'Progressives' in the pews

When the Rev. Robert Maddox went to work as Jimmy Carter's White House faith liaison, one of his main jobs was helping Beltway politicos lose their fear of born-again Christians.

The landscape has changed radically in the past three decades. What infuriates Maddox now is that Americans now automatically assume that religious believers are right-wing Republicans.

"People on the progressive side of things have not been doing a good job getting our message out," he said, during a break in a Washington, D.C., conference for the religious left. "We rolled over and let the Ronald Reagans and the fundamentalists grab hold of the media and define what faith means -- down at the level of bumper stickers and real life."

The gathering was called "Faith and Progressive Policy: Proud Past, Promising Future" and drew nearly 400 activists. Staffers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops huddled with mainstream Jewish leaders and Muslim progressives. "Moderate" evangelicals talked shop with officials from the National Council of Churches. It was both reunion and pep rally.

Speaker after speaker said the key was finding unity in their creeds -- not strife. This worked in the civil rights era, the labor campaigns of Cesar Chavez and campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. They prayed that it could happen again.

The leader of the Center for American Progress, which sponsored the event, said exploring his Catholic faith has only made him more committed to liberal politics, said John D. Podesta, White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. His faith has also helped him identify the forces that he believes must be defeated.

"In the past 20 years we've seen the emergence of religious leaders who tried to dictate legislation and public policy from their particular set of religious beliefs," he said. "The religious leaders who attracted the widest attention were often those with the narrowest minds. Rather than use their faith in God to bring Americans together, they chose to use it to drive us apart."

Truth is, faith has become the boldest dividing line in American politics.

A wave of surveys indicate that the best way to predict what voters will do on Election Day is to study what they do on the Lord's Day. Voters who worship more than once a week vote Republican by a ratio of 2-1 or more. A Time poll says the "very religious" support Bush over Sen. John Kerry, 59 percent to 35 percent. Those who call themselves "not religious" back Kerry, 69 percent to 22 percent.

The problem, said Maddox, is that conservatives used U.S. Supreme Court decisions on hot-button moral issues to drive a wedge between Democrats and voters in many Catholic and evangelical pews. The Baptist pastor gets red in the face when describing the founding fathers of the religious right, using vivid, rodent-related vocabulary that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

"Take Reagan," said Maddox. "He started talking about abortion and, all of a sudden, he was this great Christian candidate. ... Now we're in another election year and the right is still obsessed with sex. We have to tell the American people that this isn't about abortion and it's not about gay marriage. It's about the budget, health care and the war. At least, that's what we believe."

But the moral divisions are real, said Maddox. He estimated that 90 percent of those attending this conference are pro-abortion rights and the same percentage backs gay rights. Almost all of the Christians present would clash with traditional believers on other biblical issues.

Take, for example, the familiar verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

"Sooner or later," said Maddox, " the church crowd is going to wake up and realize that there are going to be a lot of people in heaven other than us Christians. I still believe Jesus is the way and the truth -- for me. But it's that last part that troubles me, the part that says 'no man comes to the father, except by me.'

"I don't think we can get away with saying that anymore. That might have worked in the '50s, but it's not going to work in the 21st century."