April 23, 2009
After Years of Rejecting It, Sojourners Claims the Religious Left Label (Updated)
Is the organization rebranding itself?
I received a surprising
press release e-mail last night from Jason Gedeik, deputy press secretary of Sojourners:
I wanted to gauge your interest in the first big mobilization of the Religious Left in the Obama era - a signal of the shift in power dynamics. Sojourners is mobilizing over a thousand Christian activists and 70 religious and anti-poverty groups at a conference next week in DC to prepare a new poverty coalition for legislative battle this year. This is the Religious Left filling the hole created by the decline of the Religious Right but now we have the political power and ear of the White House - definitely a new trend and a "first" within this new political era.
What's fascinating isn't really the gathering of activists. That happens all the time. What's amazing is the repeated self-identification as "Religious Left."
For decades, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has repeatedly argued that neither he nor Sojourners are part of the Religious Left.
"There is a Religious Left in this country, and I'm not a part of it," Wallis told me last year.
And earlier this year, he told CT's Sarah Pulliam he didn't like the terms Religious Left or Religious Right. "I would not be happy with labeling anyone just right-wing. That's simplistic and reductionist," he said. "Labels are shorthand, sloppy ways to describe someone."
He told The Seattle Times in 2004 that there should not even be a Religious Left. "People of faith should not be in any party's pockets, any candidate's pockets," he said. "The religious right was a political party, not a religious one. There should not now be a religious left."
"But isn't there the perception that you're part of the religious left?" Times reporter Janet I. Tu asked.
"The media only sees that," he said. "The media thinks everything has only two sides. People are hungry for a moral center."
The Sojourners website has several other quotes from Wallis saying things like, "The alternative to the Religious Right is not the Religious Left. It's time to transcend the old polarities of our public life."
In fact, his most popular book was subtitled, "Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It."
So is Gedeik off message by using the phrase? Or is Sojourners rebranding itself?
Update (9:30 a.m.): I just got off the phone with Gedeik, who said the use of the phrase is strategic.
"Part of that was to grab your attention and make you guys think," he said. "Regardless of how we want to be branded, the media likes to use phrases that are easily encapsulated. Progressive is the word Jim likes to use, but for the media progressive and Left or liberal are somewhat interchangeable."
Next week's meeting, he said, will include groups like Convoy of Hope and World Vision that "have ties to conservative elements" of the movement. "But we are a progressive movement. We don't have conservative political principles. We might have conservative theological principles, but we don't have conservative political principles."
Conservative ties not withstanding, "the overall significance of next week's event is that it's the first mobilization of the progressive religious movement," Gedeik said. "It's definitely not the religious right or conservative movement. This is our first formal coming out party."
Gedeik said that regardless of branding, Wallis's political stances and focus on poverty are the same as they have been. " It's not like we're changing," he said. "The movement is growing because we're under a different political era and times, but it's not like the movement has changed or that our core concerns have changed. It's just that the backdrop is we have a political administration that is on the same page as this movement."
When asked about Wallis's repeated desire over the years not to be labeled as part of the Religious Left, Gedeik sdaid, "Where is the line drawn between the left and the right and the middle? The line is blurred, especially on certain issues. Labels are labels. And the media makes more out of it than there needs to be. ... I don't think it's that much of a story. The story is our meeting next week."
Update 2 (9:50 a.m.): Gedeik says last night's message was not a press release. He says it was an informal e-mail message. (It went to 153 editors and writers at various religious publications.)