The Democrats and Religious Outreach


Jacob Lupfer, at Religion News Service, has made a case for outreach to the evangelical community by the Clinton campaign and Democrats in general. As a Christian pastor I appreciate the sentiment but the recent Wikileaks involving efforts at outreach to Catholic progressives indicate what kind of problems can occur.

To do outreach to a minority within a community is going to be seen as against the majority. It is to wade into the disputes that mark a given religious community. In the case of the Catholic vote, Podesta, who is now Clinton’s campaign manager and helped start a number of progressive Catholic groups, was wading into the issues of birth control, abortion,  and gender equality in the church.

This is chilling and infuriating — though I suppose not surprising. It’s simply that now it’s undeniable. It shows that at the senior level of the Democratic Party’s brain trust, a Clinton political operative — a Catholic! — created front groups specifically to undermine the authority of the Catholic bishops, and to separate the bishops from the people, as well as to secretly undermine Catholic teaching to make it more friendly to the Democratic Party’s agenda. Podesta ought to be excommunicated.

That is Rod Dreher on this effort. On the one hand he admits Podesta is a Catholic. And it is clear from the Wikileaks that there is no influence or impact to be had in the Catholic church by setting up such groups. The goal was to connect with the progressive grassroots. It has to be bottom up change. So a Catholic works with other progressive Catholics and Dreher’s response is

 It’s clear now that believing Christians are going to have to fight these powerful, deceptive, amoral progressives for the rest of our lives. Dark days ahead. A Catholic friend e-mails to say, “So we knew the KGB infiltrated the Russian Orthodox Church, but who knew the Democrats were sponsoring activists inside the US Catholic Church? Wow.”

So connecting Catholic progressives is “infiltration.” A neat rhetorical trick because it means of course that Catholic progressives no longer have to be listened to.

But consider the case of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has received money from top GOP operatives. They have worked with social conservatives in mainline Protestant denominations for decades and has been at the center of the civil war that has wracked these churches over LGBT inclusion, feminism, and understandings of the Bible. There main goal is to turn the denominations right and if failing that, make sure such churches make no progressive policy statements.

The most recent success was having the United Methodist Church withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ending a 40 year plus membership. If progressive religious groups move right or are silenced, it feeds into a religious and political narrative that places religion solely on the right. And never once has Rod Dreher or any other conservative commentator condemned such a move.

Instead when I asked one conservative about the IRD I was told

is trying to maintain fidelity to orthodox Christianity in the mainline. That’s not exactly, subversion.

Inherent in such a view is that to be a conservative is the natural flow of a religion. It’s not an imposition to coordinate with conservatives in any religious group. But progressives cannot do this without “subversion”.

Especially is when you are making a connection, coordinating with a minority (the definition of a conspiracy?), which Democrats in the evangelical community are, know that you are going to be seen as “waging war” against the majority. You are an infiltrator.

The problem with such a view is that it makes the minority in those communities the enemy. When Democrats are organizing progressive Catholics and this is called “waging war” where does that put progressive Catholics? The presumption is that the minority is working on the behest of the outside party. Which is what the American Association of Evangelicals recently claimed against progressive evangelicals.

The result is that those of us who are progressive and Christian are not seeing as having our own views with integrity. We are just part of a “conspiracy” as Rod Dreher calls it.

And that natural flow of religion as conservative is such that if the Democrats only reached out to progressive religious groups, then the accusation would be that they are not really reaching out to religion.The only way it could be possible to do outreach was to mute support for LGBT folks and find ways to give in on abortion rights. Because that would indicate religiosity in the way that us progressives are not allowed to claim.

I suppose a third approach would be to reach out to natural allies in communities that are not institutionally supportive. But given the problems that just caused, that does not appear to be a possibility. So should the Democrats be doing religious outreach? What would that look like that doesn’t ignore progressives, in religions and outside of them? Or maybe it is the outreach by both parties that have hurt the integrity of all sides.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma. His opinion on this election is his own and does not reflect his church or denomination.

2 replies »

  1. From Ross Douthat:

    on the Podesta and Co. emails mocking conservative Catholic converts and envisioning/backing a liberalizing “Catholic Spring” …
    I’m not sure it’s that helpful for critics to call this stuff “anti-Catholic.” Yes, it does, in a sense, partake of certain old slurs.
    But the echoes of old Protestant lines about Catholicism’s awful medievalness mostly reflect the fact that the Protestant critique …
    has been semi-absorbed by modern liberal Catholicism, and now supplies part of the narrative for one side of the Catholic civil war.
    That’s what there is to see here: Not anti-Catholic “bigotry” (an overused word), but a window into how the Catholic civil war is fought.
    In this case: Through alliances between liberal institutions writ large and the more progressive wing within the church.
    Those alliances, as @PhilLawler notes, are hardly new: … And they have often involved $.
    Pro-choice Catholic groups were reliably funded by liberal foundations:
    We already knew the left-wing Catholic groups Podesta mentions were funded by George Soros.
    Only news here is the way Podesta makes the implicit explicit: Liberals regard conservative RCs as prisoners of authoritarianism ..
    in need of liberation by enlightened forces, secular + religious. And the reality is that his vision is shared *within* Catholicism.
    Including, up to a point, at high levels within the church. So calling it “anti-Catholic” just doesn’t seem to fit.
    Any more than it would necessarily make sense to describing an alliance of Western $ and liberal Muslims as “anti-Islam.”
    What’s being contested isn’t whether Catholicism is good or bad; what’s being contested is what Catholicism *is*, and can become.
    Podesta et. al. think they’re *helping* Catholicism. that, like Mormonism sans polygamy, a more sexually progressive church will flourish.
    And while conservative Catholics can point out links between this progressive vision and the Protestant anti-Catholicism of yore
    .. they should recognize that in confronting Podesta-ish ideas, they aren’t defending a united church against political hostility.
    They’re dealing with assistance being directed to their co-religionists, to help win contested territory within the Catholic sphere.
    My only point, I guess, is that performative outrage is an inadequate response if it fails to acknowledge the extent to which …
    Catholic identity and (increasingly) teaching are contested in ways that encourage this kind of “friendly” intervention …
    and will continue to encourage it as long as the internal contest continues unresolved. (Which is to say, as far ahead as I can see.)

  2. As Catholics and other denominations we pick and choose what we “must” believe. We then expect others to choose sides. Churches have entered the political arena more so possibly since Roe v Wade, Catholics Vatican II and John the twenty third. Perhaps we need to acknowledge not all sins are illegal. If those in the pulpet can’t convince their parishes what is a sin then maybe the church hierarchy needs to do some thinking. The pews may be empty because the various religious orders are out of touch with the world and Jesus Christ’s teachings.

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