Canton Repository

December 13, 2005

Liberals of faith speak up

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Recent religious-based protests against congressional budget cuts show that liberal and moderate church activists are starting to make themselves heard in a political climate long dominated by conservative Christians, religious leaders and political observers alike say.

“The monologue of the religious right is finally over and a new dialogue has begun,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical Protestant minister.

Wallis is one of the organizers of a massive prayer vigil and budget cut protest expected to draw some 300 religious activists to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

The strength of the liberal resurgence varies across the country and does not appear to be strong in Ohio.

But some observers see at least hints of more left-leaning religious-political activism in the Buckeye State, where conservative Christian groups are highly organized and a potent political force.

“I think there are religious leaders trying to speak up more about, for instance ... the budget cuts that are being recommended and about trying to cut the taxes of the rich while the poor’s safety net is being further shredded,” said the Rev. John Mann, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Canton.

Mann is among a small group of religious leaders in Stark County who have been meeting to discuss how they should respond to what they consider growing intolerance among conservative Christian leaders.

Efforts by the Republican-controlled Congress to curb growth in domestic spending through cuts in health care for the poor, food stamps and other programs have generated opposition from groups that include mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics.

Last week, representatives from the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church issued a statement urging Congress to defeat the cuts, which they said would “cause greater hardship and suffering” among the poor.

Prayer vigils at the Capitol and across the nation this week are meant to draw attention to budget cuts and tax cuts that protesters call immoral.

During a press conference Wednesday with Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Wallis blasted the budget cuts as a “blatant reversal of biblical values.”

“The faith community is outraged,” he added.

Earlier this month, religious activists protested the cuts at the congressional district headquarters of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

In Rep. Ralph Regula’s congressional district in eastern Ohio, nothing like that has happened, the congressman said.

“I think religion is a strong force in people’s lives, in the way they conduct themselves,” said Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. “But it’s not a case of their marching on me or contacting me and saying this is the way it is because of religion.”

In the district to Regula’s north, Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, said he has seen more liberal religious activism in the last couple of years.

“I hear from people, not just progressive religious people, but people of faith who regardless of their politics are more and more concerned about poverty in our society,” he said.

Rabbi John Spitzer of Temple Israel in Canton wishes there were more liberal religious activism in the area.

“In terms of the left, our community sadly has not seen the kind of activity or discussion that I think the rise of the right warrants,” he said.

The Rev. Bill Arnold, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Dover, said he has heard little talk of budget cuts in his congregation. But the Catholic priest said local support for church programs providing food, shelter and help for migrants has been on the rise.

Some observers perceive a cyclical process, as the political predominance of one religious tradition leads to a reaction against it and the rise of another group.

University of Florida Professor Kenneth D. Wald, author of “Religion and Politics in the United States,” said the religious left was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s.

“That process generated a pretty intense reaction in the mainline churches, many of whom didn’t really want their ministers to be engaged in this activity,” he said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “there were still liberals active, but there was much more activism on the right,” added John C. Green, a University of Akron professor who is senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Political Life.

Green has yet to see a rise in liberal religious-political activity in Ohio. He has noticed “something of a recovery of activity on the left” elsewhere in the nation.

Wald suspects the influence of the religious left will continue to grow.

“The Christian Right isn’t going away because it is a very strong institutional expression,” he said. “But I think you’re going to see them ... competing more for the religious voice than having it to themselves as they did in the ’80s and ’90s.”