Monday, July 14, 2008

Racial Justice as a Moral Value: Rallying the Religious Left and Right

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

Exit polling from the 2004 presidential election found that “moral values” stood out as the most important consideration for voters. In this election cycle, campaign strategists are focusing more than ever on how to appeal to an array of voters on a myriad of moral issues.

In his July 6th editorial in the New York Times, Stephen Carter (Yale Law School) argues that from the early years of our nation’s founding through the mid-70s, racial injustice was the fundamental moral concern of American politics. Emancipation, voting rights, school desegregation, and affirmative action made great strides toward increasing life opportunities for nonwhites. But by the late 80s, the nation’s attention had slipped to other “more pressing” moral questions, which today include abortion and same-sex marriage.

There may be some hope, however, of rekindling the nation’s concern for racial justice as a moral issue that moves beyond a celebration of a viable African American presidential candidate. Indeed, there is danger in leaving our discourse there, as if we are now a post-racial nation in which any lingering inequalities represent a lack of personal responsibility.

Rather, we can talk about two movements, one from the religious left and one from the religious right, that are of great significance to those who seek to address common moral concerns. Stephen Mansfield, the pro-life conservative and author of The Faith of George W. Bush, and the forthcoming The Faith of Barack Obama (to be released August 5th), argues that the religious right has been an effective force since Ronald Reagan, but the religious left is in the process of finding its voice, with Obama as one of its heralds.

Of course, there has always been a religious left; we need only look to Martin Luther King Jr. In opposition to many of his critics, King called the faith community to challenge government and transform the unjust laws and moral codes of society, as did the Hebrew prophets of old. Shaun Casey, Obama’s religious advisor, argues that since the religious right praises King as a model of religious involvement in public affairs, it must allow Obama to play a similar, albeit modest, role.

Concurrently, there is a movement from the religious right that shares many of the moral and social justice concerns of the left. Some conservative Christians, under a new generation of leadership, involve themselves with issues of climate change, genocide, AIDS, and global poverty. Last week, pastors from largely White, conservative, evangelical Christian churches were among the 20 signatories to a letter urging Arizona’s top officials to consider immigration laws that preserve human dignity, a position most often shepherded by Latino and left-leaning pastors.

Obama plans to attract these conservatives and bring together voters motivated by their faith to engage in politics. Perhaps he can fashion a unified front against durable racial and economic arrangements that limit life opportunities. This can only benefit our nation’s conscience, as well as our struggle toward becoming a more just, multi-racial democracy.

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