“There is a thirst for two things in this country – a thirst for spirituality and a thirst for social justice”.
— Jim Wallis (2008)
When people hear the words “progressive” and “evangelical” together, a sort of cognitive dissonance occurs. Meshing the notions of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson with ideas of social justice is not something most people easily understand. For the people inside this new movement, however, being an evangelical and progressive is a natural fit.
This spring I went to a fundraiser for Tom Periello, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia. The small crowd was generally young and professional, and after talking to them it was clear that this was not just about raising money, it was about changing the dynamic between religion and politics and creating a new progressive religious movement. In the crowd were movement activists including members and employees of Sojourners, Common Good Strategies (CGS), and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG), all organizations that are part of a new social movement that is aligning Catholics, evangelicals, and other Christians.
Members of this progressive religious movement see their work as fundamentally different from other conservative religious activists. As one founding member told me “How can you be a Christian and not care about issues like poverty and health care?” Like the others I spoke with, he told me the 2004 election was a turning point and call to action, expressing concern for social justice, a hope for something better in 2008, and an affirmation that faith has a new voice in politics.
The Roots of a Movement
Many social movements in the United States have gotten their roots from within religious communities; from the abolitionist movement and temperance movement, to modern civil rights and anti-abortion debates, religious groups and churches have offered their voice and power to social movement activism. While many of these movements worked toward specific goals through a variety of religious organizations, there has also been a previous history of social movement action occurring because of conflicts within religious organizations. Most notably of course is the Protestant Reformation, which sprang from within the Catholic Church as a result of corruption. Many people became disillusioned with the Catholic Church because they saw too close of a connection between the Catholic Church, government, wealth, and power.
One could argue that we are witnessing something similar among evangelicals in the United States. The close alignment between many evangelical leaders and the Republican Party over the last 30 years has resulted in a growing dissatisfaction from some evangelicals about the appropriateness of these close ties. Once thought of as an unstoppable alliance between the Republican Party and the conservative evangelical movement, there has been a new movement from evangelicals to advocate for policies that are more traditionally aligned with the goals of the Democratic Party.
In a recent article, Pastor Rev. Rich Nathan of the Vineyard Church of Columbus stated, “Lots of people feel that the evangelical label has been taken captive by a very narrow political program . . . Folks don’t feel that that represents them. Many of the so-called evangelical leaders are saying, we didn’t elect these people, they don’t represent us.” This sense that religion has become captive to politics has sprouted a growing frustration from evangelicals and a new call to action for many.
The New Movement
This sentiment is congruent with recent research by E.J. Dionne and John Green (among others), which points to an increasing tension and a chance that the alignment between evangelicals and Republicans is fraying in some circles. While some may be unaware of this movement, there are many evangelicals who have fundamentally different notions of what it means to be a Christian than the Religious Right. This attitude that being a real Christian means moving beyond the three issues of gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research normally associated with the evangelical movement is spreading. New organizations, networks, and political alliances created since the 2004 Presidential election are part of a new social movement that combines what many would see as conservative religious ideas with central aspects of progressive politics.
While several recent news articles have begun to cover this change, including a story in Newsweek and a cover story in Campaigns and Elections, few have noted that this phenomenon is part of a larger organized social movement effort. Made up of five organizations, four new—We Believe Ohio, Common Good Strategies, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Faith in Public Life—and one long standing—Sojourners—these loosely connected groups were founded by religiously and politically committed individuals who see each other as kindred spirits, fighting for a political cause that is fueled by their religious beliefs. Members of these groups knew each other before the 2004 Presidential election, but it was not until the wholesale failure of the Bush administration to address issues of social justice that they began to come together in various organizations and form sustainable movement activity.
Even though religious actors have always had a part in progressive social movement and political activity, these alliances have usually come from within the mainline and liberal religious traditions. This new alliance between evangelical activists and the Democratic Party has surprised many, perhaps especially some of those within evangelical churches. The last time I met with members of these groups was at the fundraiser in Washington DC for Mr. Perriello. On Mr. Perriello’s website there is a glimpse into his ideas about the role of religion in politics.
Since 2004, Tom has helped to launch a political and social movement in this country that is credited with shifting the national debate about America’s national priorities. He helped found FaithfulAmerica.org and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which brings together faith communities to fight for children’s health care, supporting a minimum wage, environmental stewardship, and responsible solutions in Iraq. Inspired by the prophetic vision of Dr. King, Wilberforce, and Micah, Tom believes that American must reverse the erosion of our commitment to the common good.
At the fundraiser, audience members discussed how they became part of the movement. One CACG employee related to me how he quit his previous job to join CACG after hearing about their work. He found their name in a newspaper article and asked what he could do to help the cause, leaving his former occupation behind for the movement. This integration of a personal call to action with a political cause was most apparent after Mr. Perriello’s speech when one of the audience members urged others to give to the campaign stating, “As a person of faith it is often hard to grasp sacrifice, but as a first world Christian I try to give till it hurts and I urge you to do the same.”
This mixture of religion and progressive politics bridges the gaps between religious traditions. While Mr. Perriello is Catholic, he is part of the movement effort that includes evangelical actors. His campaign is being run by Eric Sapp, a former Capitol Hill staffer and evangelical activist. Additionally, Mr. Sapp is not only Mr. Perriello’s campaign organizer he is also one of the co-founders of Common Good Strategies, a Democratic consulting group which is central to the movement’s new political efforts. CGS is currently working in four states (AZ, MI, OH, and VA) to create grass-roots movement networks within these states, hoping to create sustainable, new, politically active, but religiously grounded, movements within these states.
In addition to specific campaigns, there has also been a more general integration of religious messages into public discourses by the Democratic Party. For example, the first ever debate among leading Democratic candidates about religion and the role of faith in their public lives was conducted in April 2007. Sponsored by Sojourners Call for Renewal (a liberal evangelical group that is headed by Jim Wallis), the forum included segments with Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards about the role of religion in their political decisions.
Following on this theme, in April 2008, the organization Faith in Public Life sponsored The Compassion Forum, a two-day conference that according to founders “will offer candidates an unprecedented opportunity to reach religious voters.” What was perhaps most curious about this discussion was not who was present (both Clinton and Obama participated), but who was not present, John McCain. McCain was the only candidate to turn down his invitation to attend and has publicly stated he does not believe faith should play a large part in the election. This almost complete reversal by the two parties has left many commentators wondering who the religious vote will go to this election.
Barriers to Mobilization
The strategy of using politics built on religious ideals has been successful for the Republicans; however, whether or not a similar strategy will have the same impact for Democrats remains to be seen. While they may be less organized than the political right, the religious left consists of about 7% of the public, which is not much smaller than the 11% who identify themselves as members of the “religious right.” The importance of these numbers, and what they can mean for political races, is what the Democratic Party is banking on in 2008.
However, one clear stumbling block for the Democrats are Republicans like Mike Huckabee, who promote many of the same policies of help to the poor and health care for all, but do it under the banner of the Republican Party. With Republicans like Hukcabee on board, they could steal the thunder from the Democratic Party and any hopes of an alliance between themselves and evangelicals. Of course, since the Republican nominee will be John McCain, who is far less connected to the religious voting population, the chances for a Democrat to make inroads to religious voters is greater than probably expected.
A second problem the movement faces is one shared by all social movements, creating and maintaining local movement activity. While it may seem that the old Religious Right movement is disintegrating in many ways, building a new progressive religious movement is not a certainty. Finding that sustaining movement activity was much more difficult than anticipated, organizers have engaged in a strategy to build a permanent political base by working with young religious people. One way they are doing this is to run a campaign over the summer known as “Common Good Summer.”
Playing on the ideas of Freedom Summer, which organized college students to reach out to Southern blacks during the Civil Rights movement, Common Good Summer would bring college students from the Washington, DC area together to increase the level of local, sustainable, progressive religious movement activity. The Common Good Summer participants would in effect become mini field directors, setting up canvasses, phone banks, outreach, and mapping of faith communities. Of course, the goal is not only to generate voters for the 2008 election, but also to create lifelong activists similar to the young men and women who were part of Freedom Summer. As one of planners of Common Good Summer stated, “The training and enthusiasm will help us with this election, but we’re hoping it will also provide them with the resources and understanding of how we are running this race that will seed similar efforts in future campaigns throughout the country.”
The final problem that this new movement faces is obstacles from within the Democratic Party. While many party leaders are excited to bring religion on board and beat the Republicans at what was once their game, there are others within the party who view the separation of church and state and the maintenance of a strongly secular state as paramount to winning over religious voters and elections. However, since most people in the United States view the intersection of religion and politics as natural—with two-thirds arguing that the President should have strong religious values, a statistic that has not changed much over time—the likelihood that these secular groups will have their voices heard seems to be somewhat diminished. This intersection of politics, religion and activism from within religious groups has the power to change, but it can also find itself mired in a world of politics that disregards norms of right and wrong. Of course, the next step is to see how well these efforts pan out in 2008 at the ballot box.