Forum Looks at Future of Religion and Liberalism

Article excerpt

With the post-election political air buzzing with "values" talk, a capacity crowd filled a Fordham University meeting hall in Manhatten Nov. 11 to hear "the losing side," through a panel of journalists, academics and authors, think aloud about liberalism's future in a divided country.

The forum's topic, "Religion and the Future of Liberal Politics," like the election itself, inspired the kind of commentary that ends with a question mark.

But it also surfaced accusations. The panel's moderator, syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, opened with a quote from the resident liberal on CNN's "Crossfire," Paul Begala:

"The very phrase religious progressive is seen as an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or compassionate conservative, because much of the left is far too secular, even antireligious."

It was a discussion planned well before the election. Officially, it was an inaugural event for Fordham's new Center on Religion and Culture.

"The panel's aim will not be partisan strategizing," promised the center's codirector, Peter Steinfels, "but understanding obvious fault lines in American religious and political culture." Steinfels is also a New York Times columnist.

Analyzing the "fault lines" exposed in post-election polling data has become a sort of desperate duty for the losing side.

Bob Kerry, the former senator from Nebraska, began by flipping the common wisdom on its head.

"The specific subject matter of the left and religion is not as relevant to the current discussion in politics as the relationship between values and political conclusions.

"It's odd when I read polls that say 20 percent of Americans made their decision ... based on values. I don't think the pollsters understood values in asking the question."

Kerry rejected the notion that one party or politician can claim "values" over another. "The clash in politics is oftentimes between one value and another," he said.

He cited the issue of family leave, which he supports based on "what I consider to be right and wrong, what I consider to be good."

Opponents of family leave, he noted, don't say, "It doesn't make economic sense," he said. "They'll say it's wrong.

"Anytime somebody starts arguing that something is right or wrong, they may not be going to religion, but they are going to an ethical source somehow."

Mary Jo Bane, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, suggested that blame for the Democratic Party's defeat should not be assigned too quickly.

"I am not only a Democrat and a Kerry voter but I am one of those people who would check the box that I go to church at least once a week and I would check the box that values and morals are quite important to me. …