After watching a documentary in the Virginia Commonwealth University campus commons this fall that questioned the existence of the historical Jesus Christ, Jonny Cecka, a 44-year-old graduate student, had a flashback. It came during the discussion after the movie. A student remarked that he thought its mocking tone took away from the points the filmmaker was trying to make.
"Christianity should be mocked," spat back a girl who, Cecka recalls, looked "very punk rock and very cute." What she said resonated with him, because it was something a younger, more punk-rock Jonny Cecka might have said himself before a spiritual awakening of his own.
"So there's this girl saying something that could have come out of my own mouth," he says, "and I stood up and said, 'You wouldn't mock Martin Luther King Jr., would you?'"
The exchange represents an emerging paradigm in the age-old debate over religion and politics. For the last 30 years, the religious right has been viewed as holding a monopoly on religious authority in politics, but lately the left has been embarking on its own religious movement. It's taking root with political activists like Cecka. Liberal politics and spirituality don't have to be mutually exclusive, says Cecka, who recently launched the Richmond chapter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a national group that bills itself as an alternative to the religious right.
His interest in dovetailing spirituality and politics comes at an interesting time for the Democrats, who are jostling to win over "values voters" they'd written off in the past.
In the 2004 election, the popular theory was that values voters delivered the White House to George W. Bush. But Bush's subsequent fall in the polls has opened a window for Democrats and independent candidates to get religion, says Shaun Casey, who teaches Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
"A lot has to do with pent-up disgust of the Bush administration," Casey says. "For seven years you've gotten a line of policies that have repulsed a lot of people: the war, the growth of domestic poverty."
Issues that many see as neglected by Bush such as poverty resonate with faith communities, says Doug Hicks, associate professor of leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond. "Progressive voices these days have a special concern for the poor, have a special concern for peacemaking," Hicks says.
Rather than Cecka's punk-rock refugees, Casey sees possible pickups for the Democrats among evangelical and Catholic voters who are distressed that Bush didn't deliver the end-of-abortion presidency they hoped for. They just might be persuaded by a religiously rooted social justice argument from the Democrats.
Democrats seem eager to add God to their arsenal. Whether grassroots progressives have gotten religion recently, like Cecka, or had it all along, like King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, those groups are attracting more attention as Democrats aggressively push their faith.
It's something that Bush's opponent in 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, wishes he'd done sooner. Despite hiring nationally known evangelical organizer Mara Vanderslice as his religious outreach director in 2003, Kerry was criticized for not articulating his Catholic faith to the voters sooner. Recently, Kerry has acknowledged that his inability to tell the story of his Catholic faith, how he prayed for his life in the foxholes of Vietnam, was perhaps a key factor in losing the race.
Others are following his lead. During the 2006 midterm elections, Vanderslice (who spoke at VCU Dec. 3) coached seven Democratic candidates, getting them to address the importance of reducing unwanted pregnancies when talk turns to abortion rights. She also helped the candidates shift the conversation to emphasize protecting God's creations in the environment and helping the poor solid Jesus territory.
All of them won.
Others point to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's march to the Executive Mansion in 2005 as a watershed: When Kilgore attacked Kaine's opposition to the death penalty, seen by many as a major weakness in the campaign, Kaine refused to apologize. As a Christian, Kaine told voters he couldn't support capital punishment, but vowed to uphold the law if put to the test.
"Tim Kaine came along when Democrats were asking 'Who can do this?' and his campaign bought radio ads on Christian radio, and they were brilliant. [He said] my faith is at the center of my identity, and it's why I entered public life," Casey says. "It showed that the American public was hungry for a political message that was grounded in some form of authentic faithful discussion."
The message went over big, and was even "attractive to a lot of people that wouldn't have voted Democratic," Casey adds. While Kaine seems to have successfully added faith talking points as a strategy to neutralize an attack, Democrats who simply declare their faith aren't necessarily going to peel off values voters, cautions Thad Williamson, a leadership professor at the University of Richmond.
"One thing that happens when you get a Republican administration that is so disliked is that progressive movements of all types sort of flower in response," Williamson says. "It would be hard to figure how much is the progressive stuff and how much is the theological voice."
Just because the right is dissatisfied with the president, says Williamson, doesn't mean its members will abandon their own organizations; they may transform to meet a new set of goals instead of crossing the aisle.
"Another angle that I think is interesting is that some of the more conservative groups have gotten interested in poverty issues," he says. "I don't think it's the case that there's a huge block of left-wing Christians out there that can be tapped into that can be the margin" that spells victory for Democrats.
Which suits Cecka just fine. While he certainly doesn't agree with the religious right, he sees their rise to power as instructive. Witness the gap between the religious rights' expectation of the Bush presidency and what it has yielded on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.
Despite Williamson's warning, it does appear the timing couldn't be better for Democrats to start courting values voters. Pat Robertson, after all, recently vacated the religious right's most important issue abolishing abortion and threw his support behind pro-choice Republican Rudy Giuliani.
"The religious right made a mistake by getting in bed with the political right," Cecka says, who is, attempting to become a Richmond delegate at the Democratic presidential convention in 2008.
Still, he doesn't want his movement to become just another wing of the party. "I'm disappointed with the Democrats. I think a lot of the major Democrats have sold out to their financial interests," he says, adding that Ohio Representative and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich is his kind of guy.
He'd like to build his religious left movement slowly, and he's willing to lose some elections by supporting the ethical candidate instead of the electable one.
"What's the most politically successful thing to do? Screw that," he says. "Do the right thing." S