates is not “a Christian nation.” It is a nation founded
tt“under God” which, for past historical reasons, is still a nation
ttwhose religious majority is predominantly Christian, yes, but even those are
ttsplit into a myriad of creeds, liturgical rites and spiritual practices.


No surprise then that the list of conference sponsors and affiliates
ttincluded Buddhist groups, Humanists, the Progressive Muslim Union, the Shambala
ttSun, Jewish organizations, New Dimensions, the Christian Alliance for Progress,
ttand Pace e Bene. Among a host of others.

Unlike the Rightists, these groups are largely independent of any single
ttor official church body. Translation: They are not being either spearheaded or
ttfunded by any religious body.


Nor are they politically defined as either Republican or Democrat. Many,
ttin fact, have given up on both parties and are simply looking for candidates
ttwho espouse a moral view of the world that is global in scope and universally
ttjust in its intentions.


They are, therefore, largely lay organized but spiritually inspired. The
ttfeeling seems to be that it was ministers, priests and bishops who got us the
ttpresent Administration. Now time has shown us that elections are too important
ttto be trusted to clerical groups. Anybody’s clerical group.


This time, then, they are determined to bring lay theologians,
ttethicists, activists and professionals to bear on the moral issues of the time
ttrather than trust the soul of the nation to any such single issue groups


The next election, the thinking is, has to be about all of the
ttcommandments, not just one or two of them. Otherwise the globe, as well as the
ttcountry, may well be in very serious danger from the moral issues to which we
ttare now paying very little attention at all: peace, education, economic
ttdevastation of the working class, the ecological destruction of the globe and
ttlife issues of all ilk rather than simply a few.


But there is another strain to the thinking, as well. Republicans, the
ttargument contends, talked religion well during the last election. They
tthighlighted some very important issues -- family values and moral questions,
ttfor instance -- which are a concern to everyone, left and right alike. But they
ttdid not legislate for them. They legislated for the wealthy and the war
ttmachine, instead.


Democrats, on the other hand, the argument goes, have abandoned the
ttreligious voice of the nation, simply do not speak the language at all, and so
ttreligious people are abandoning them, as well.


But isn’t there an underlying but unspoken question under such
ttconcerns that is at least as important as the issues themselves?


From where I stand the question is: What is really the most religious
ttthing for a political party to do? In a nation that preserves the people from
ttan established religion in order to guarantee religious freedom for all the
ttpeople, is it really necessary, even acceptable, at all desirable, for a
ttpolitical party to speak in any one religious voice? Or is its responsibility
ttto present the most universally ethical platform and ideals it can, in behalf
ttof a common, universal good, and let religion speak for itself?


Maybe, if we went back to doing that, we might all be able to judge
ttwhich religions are really most religious, most ethical of all, rather than
ttsimply which religions, instead of which political party, won the election.

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