I regret having to say this, but the Christian Alliance for Progress is off to an inauspicious start.
The new organization, presenting itself as a voice of the “Religious Left” has received some national and international press coverage, and it has set out some well articulated issue statements from a progressive Christian perspective. It says it wants to form a national progressive grassroots political organization. It has also been duly denounced by the Christian Right.
But there is one really big problem.
The group’s Director of Religious Affairs and principal spokesperson, Reverend Timothy F. Simpson, thinks and acts just like a leader of the Christian Right in one important respect. He publicly accuses the Democratic Party and “the left” of being anti-religious and suppressing religious expression. It is a baseless accusation and I hope he will abandon it.
In an interview with The American Prospect, here is what Simpson said:
“One of the great problems of the Democratic Party,” he said, “is that the 5 percent or so [of its members] who don’t want any religious rhetoric at all, and who do not represent the mainstream of American political or religious life, have been allowed to call the cadence in the [party]. And when that happens, Democrats get their butts kicked. Because people in this country are believers.”
“For Republicans and Democrats, he said, openness to religion ‘is clearly the winning strategy in this, the most religious of the Western industrial democracies. You just cannot ask people to check their faith at the door of the public-policy arena and expect to resonate with any significant segment of the electorate, because that’s not where people are. And folks on the left have just got to deal with that.'”
“Simpson characterized Democrats who are opposed to the injection of religion into politics as ‘extremists,’ saying that he can call for more religion to influence politics while still advocating a clear separation between church and state.”
“‘What we think the extremists in the Democratic Party fear, and rightly so, is a Christian takeover,’ he said. ‘We’re trying to emulate the style of [the Reverend Martin Luther] King, which is more to speak to the government than to become the government — which is what the folks on the right are doing.”
I am particularly struck by Simpson’s claim that “extremists” are calling the shots with regard to religion in the Democratic Party. Its a curious, and I think reckless use of the term.
The press release announcing the formation of Christian Alliance for Progress denounced “the extreme rhetoric and political agenda of the Religious Right.” The organization’s foundational Jacksonville Statement further denounces the “extremist political goals” of the Christian Right. If the leaders of the Democratic Party are extremist and the Christian Right is extremist, what does extremist really mean?
Rhetoric aside, the simple fact is that religion and religious expression has never been banished from the Democratic Party and Simpson presents no evidence that it has. Who is this supposed group that has “called the cadence” in the party with regard to religion? And who are these “extremists” and in exactly what ways are they extreme?
Perhaps at this point you are thinking, well, maybe Simpson was misquoted or having a bad day. Unfortunately, he said similar things at a press conference at the National Press Club on the occasion of the public launch of the Christian Alliance for Progress. Here is a quote from, the nationally syndicated Knight-Ridder newspapers account:
“Simpson said at the Press Club launch, ‘There is a sector of folks on the left that have been enormously vocal about (stressing secularism), that have shouted down the vast majority of folks on the left who are people of faith, who do believe in God.'”
This, friends, is hokum.
Simpson has no evidence that the Democratic Party or anyone in it is opposed to religion or its expression in public life. There is no evidence that more secular people on the Left have “shouted down” anyone from the Religious Left. (It has certainly never been my experience.)
Could the Democratic Party (and for that matter, all other sectors of society, handle the matter of religion better? Why yes, as a matter of fact it could. But Simpson’s divisive rhetoric is no help at all.
Simpson seems to have internalized one of the central message frames of the Christian Right of the past quarter century. (I discussed this frame in detail in chapter 8 of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and some of the problems that result.)
For all of the good things the Christian Alliance for Progress stands for and has set out to do, it will gain little traction if one of its main themes is to attack Democrats and the Left as anti-religion and engaging in suppression of religious expression. We already have plenty of people who do that. We call them the leaders of the Christian Right.