American Catholics and Faith in Public Life

By Stephanie Block

One wonders what the Maryland Catholic Conference has in common with Call to Action’s Maryland-based Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) – a feminist organization that dubbed a Vatican statement about same-sex marriage “morally embarrassing.”

The answer is that they belong to the same political coalition – Faith in Public Life – a network of progressively-minded institutions banded to “fight the right” by creating “strategic partnerships” and developing coordinated actions. 

What is the “right” they are fighting? 

Looking at the organizations that have joined Faith in Public Life gives a good idea.  In the 2740 member institutions, spanning 44 states, 150 are concerned with “gay rights.”  One is the above-mentioned Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. There are at least 27 Dignity chapters and 18 Soulforce chapters. Dignity is an organization that specifically targets the Roman Catholic Church, seeking nothing less than a complete reversal of Church moral teaching about sexuality and sin.  Soulforce has a broader mission.  It seeks “freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance” and claims that it is a misuse of religion and spiritual violence “to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God’s children.”[1]  Both Dignity and Soulforce seek full legal protection of same-sex marriages.

Does this mean that the Maryland Catholic Conference and the various Maryland Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Service offices (who are also members of Faith in Public Life) are supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage?  Yes, it does.  By involving themselves in progressive politics and helping to place progressive-minded politicians in office, by putting the force of their reputation as religious representatives of the Holy, Roman Catholic Church behind these politicians, they are supporting same-sex marriage. 

How about the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – an organization that “seeks to ensure that every woman is free to make decisions about having children according to her own conscience and religious beliefs” – and the Minnesota Catholic Conference?  What’s their common denominator?

Same answer: Faith in Public Action.  Both are members.

Along with lots of other self-identifying “Catholic” groups in Minnesota – Catholic Charities and various Catholic Relief Service offices around the state – they have banded together with organizations that seek to destroy Catholicism, namely local Call to Action chapters.  Call to Action was first convened in the 1970s to demand the Church change its positions on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and episcopal hierarchy.  It had a new vision of a “peoples’ church” that was social-justice oriented, with every parish belonging to an ecumenical community organization. 

Interestingly enough, the ecumenical community organizations receiving lots of Catholic money and made up of many Catholic parishes are part of Faith in Public Action, too.

Does this mean that the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the various Minnesota Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Service offices (who are also members of Faith in Public Life) are supporting abortion rights?  Yes, it does.  By involving themselves in progressive politics and helping to place progressive-minded politicians in office, by putting the force of their reputation as religious representatives of the Holy, Roman Catholic Church behind these politicians, they are supporting abortion rights. 

In fact, looking state by state at the map of organizations affiliated with Faith in Public Life, the same uncomfortable networking is in place.  Call to Action chapters, homosexual activist groups, ecumenical community organizations receiving millions of dollars from Catholic charity and Catholic parishes, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, and various progressive political organizations are co-workers.

§         Missouri:  The Faith in Public Life network includes the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded Gamaliel community organizations (Churches United for Community Action, Churches Committed to Community Concerns, ISAIAH, and Metropolitan Congregations United) and PICO community organizations (Kansas City Church Community Organization), the St. Louis office of Catholic Charities, and the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City on one side and homosexual and/or abortion rights organizations such as Dignity St. Louis, the National Conference for Community and Justice, and two chapters of Progressive Christians on the other.

§         New Mexico: The Faith in Public Life network includes three chapters of Call to Action as well as 10 chapters of the Call to Action affiliate Pax Christi, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded Industrial Areas Foundation community organization (Albuquerque Interfaith), Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Social Services, Dignity NM, the Diocese of Las Cruces Social Ministry, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe Office of Social Justice.

§         Florida: The Faith in Public Life network includes three chapters of Call to Action as well as 9 chapters of the Call to Action affiliate Pax Christi, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded DART community organization (People Acting for Community Together and Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity), 6 Catholic Charities offices, 7 Catholic Relief Services offices, 5 Dignity chapters, Soulforce, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

The examples could be multiplied throughout all 44 states.  In each state that is part of the Faith in Public Life network, Catholic organizations – often directly related to diocesan offices – are engaged in political activism with groups that were either created explicitly and deliberately to destroy Catholic moral teaching or implicitly.

Who’s Running This Show?

Let’s take a closer look at the men and women behind Faith in Public Life.

First, there’s Jim Wallis, one of Faith in Public Life’s founders, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, and author of several books that challenge the use of religion by right-wing politicians.  Faith in Public Life is working in collaboration with Sojourners to promote Sojourner’s Red Letter Christians. According to their self-description, Red Letter Christians are “a network of effective, progressive, Christian communicators urging an open, honest and public dialogue on issues of faith and politics. We believe and seek to put in to action the red letter words in the Holy Bible spoken by Jesus. The goal of the group is to advance the message that our faith cannot be reduced to only two hot button social issues - abortion and homosexuality. Fighting poverty, caring for the environment, advancing peace, promoting strong families, and supporting a consistent ethic of life are all critical moral and biblical values.”[2]

Keep that bit of rhetoric in mind: it’s a major talking point that resurfaces frequently.  The Faith In Public Life’s Media Bureau (Voicing Faith) provides a good sampling of the most articulate and influential personalities behind the movement. 

  • Rev. Tim Ahrens (United Church of Christ) and Cantor Jack Chomsky (Jewish) are two men are leaders in the We Believe Ohio organization, which was founded by people of faithseeking to define their faith, and their politics, outside of the domain of the religious right.”[3]  During a radio interview, Ahrens said that while the religious right calls gay marriage and abortion the moral issues of the day, his view is: “The greatest moral issue of our day is poverty.”  How does that play out in politics, however?  A July 14, 2006 Press Release issued by the group denounced political campaign tactics using religion as a weapon of attack.  Specifically, they decried a Republican assessment of Congressman Ted Strickland as a “minister who admits he doesn’t even attend church” but has voted against legislation that would protect traditional marriage, against abstinence education programs, and for same-sex marriages.  That was, evidently, an example of how the religious right “defines their faith.” As one blogger for the organization expressed it: “Appropriating ‘social justice’ for a narrow conservative agenda…the mind boggles.” 

  • Kim Bobo is another Faith in Public Life “leader.” Bobo is a Call to Action speaker who founded the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice.  She is described as seeing “conservative Christian forces monopolizing the morality-in-politics debate around such issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.”[4]  Bobo helped write the manual How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community. The manual identifies the radical right specifically as pro-lifers, naming groups such as the American Life League, and provides materials in support of abortion and gay “rights.” It deals with other issues, too, of course.

  • Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, current national coordinator for the “Catholic” social justice lobby NETWORK is a Faith in Public Life leader.  NETWORK also has Call to Action ties and a long, sordid history of connections to pro-abortion and homosexual activism.  

  • Sr. Joan Chittister, who made headlines in 2001 for delivering the keynote address at the Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference in direct defiance of a Vatican request, is another  Faith in Public Life “leader.” In addition to advocating a Catholic female priesthood and dissent against Church doctrine, Chittister is a Call to Action speaker and supports abortion as a woman’s “right.”

  • The National Council of Churches (NCC) is represented in Faith in Public Life through its general secretary, Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, a United Methodist minister.  In 2004, the NCC proposed 10 “Christian Principles in an Election Year” that it hoped all politicians could embrace.  Consciously absent were issues “on which churches aren’t united - among them, abortion and gay marriage.”

  • Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes, whose Faith in Public Life expertise is in the topic of homosexuality and the Church, is co-president of CrossWalk.  The website carries a description of Cross-Walk’s purpose “to arouse public consciousness to the misuse of Christianity in American life today. [CrossWalk activists] are Christians who want to reclaim their faith from what they believe are the distortions of the ‘Religious Right,’ that so often appears to interpret Christianity in narrow, prejudiced and even hate-filled ways….They seek to raise awareness to the fact that fundamentalists, in both Catholic and Protestant forms, do not by themselves define American Christianity.  They are embarrassed by the present alliance of political conservatives with fundamentalist Christians, who seek to impose a sectarian and moralistic religious mentality upon our population.  They are offended that negativity to homosexual persons and opposition to the century long quest by women for equality and the right to define their own life choices, are now in the public mind, the defining essence of their faith. This enterprise, known as CrossWalkAmerica, is the vehicle through which they seek to educate America.”[5]

  • The Interfaith Alliance is represented by Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy. The Interfaith Alliance describes itself as a group of religious leaders “who have been increasingly concerned about the impact the radical right is having on the nation.” The main thrust, according to organizational literature, is opposition to the Christian Coalition and carries on its website Kim Bobo’s (see above) manual How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community, targeting pro-life groups as “right-wing radicals.”

  • Greg Galluzzo, national director of the faith-based organizing network Gamaliel, is a Faith in Public Life speaker on that same topic.  

  • Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing (, a sexologist and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister is a Faith in Public Life speaker on the topic of Religion and Sexuality. According to her Institute’s Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, faith communities must “advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness,” which calls for “a faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion” and “full inclusion of …sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions.” 

  • Rabbi Jonah Presner represents the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network in Faith in Public Life.    Co-chair of a Boston IAF affiliate, Presner allows is director of Just Congregations, a social action program developed by the Union of Reform Judaism to train Jewish congregations across the country in IAF-based organizing.  Just Congregations provides the “language and organizing out of their faith tradition,” as “the language of Christianity, in particular, can make Jews uncomfortable and hesitant to participate. Exacerbating these feelings can be conflicting positions by the two faiths on issues such as abortion and gay rights.”[6] 

  • Another Union of Reform Judaism related organization is Rabbi David Saperstein’s Religion Action Center. Concerned with a vast spectrum of issues, it’s not surprising that the Center follows legislation in the area of “women’s health.”  A Center press release in June 2004, for example, applauded “the ruling by United States District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton recognizing that the Ban on Safe Abortions, misleadingly referred to as the ‘Partial Birth Abortion Ban,’ is an unconstitutional infringement of a woman’s right to reproductive choice.” It advocates for embryonic stem cell research, for Planned Parenthood funding, and for “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Equal Rights,” including support for civil marriage and religious same-gender marriage ceremonies.

  • One of the most interesting Faith in Public Life speakers is Dr. Glen H. Stassen, who according to the Faith in Public Life autobiographical information has “written extensively about the link between rising abortion rates and detrimental Bush economic policies.” 

  • Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, can speak on behalf of Faith in Public Life to the topic of religion in public life.  In an address to the Planned Parenthood National Meeting Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C., March 31, 2006, Thistlewaite spends a lot of thought on the Catholic Church and its position on abortion: “My overall premise is that political strategists are manipulating religious faith in an unprecedented way in our times…. despite reactionary religion and my own and I’m sure others’ defensive reaction, I want, within the space of this presentation at least, to create a space to think theologically in a non-reactive way about reproductive rights….. Radically conservative Christianity, on the other hand, has flatly declared that the soul is implanted immediately at the moment the egg and the sperm meet. This is currently the position not only of Protestant fundamentalists and many evangelicals, but also of the Catholic Church…. even for those who regard all abortion as the taking of human life, there is still moral precedent within especially of Christian thinking on war and peace to allow abortion. Christians have written at length on when it may be considered moral to engage in war—this is Just War theory. Frances Kissling made a cogent argument in 1991 that if war can be just, then abortion must be also.” [7]

  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center is another pro-abortion Faith in Public Life speaker.  After South Dakota attempted to pass an anti-abortion bill, he wrote “The only way to make abortion very, very rare is to make sure that every woman has all she needs to choose whether to conceive in the first place, and all she needs to nurture a child she chooses to birth. The knowledge, the empowerment, the money, the technology, the social support…. The Shalom Center did [take an active effort to prevent the confirmation of pro-life Supreme Court nominees]. And I view it as one aspect of our role, our mission, our responsibility, to raise these questions as we have raised questions about the Reform movement’s stance on the Iraq war; the Conservative movement’s stance on the rights of gay and lesbian Jews to full presence, empowerment, and visibility in Jewish as well as general life; the stance of the antiwar movement toward Israel, Jews, and anti-Semitism; and so on.”

Of course abortion and same-sex marriage aren’t the only topics the Faith in Public Life Media Bureau speakers will address.  Nor does it matter that misguided Catholic partners in the Faith in Public Life network say – and in some cases perhaps even mean – they don’t support abortion or homosexual marriage.  It doesn’t matter that they say they’re just part of Faith in Public Life because progressive politics will send more government money to the poor.  The sad fact is that as members of Faith in Public Life they are working for the very moral evils they claim to oppose.

[1] Soulforce Mission Statement,

[2]  Sojourner’s website – Red Letter Christians Initiative section,; Emphasis added

[3] “Defining Faith & Politics: We Believe Ohio” Interview with Tim Ahrens and Jack Chomsky, 90.3 WCPN Public Radio – Cleveland, aired May 17, 2006,

[4] Don Lattin, “Pushing Poverty into ‘moral-values’ debate: Some religious leaders trying to broaden description beyond abortion and marriage,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2004.


[6] Daniel Levisohn,  Assistant Editor, JTNews: “Faith Alliance reaches out to Jewish congregations,”


Part 1 - Faith in Public Life
Part 3 - Faith in Public Life: Ecumenical Politics

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