The left got into trouble when it lost its ethical moorings, said Tony Blair. Influenced by the Christian socialism of John Macmurray, Blair saw New Labour as heir to the communitarian traditions of ethical socialism and New Liberalism. That was in 1996 and after the harsh economic liberalism of Margaret Thatcher, it seemed to be just the message British voters were waiting for.
Today Clive Hamilton is searching for a a new progressive politics — something beyond the familiar politics of unions, welfare and the environment:
…despite the suspicion of many progressives, the churches could be the answer. Traditionally, the churches have attended to and represented the deeper aspects of life, those that transcend the individualism, materialism and selfishness that so characterise modern affluent societies. It is in this transcendent concern that I believe we can find the roots of a new progressive politics—not in the institutions of the churches themselves but by rediscovering those aspects of life that, at their best, the churches articulate and cultivate.
In the United States, Democrats are reaching out to Christian voters. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that, among white voters, mainline Protestants and Catholics are swinging away from the Republicans. Of all the Christian groupings, only evangelicals remain loyal to the GOP.
The Bush administration’s bloody war in Iraq, it’s disregard for the plight of the poor, and it’s deafness to warnings about climate change, have lost it the support of many values-based voters. Left leaning Christians like Jim Wallis are itching to fight Bush on these issues. The editor of Sojourners magazine, and the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Wallis spoke to Mother Jones last year :
The Right is comfortable with the language of religion, values, God talk. So much so that they sometimes claim to own that territory. Or own God. But then they narrow everything down to one or two issues: abortion and gay marriage.
I am an evangelical Christian, and I can’t ignore thousands of verses in the Bible on [another] subject, which is poverty. I say at every stop, “Fighting poverty’s a moral value, too.” There’s a whole generation of young Christians who care about the environment. That’s their big issue. Protecting God’s creation, they would say, is a moral value, too. And, for a growing number of Christians, the ethics of war—how and when we go to war, whether we tell the truth about going to war—is a religious and moral issue as well.
I think the Right has made a serious mistake in adopting a moral-values strategy, because they’re winning in the short run. [But] in the long run, they’re going to lose this debate because they won’t be able to restrict it to two issues. Once you open that door to a values conversation, it’s going to undercut a right-wing economic agenda, which values wealth over work and favors the rich over the poor, or resorts to war as the first resort and not the last. To quote the White House, when it comes to moral values in this discussion, I say, “Bring it on!” Let’s have the conversation, because the Right’s going to lose this debate in the end. But not if the Left doesn’t even get in the conversation.
One Democrat who’s eager to take on moral issues from a Christian perspective is Senator Barack Obama. In a speech earlier this year, Obama called for "a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy." He argued that:
…when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome – others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don’t reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical – if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.
Some pundits think Obama ought to run for President in 2008. And there’s no doubt that some Australian politicians will be following his progress closely.