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Religion and the Future of Liberal Politics


NEW YORK— Presidential politics were still very much on the minds of the nearly 400 people who crowded into Pope Auditorium one week after Election Day to hear a discussion on “Religion and the Future of Liberal Politics.”

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) headlined a panel that included Mary Jo Bane, Ph.D., professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Mark Sargent, J.D., dean of Villanova Law School; and James Kelly, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Fordham University. Syndicated columnist and author E.J. Dionne moderated the Nov. 11 event, sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.

Kerrey, who served in the Senate from 1989 to 2000 and is now president of New School University in Manhattan, said the left has always had trouble with religion. Over the past 20 years, the perception has emerged that the priorities of the Democratic Party are in opposition to religious values and the church.

“That was certainly true in Nebraska,” said Kerrey, of his days representing that traditionally Republican state. “There is a sense in middle America that people on the coasts are know-it-all jerks. The perception is that the left doesn’t understand the values of the big red mass out there, and they’re not going to vote for you.”

In order for Democrats to gain traction and legitimacy with voters motivated by religious values and reclaim some of the moral ground now dominated by the GOP, the panelists agreed that Democrats need to put forth their own values-based agenda built on issues including social justice, economic equality and tolerance. The left, too, must acknowledge that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are non-negotiable for many conservatives—including some conservative Democrats—and there needs to be some room for discussion on these issues within the Democratic party.

Mark Sargent said among Catholic intellectuals who participate in his online forum,, there was a profound division on abortion and war. Those Catholics who believe abortion is “intrinsically evil” voted for Bush. Those who believed issues of war and peace were more important in this election voted for Kerry. But there was a third group of Catholics who view abortion and war as deal-breakers, and they did not cast a vote for either presidential candidate.

As the right celebrates another four years and the left regroups, it’s important to remember, said Mary Jo Bane, that the red and blue map that so neatly divided the country isn’t a true representation of American politics. Gray  might be a more appropriate color for most states, and that, according to Bane, is an indication that the time is right for honest dialogue across political parties and religious groups about our country’s future.

“We must ask across our differences and divisions what we see for our country,” said Bane. “Both the liberal progressive tradition and the Christian tradition challenge us to do that, even at times when it may not be reciprocated.”


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