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Reviewed by David R. Swartz


Leveling the Playing Field?

A report on the evangelical Left.

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Of John Kerry's many liabilities in the 2004 presidential campaign, religion was perhaps the most debilitating. During the campaign one Kerry staffer brushed off a Catholic supporter with the comment, "We don't do white churches." Another refused to allow "Pro-lifers for Kerry" signs at campaign events. When Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis announced that he would not serve Kerry the Eucharist because of his pro-choice views, the media staked out Catholic masses in a "Wafer Watch." The candidate himself, while by all accounts a pious man, came off to voters as an imperious Brahmin Catholic uncomfortable talking about spirituality in public.

The Democratic leadership only compounded the Kerry campaign's ineptitude in dealing with religious conservatives. During the campaign Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe stuck out his hand to mega-church pastor Rick Warren, by then already anointed the new face of evangelicalism, and said with a blank look "Nice to meet you, Rick! And what do you do?" Soon after, the DNC rejected Bill Hybels, a registered Democrat and leader of Willow Creek Community Church, as a speaker at the 2004 National Convention. Kerry's sole staffer devoted to religious outreach joined a campaign armed with hard drives full of data on veterans' groups, labor unions, and leaders in the Asian American community—but nothing on evangelicals or Catholics.

Four years later, presidential candidate Barack Obama is trying to remedy Democrats' neglect of religious conservatives. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Obama's infusion of evangelical code language into campaign rhetoric and his forays to Rick Warren's Saddleback Community Church, this year's campaign clearly points to a new attentiveness by Democrats to a demographic long thought lost to political progressives.

Cheering on Obama is Amy Sullivan, an editor at Time magazine and author of the timely book The Party Faithful. An evangelical Democrat herself, Sullivan offers sharp words to Democrats and religious believers alike. She scolds theologically conservative evangelicals and Catholics for allowing themselves to be co-opted by the Republican Party. Forty percent of evangelicals are politically moderate, she points out. How then has Focus on the Family's James Dobson managed to set the evangelical political agenda? Sullivan also excoriates Democrats, who were arguably more conservative on issues of sex than Republicans as late as the early 1970s. Dismissing religious voters as backwoods rubes, she contends, has lost Democrats millions of religious votes in the last three decades.

Sullivan's manifesto is largely persuasive. Her proposal on abortion—essentially the Clintonian approach of substantively reducing abortion but not outlawing it (i.e. "safe, legal, and rare")—shows some promise of finding common ground between younger religious conservatives and the Democratic Party. Her analyses of the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s, Roe v. Wade, the political evolution of ethnic Catholics, and the relegation of Catholic politicians to the party's margins, while derivative of historians such as John McGreevy, shows a remarkable sensitivity to religious nuance missing from the screeds of most political pundits.

Sullivan shines too in her historical analysis of evangelicalism. Clearly attuned to the tradition's history, idiosyncrasies, and political ambivalence, Sullivan tries to broaden and texture the public's sense of what an evangelical is. She acknowledges the radical egalitarianism of the Great Awakenings and the social reform movements of the 19th century. She nimbly outlines the political impulses of fundamentalism and the new evangelicalism. She discusses the so-called "young evangelicals" of the 1970s, including groups such as the intriguing Christian World Liberation Front, a conservative Campus Crusade chapter at U.C.-Berkeley turned radical; a handful of progressive InterVarsity chapters; the Post-Americans, renamed in the mid-1970s as Sojourners; Evangelicals for McGovern, the first partisan political organization of the twentieth century formed by evangelicals to elect a president; Evangelicals for Social Action; and the Chicago Declaration.

This latter document, written in the wake of profound disillusionment with the Nixon presidency, denounced militarism, racism, sexism, economic injustice, and "Nixon's lust for and abuse of power." For several heady years, progressive evangelicals met annually at a series of Thanksgiving Workshops and enjoyed the attention of the evangelical and secular media. Sullivan makes much of this annual event, framing an entire chapter around the 1973 Workshop at which the Declaration was written.

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