The main reason why the Religious Right became powerful is not what most people may think. Some would undoubtedly point to the powerful communications media. Others might identify charismatic leaders, the development of “wedge issues,” or even changes in evangelical theology in the latter part of the twentieth century that supported, and even demanded, political action. All of these and more, especially taken together, were important factors. But the main reason for the Religious Right’s rise to power has been its capacity for political action, particularly electoral politics.
Meanwhile, over on the Religious Left, many of the ingredients are present for a more dynamic movement. But the ingredient that is most remarkably lacking on the Religious Left is the one that made the Religious Right powerful: a capacity for electoral politics. Indeed, there has never been anything on the Religious Left on the scale of say, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority or Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition—or even any of dozens of significant Religious Right groups—including the 35 state political affiliates of Focus on the Family—that have had any significant national or regional electoral muscle.
Conservative evangelicals have figured out what it means to be a Christian and a citizen. This new identity easily integrates Christian nationalist ideology and notions of Christian citizens’ place in history, which in turn helps to inform and to animate their politics. It is in this sense that the ideology of Christian nationalism—America as a Christian Nation—mixes with theology. It appeals to those invested in the idea that they are living in the end times (á là writer Tim LaHaye and Pastor John Hagee) and non-apocalyptic, long term theocratic political activists.
While many fine organizations on the Religious Left, broadly defined, register voters and even mobilize them when elections roll around, I know of none for whom building electoral power and changing elections is a central activity. Even worse, some see electoral politics as a waste of time and even a tacit endorsement of the excesses of the power structure. I do not agree with such dour assessments, nor do I think that electoral politics is a panacea.
Here is what I do think:
I think that anyone who is serious about the distribution of power in this constitutional democracy, and who wants to accomplish anything much, needs a broad electoral strategy that is central, not peripheral to their activities. This also means developing the capacity to carry it out in practice and not just on paper. That is why I think that the Religious Left, in order to create a more just society, is going to need to take electoral politics more seriously— and not just as a happy religious auxiliary of the Democratic or any other party.
Getting a few religious leaders to stand up and say, “We are Christians, too,” as a counter to the Religious Right in the media is fine, as far as it goes. But electoral politics is a defining activity of constitutional democracy in America. With unions on the wane, it is the principal avenue for gaining sufficient popular power to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized via government and public policy—as well as to address the entire constellation of progressive concerns. And by electoral politics, I do not mean merely voting or encouraging others to do so. I mean actually mastering the mechanics of electoral politics and sustaining a permanent activist presence in our communities, unconnected to the fortunes of one or another candidate. And not just a shell group (or group of shells) to be revved-up only in the run-up to an election.
Part ofthe genius ofthe Religious Right, particularly the once-formidable Christian Coalition, is the way they work across election cycles to build their capacity to affect electoral outcomes—recruiting, training and organizing support for candidates—particularly in party primaries for offices at all levels. They also systematically register like minded-voters and developed the capacity to turn them out on Election Day. And they keep good databases instead of having to start from scratch from existing voter lists in the run up to each election. In other words, they mastered the contemporary tools and mechanics of electoral democracy.
People can write letters, and organize phone banks, lobby days, protest marches, and prayer vigils —but what if those who hold elected office are not interested in listening? Obviously, it is far better to have people in office with whom we agree (or mostly agree) than people who don’t. So the answer is to elect better public officials.
But how would a more politically dynamic Religious Left go about this? Many contemporary progressive electoral efforts have adopted the organizing methods popularized by Marshall Ganz, a former organizer for the United Farm Workers who now teaches organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ganz found that successful organizers and organizations focus on one-on-one recruiting, the development of personal political relationships, and leadership training, all aimed at expanding the pool of progressive voters and activists. This method builds on the cumulative experiences and best practices of social justice organizing from the labor, women’s, and civil rights movements, among many others.
I describe some useful models taken from the liberal/left in my essay in Dispatchesfrom the Religious Left: the Future of Faith and Politics in America (from which this commentary is partly adapted) . These organizations recognize that building for power takes time, patience and hard work — regardless of town or constituency. People’s personal and group political behavior changes only slowly, as a general rule. But it can, and it does. One of them is the Boston-based Neighbor-to-Neighbor, which focuses on the long term political empowerment of low income communities of color.
Neighbor-to-Neighbor began in 1996 after an analysis showed that 47 House districts ought to have more progressive representatives than they had. Using grassroots organizing, leadership development, electoral campaigns, legislative lobbying, and voter registration and education, the group “built power” in low-income and working-class communities.
Neighbor-to-Neighbor has a remarkable record of turning around the problem of low levels of voter participation in lower- income urban communities. For example, in 2002 the group dramatically increased voter turnout in low-income precincts of several cities. These included increases of 185 percent in Salem, 900 percent in Lynn, 210 percent in Leominster, 589 percent in Fitchburg, and 131 percent in Worcester. This contributed to the election of progressive candidates in several cities as well as two progressive Democratic members of Congress, James McGovern of Worcester and JohnTierney of Gloucester. Sustained organizing in Worcester, Salem, and Holyoke was a deciding factor in the 2003 election of progressive, Latino city councilors in those cities.
The group’s success is based on “targeted organizing” around what it calls “The Working Family Agenda.” This agenda comprises “good jobs, education and training, affordable child care, health care and housing, and a welfare safety net.” Their methods include year-round intensive voter contact and issue mobilization across the election cycle, followed by personal, telephone, and mail contact during electoral campaigns. “With year-round voter engagement,” its director Harris Gruman said, “you change the equation dramatically. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics until the presidential campaign comes around.”
Navigating the Non-Profit Tax Code
Even with such hopeful models, many on the Religious Left still fear the stumbling block of the federal tax-code. It is also controversial, not least because the Religious Right consciously bends and breaks the rules to advance their political and electoral interests (and they largely get away with it) . While the Internal Revenue Service, aided by several watchdog organizations, has been better enforcing the laws in recent years, the question of abuse of the tax code and fear of the tax man has many progressive organizations understandably wary.
Fortunately, there is also a lot of experience in integrating citizen education and engagement that are well within the perfectly reasonable and understandable IRS rules governing tax-exempt organizations such as churches and service providers.
An excellent example was pioneered by Boston Vote, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization founded in 1999 to encourage social service and other nonprofit agencies in low-income urban areas to register their clients to vote, and help to turn them out on Election Day. Boston Vote offers a model that allows progressive social service agencies and religious organizations to integrate nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization into their existing programs. Boston Vote has since gone statewide and is called Mass Vote. The organization has developed basic materials and low-to-no-cost training to help nonprofits register and educate people to vote, and to mobilize others, as well as to eliminate barriers to participation to a variety of disadvantaged groups.
A critical distinction helpful for anyone trying to navigate all this is between citizenship and partisanship. Learning about and practicing voter registration and electoral mobilization are functions of citizenship, not unlike obtaining a drivers license or filing tax returns. Applying that knowledge to a particular candidate or political party is partisanship. Naturally, applied citizenship inevitably means making choices of whom to vote or advocate for or what party to join. Or whether to exercise those options at all.
The Religious Right was able to advance as far and as fast as they did because other constituencies did not keep up, or never really engaged on the playing field of electoral politics altogether. All that has happened over the past few decades in the wake of the rise of the Religious Right is one of the consequences of the series of choices that were made not to keep up or to seriously engage.
There is no reason why religious progressives cannot band together within broader progressive coalitions, to fully engage as citizens, allowing them to live up to the promise of their most prophetic and pragmatic leaders. This is the stuff of basic empowerment in electoral democracy, as the much-honored but too often forgotten African-American civil rights movement taught us.
We can learn and master the tools handed to us by the generations that have brought our constitutional democracy this far. If we do, a vibrant and politically dynamic Religious Left can be a powerful part of the coalition necessary to bend the arc of history towards what Martin Luther King Jr. called justice.