Magazine article The Christian Century

Can Democrats Get Religion? Left and Center Grand Rapids

Magazine article The Christian Century

Can Democrats Get Religion? Left and Center Grand Rapids

Article excerpt

Conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats don't know how to talk about faith. Religion is a Republican and conservative thing, not something that liberals and progressives feel comfortable discussing. Democrats like Jimmy Carter are exceptions that prove the rule.

The Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., wants this to change. The center, founded by John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, is a progressive think tank that wants to counter the well-funded network of conservative think tanks that support the Republican Party, such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute. It is officially nonpartisan, but Democrats are the likely beneficiaries of whatever success it has in rallying the center-left in American politics.

As part of its "Faith and Progressive Policy" initiative, the center has held discussions on moral values and politics (in Denver), faith and science (Kansas City), and the relationship between religious institutions, charities and local and state government (San Francisco). In November the center brought its faith-and-policy effort to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the topic was the economy, social services and ideals of civic life and community.

Grand Rapids is ripe for such a conversation. It is a city of churches--scores of Christian Reformed and Reformed congregations, large Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, and diverse African-American and Hispanic faith communities.

Politically, Michigan is a swing state, with Grand Rapids usually going Democratic and the West Michigan region going Republican. West Michigan has suffered from "rust belt" economic decline, with unionized factory workers losing their jobs to foreign competition and high-tech manufacturing methods. Globalization has hit the region hard for three decades, most recently with the restructuring and possible bankruptcy of Delphi Corporation, an auto parts supplier.

Marco Grimaldo, director of the center's Faith and Progressive Policy initiative, moderated the discussion, and Grand Rapids' mayor, George Heartwell, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, gave the opening remarks. The panel members were Lisa Mitchell from the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism; Beverly Drake of the Area Community Services Employment and Training Council; Jose Reyna, assistant to the city manager; and Norman Christopher, director of sustainability at Grand Valley State University.

Heartwell urged civic engagement and caring for cities as communities. He pointed to the need for vision, action and hope--hope that "lives as if" the vision is real. The panelists focused on practical issues: helping someone find a job or a home, maintaining city services and sustaining jobs.

The most striking aspect of the evening was how little discussion there was of faith. The focus on practical matters reflected the makeup of the panel and the audience. It also fit the center's goal of generating "new progressive ideas and policy proposals," and it typifies the policy-wonk instincts of Democratic activists. But it also reflects a weakness of the center-left--its tendency to neglect or assume a social vision, and its difficulty in communicating that vision in a way that attracts people motivated by their faith commitments.

In an effort to be ecumenical and nonpartisan, the panel and audience members avoided discussing their religious and political identities. They stressed instead the need to find common ground among Christians who share a faith but are divided along political lines, and among people of various faith traditions (or no faith tradition). …

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