Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sad Plight of the Religious Progressive

One of the frequent frustrations of being a progressive person of faith is having to read and listen to the false and malicious narratives of the religious right claiming that they and they alone represent the official religious viewpoint.

A less frequent frustration - though perhaps even a greater one - is having to read and listen to secular progressives who are so ignorant of the history of progressive political movements that they unconsciously parrot the false memes of the religious right.


Last month, Saskatchewan New Democratic Party leadership candidate Ryan Meili laid out a plan for reaching out to faith communities, and in particular to progressive people of faith.  His plan explicitly offers a counternarrative to the false claims of the religious right, pointing to global examples like Martin Luther KIng and Mahatma Ghandi and to more local examples like former CCF-NDP leaders and Saskatchewan premiers Tommy Douglas and Lorne Calvert.

The key point in Meili's plan is the establishment of a Faith and Social Justice Commission, modeled on a similar initiative in the federal NDP.  This commission would "open a space for dialogue within the party on the intersection of faith and politics," leading to the implementation of an outreach strategy to religious voters.

Meili's proposal is endorsed by former Premier Calvert:

"faith has inspired many of us to seek justice through political action.  To provide an opportunity of dialogue for those who arrive from the intersection of faith and politics will serve the party and the province well."

It is also endorsed by Dr. Mateen Raazi, a leader in Saskatoon's interfaith group Multifaith Saskatoon:

“While duly recognizing and respecting the diversity of religious opinion, this policy emphasizes the commonality of communal and social justice themes across various religious traditions. Adoption of such a policy further provides political common ground to the many whose social justice work is inspired by their religious traditions."

Unfortunately, political blogger Scott Stelmaschuk seems to miss the point, offering up a bit of secular fearmongering and the veiled hint that any outreach to religious progressives would mean compromising the party's principles.

"I fear I've editorialized this post more than I meant to, but I do think there are valid concerns to have over such a commission as this. There is nothing wrong with having a discussion, and attempting to do better to connect our values with those of faith-based groups throughout Saskatchewan; but at the same time, we must take heed to ensure that we are not crafting party policy that compromises on our own social values."

Like many secular progressives these days, Scott is woefully ignorant about the strong tradition of progressive religious political activism in western Canada and in Saskatchewan in particular, and he apears to be oblivious to the significant role religious progressives played in creating the CCF-NDP.  He assumes that people of faith who support the New Democratic Party do so despite their religious beliefs rather than because of them.  And he assumes that virtually all religious voters are anti-choice, even if some set that aside to vote for pro-choice politicians.

Scott seems to be completely unaware of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of whose members were deeply involved in the formation of progressive political movements, especially the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner to today's New Democratic Party.  He appears to have forgotten that for nearly one-third of the party's history in Saskatchewan, it was led by ordained Christian clergymen (Tommy Douglas 1942 - 1961 and Lorne Calvert 2001 - 2009).  (If we include the first Saskatchewan CCF leader, Anglican Lay Reader M.J. Coldwell who successively led the Independent Labour Party 1926 - 1929, the Farmer Labour Party 1929 - 1932 and the Saskatchewan CCF 1932 - 1934, we're well over the one-third mark.)

Somehow, according to Stelmaschuk, getting too cozy with religious people risks undermining the party's principles.  We are led to the ridiculous conclusion that those religious activists (mostly Christian activists, given the demographics of the day - though Jewish progressives played a significant role in other parts of Canada) had nothing to do with shaping the existing principles of the party.

Stelmaschuk also seems completely hoodwinked by the religious right's claim that there is only one authentic religious view on the abortion issue.  He appears to be unaware that the anti-choice consensus on the evangelical right is a recent development - indeed, it isn't as old as the McDonald's Happy Meal.  He seems similarly unaware that religious views on the abortion issue run the gamut from ardently anti-choice to as ardently pro-choice.

I grant you, many of the loudest religious voices these days tend to be pretty reactionary.  That's pretty discouraging for those of us who see ourselves as part of the long tradition of progressive people of faith.

The problem with the kind of superficial, knee-jerk reaction of people like Stelmachuk is that it plays right into the strategies of the religious right.  It alienates potential political allies, leaving us, at best, disenfranchised.  It isn't like the Saskatchewan NDP is so flush with electoral support we can discard religious progressives as an inconvenient constituency.

Indeed, Stelmachuk's shoddy analysis may be the best evidence of the need for a deliberate outreach to religious communities, and for the establishment of a Faith and Social Justice Commission within the Saskatchewan NDP.


Scott said...

Hello Malcolm,

Thanks for letting me know about this post, and hopefully you don't mind my posting a small rebuttal here in my own defense. We'll take it point by point, if that's alright.

Firstly, I have to denying being ignorant. I am well aware of the connections that the early CCF had with religious progressives, and that many of the leaders of the CCF and social progressive movement often came from a place of faith.

Let me address the abortion mention; perhaps I could have been clearer and stated that it was an example, not a be-all-end all point. I wouldn't be so audacious to suggest that all religious voters are anti-choice (as you say I am), if only because I do indeed know religious voters who do not hold that viewpoint.

I simply used that argument as an example of "issue voting"; the idea that voters tend to have a singular issue that makes or breaks whether or not they will support a party or a candidate.

Abortion was a knee-jerk prime example of this, as I have canvassed many neighbourhoods and come across voters who liked the NDP platform but wouldn't vote for us as long as we remained a pro-choice party.

Perhaps I could have been clearer on stating that this was an example, so we'll chalk that up to my error at least.

The overall goal of my post was to remind readers that politics often boils down to singular issues; whether that be abortion, same-sex marriage, taxes, health care, etc, etc, etc...

People will identify an issue that is of importance to them, and they will then find the party that best addresses that issue for them. That is one of the reasons why we see rural voters often at ends with the Conservatives; they like one or two issues and the way the party plans to address them, even though it may mean voting for ten other things that run counter to their best interest.

I think we agree that religious people have played a role in the party, as you very clearly stated in your recapping of the history of the party, and that they continue to play a role to it this day.

However, as I stated in my post, the religious people who vote from a place of social justice are already on our side. We are not alienating potential allies, because those who care about social justice already stand with us.

Those who care about living the gospels, and caring for their neighbours and making the world a little better already stand with us.

It is the ones who exist within the mindset of single issue voting that stand opposed to us. And while we may be able to get some on side, the bulk will remain opposed while we continue to espouse a single issue that they vehemently disagree with.

As I said, we can have a discussion, there is nothing wrong with that, but we must make sure that in the attempt to woo some of these singular minded individuals (and this is not a term applied to all religious voters, just to be clear) that we don't compromise on some of our values as a party.

Now, I'd hope that that clarifies things and hopefully puts on eye to eye with one another...But if you feel that we need to continue this discussion, I would be glad to clarify anything else I can.

Malcolm+ said...

Granting that short essays on the interweb are not always the most effective way of setting forth a nuanced position, you have certainly clarified a number of the points in your original piece that I found disturbing.

That said, you've drawn a very unnuanced picture of religious voters, arbitrarily divided between those who "vote from a place of social justice," who you presume are already likely New Democrats and "issue voters" who do not, will not and can never be persuaded to support New Democrat candidates. I still think you're missing the point - and more significantly, the broader context.

We live in a society where the media and the popular culture have surrendered to the religious right by parroting their narrative that to be religious (or more particularly, to be Christian) is to support right wing positions - especially but not limited to abortion and human sexuality. That narrative needs to be challenged, principally by people of faith. But political movements also have an interest in challenging that narrative. Right wing parties have become remarkably effective at targetting and persuading "low information voters," and by allowing the "religious = conservative" narrative to go unchallenged, we enable that targetting and surrender votes that are winnable.

The tone and texture of your original blogpost (and not disproven here) serves to support the right's narrative that progressives are suspicious of religious believers, if not actively hostile.

Progressive parties elsewhere (and for the purposes of this context, I include the Democratic Party in the US) have had some success countering the right wing narative based on coordinated initiatives for religious outreach. Part oif it is merely the assertion that one can be faithful and progressive. Part of it is engaging religious networks as we would other networks to advance both communications and organization. And in no small part, it is identifying ways of setting out a progressive message that can overcome the endemic messaging of the right.

As an example of the last point, the Democrats in the US have had some success in reaching out to certain segments of the anti-abortion voter universe with the evidence based argument that progressive public policies actually serve to reduce the number of abortions more effectively that efforts to restrict access to abortion. Sometimes framed as "safe, legal and rare," it makes the case that broader social supports make it easier for a woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy to choose to carry the child to term.

Malcolm+ said...

The other part of this, frankly, is the fundamental issue of solidarity. Given the increasingly reactionary depiction of religion in the popular culture and the fact that progressives have been marginalized in many religious bodies, progressive people of faith need to have secular progressives stand in solidaity with them, not dismiss them as a potential threat.

All of his leaves aside the matter of the incipient and growing anti-religious attitude that exists within the NDP. I've seen potential candidates grilled repeatedly on issues of choice and human sexuality - and their affirmations of support for party policy essentially treated as dishonest. Too many secular progressives are content to accept the claims of the religious right unchallenged - and in the process, to make progressive people of faith feel unwelcome in the New Democratic Party.

Likewise, when some secular progressives mistake the "separation of church and state' (an American constitutional construct, incidentally) with the idea that there is no place for religious perspectives in discussions of public policy, we essentially tell religious voters to go away. Personally, I'm very glad that religious voters like Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles chose to advance the principles that grew out of their religious faith by engaging in secular politics.

Frankly, the greatest threat to the party's principles is not a plan to reach out to religious voters. Over the last couple of decades we've seen a party that largely capitulated to a neoliberal economic model - a capitulation not led by religious voters. And we watched a party that, having slain the deficit, couldn't figure out what direction to take in its last decade of power - again, not the fault of religious voters. The threat to the party's core principles is not outreach to religious voters, but the steadfast refusal of the party to engage in any serious renewal since the late 1980s.