New groups add broader Catholic views to politics

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

PHILADELPHIA -- If the election of November 2004 was the darkest hour for believers of a certain progressive bent, the dawn apparently was not far behind.

That election represented the zenith of the religious right, that loose amalgam of conservative evangelical and mainline Christians who for more than 20 years had owned the religious corner of the political landscape. The religious right had had almost exclusive control over the language of religious politics, the definition of what it meant to be religious, the issues to which the term “moral” could be applied.

Against the forces that gave Americans “value voters” and a politics defined by opposition to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage, a counterforce was gathering. Groups and individuals who felt their faith was misrepresented in the public square began to mobilize, from Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, to other progressive evangelicals to Catholic social justice lobbyists and peace activists.

Sr. Simone Campbell arrived to take over as director of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, the day before the November 2004 election. For Catholics, the campaign had been dominated by Sen. John Kerry’s run-ins with several bishops and the language of “values” had been largely confined to the hot button issues.

“There was a pushback by those of us who worked in a more progressive vein, who see faith as broader than just those three issues,” said Campbell. Though Network is one of the older actors on the scene, around for more than 30 years, it quickly allied itself and the more than 100,000 individuals it represents to several of the new efforts. It was a principal sponsor of the Convention for the Common Good, July 11-13, in Philadelphia.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, was one of those sought by Democratic Party leaders who, frustrated after Kerry’s loss, wanted to know how the party could better speak about religion and its values. Reese is considered an expert on the role of Catholics in politics.

“People who were religious but not tied up in the conservative religious movement, felt that religion had been hijacked,” Reese said. “They went into politics because of a religious commitment, a concern about the poor, for instance. It was actually their faith in many cases that had pulled them into public service.” But the Democrats had been both tone deaf to such religious motivation and downright hostile to religion itself.
That was about to change. Wallis made the claim in his 2005 book, God’s Politics, that “most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion — progressive religion.”

This story and more on these groups appear in the Aug. 8 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

As an evangelical convinced that religion’s influence in the public realm should not be confined to a few issues, Wallis sensed in the evangelical world a waning of the power of the old guard, represented by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who had built the movement in close alignment with the Republican Party. Wallis saw instead the growing influence of a new generation who sought a broader conversation

A parallel movement was underway in the Catholic world. “People began to see we have to retrieve religious language,” Reese said. “There are a lot of things in Catholic social teaching and straight out of the scripture that make sense” in certain political circles.

Belief got a boost from real world success. Gov. Timothy Kaine, a Democrat and a Catholic, won in Virginia in 2005 after a campaign in which he openly spoke about how his beliefs influenced his career. “Most of us in this line of work have a significant motivator,” he said in a 2007 interview with “For me, it was an experience that I had as a young man in Honduras working with missionaries that really transformed the goals of how I wanted to use my life. … I can’t answer the question of why I run without talking about my spiritual journey.”

That was new language not only for Democrats but also for anyone whose religious motivation was expressed differently from that of the religious right.

In the living rooms of Democratic politicians, in think tanks such as John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, and among religious organizations, a new strategy, even a new boldness, was brewing. Some were old hands, like Network, Pax Christi and a range of men’s and women’s religious orders. Others were new groups. They included the Matthew 25 Network, Catholics United, and Catholic Democrats. They met at the Convention for the Common Good to map out a strategy that would take religious politics out of the hands of the religious right.

One of the groups to emerge from the welter of concern after the ’04 election was Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Executive director Alexia Kelley, a veteran of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, who was exposed to the Catholic social justice tradition while studying at Harvard Divinity School, thinks organizations like hers resulted from “a common desire among Catholics to have a united voice and message.”

She and others believed “the notion of the common good is absent or eclipsed in the public square. We have something to offer our politics, which is so divided and based on the ‘you’re-on-your-own-mentality.’ ”

Catholics in Alliance is one of the broadest coalitions to materialize, and it strives to be one of the most bipartisan of the new breed. Kelley insists that the church’s social tradition arcs over party lines and that the common good should provide common ground for discussion. It, along with Network, organized of the Convention for the Common Good.

In the heat of a political year, however, the culture wars and the differences in party positions don’t concede to such ideas so easily. Try as they might, organizers of the Convention for the Common Good were unable to attract anyone from Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign. Of the more than 800 who showed up for the event, a majority was clearly more sympathetic to liberal and Democratic positions than otherwise.

“We talked to both campaigns,” said Kelley, coauthor with Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, of what might pass for a movement book, A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division. She hopes Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good can become one of the growing number of groups, like Faith in Public Life, that will help “break the categories” of current politics.

By any measure, that’s a daunting undertaking. E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in his recent book, Souled Out: Claiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, that easing the tensions of the culture wars has been “especially difficult because we underestimate the extent to which politics has invaded our discussions of religion and morality.”
Where once theological issues divided denominations and faiths, he says, “the core divisions among religious Americans, and particularly Christians, are no longer defined by theological issues. The splits are political.”

Campbell, of Network, noted, “One of the things we had to learn at Network was to use faith language that connects both with policy and with the heart. Before, faith language was just a given; we didn’t speak out of it. It was like the most sacred part of us. The part we hate about the right is having it rammed down our throats. We overreacted by not talking about it at all, instead of talking about it in a way that was integral to us.” Now she looks for “language and ways of speaking authentically that communicate the greater vision.”

How far the “pushback” goes is yet an unknown. But Campell, Kelley and others hope that new language and new “space” will help change the political conversation.

[Tom Roberts is NCR news director. His e-mail address is]

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters