The religious left.

The religious left.

The religious left.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 5 2006 12:41 PM

The Religious Left

It is fruitful and has multiplied.

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Though the data is sketchy, voting experts believe Muslims went for Bush in 2000 because they agreed with his social conservatism, but switched to the Democrats in 2004 because of the Patriot Act. Like blacks and Hispanics, Muslims often like Republican values on social issues but look to Democrats to defend their civil rights.

Conflicted Catholics: Liberal Catholics are like liberal Protestants and Jews on poverty, war, and the environment. Slight differences arise around gay marriage and abortion. Though more pro-choice than Hispanics or blacks, liberal Catholics tend to feel guiltier about abortion. The real difference may not be in the policies they support—the majority want abortions to be legal but restricted, just like the majority of the rest of the population—but in their attitudes toward pro-life people. Liberal Catholics are less likely than secular liberals to hold pro-lifers in contempt. Even if they disagree with church theology and skip Mass, their religious background makes them respect the heartfelt nature of the anti-abortion position.


To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions. And even as they fight to keep abortion legal, the Dems shouldn't mock pro-life advocates as sexually repressed theocrats or describe abortion as merely a surgical procedure.

Religious feminists: This is perhaps the newest faction. In aiming to win for women the right to control their own bodies, feminism ran up against the patriarchy of many religious institutions. Some feminists, however see spirituality as an important part of their lives and have begun trying to bring faith into their movement.

Helen Hunt, a major feminist activist and fund-raiser, last year published Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance—with an introduction by Gloria Steinem, of all people—which claimed that feminism and spirituality have always been linked. Jane Fonda revealed in 2000 that she had been born again and believes her new Christian passion feeds rather than contradicts her feminism. "I think feminism is another way of teaching what Jesus taught, that we are all full human beings with the right to have our humanity seen and respected," she said in an interview.

The tricky part, of course, is abortion. Choice has been central to political feminism for decades, and it's not clear how religious feminists will react to Democrats' efforts to court Catholics and ethnic voters by promising to reduce the number of abortions.

In sum, though, after years of being fractured and relatively impotent, the religious left now seems organized and energized. Where abortion and gay marriage threatened to divide them a few years ago, opposition to the Iraq war and immigration restrictions now unite them. This is not necessarily good news for secular liberals, who tend to think that all the religious mumbo-jumbo entails a dangerous mixing of church and state. But they may swallow their distaste if they think it will help them win elections.

Addendum, April 7, 2006: Some readers have interpreted this line—"To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions"—as me advocating that the Democrats fib. I can certainly see how the line would be read that way! But I was intending to be sarcastic, taking a too-subtle jab at Democrats for their reluctance in the past to talk about reducing abortion as a goal. I don't actually advocate that they build lying officially into their strategy.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.