If you are waiting for a religious left to emerge to offset the power of the religious right, it may already be in your own neighborhood at a local church or synagogue. I stumbled across a branch of the religious left quite by accident recently, in Texas of all places, though the folks I met would say I was guided to them by the Lord.
On a weekend in mid-February, nearly 200 Evangelical Lutherans from all over the country came to Fort Worth for the Congregation-Based Organizing Strategy Summit or CBOSS. They talked, planned, and prayed about community organizing. They shared stories about what they had already accomplished through faith and hard political work.
They had demanded action from public officials and corporate leaders in their communities, and they were proud of their victories. Among the local triumphs some of them claimed were: affordable housing for thousands of families; guaranteed access to health insurance for all children; treatment centers instead of prisons for criminals; a new community center where a meth house used to be; free day-care centers; water and sewer lines for 150,000 rural poor who had none before; laws requiring public contractors to pay a living wage; surveillance cameras in police cars — to watch the police themselves.
The list of victories went on and on. In every case devout Christians, often allied with secular activists, had put enough pressure on public officials to turn empty promises into real results. These Christians did it all because they felt called by the Lord to do His work, to create justice in the world — and because they’ve learned the rigorous, disciplined organizing techniques pioneered by Saul Alinsky, who created the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1940s, and Ernesto Cortez, who then sparked Alinsky-style organizations from the barrios of Texas to the valleys of Los Angeles.
The Christians I met at CBOSS pray endlessly to Jesus, but their savior is no meek and mild turner of the other cheek. He is the Great Organizer. He agitates, builds political tension, and goes toe-to-toe with any authority who abuses power to oppress people. He is the model of a fighter for justice who won’t ever quit until the wrongs of the world are righted. This Jesus has political values as radical as — maybe more radical than — yours. He offers his followers eternal life in heaven. But first He demands that they work to create justice on Earth every day by practicing the arts of tough political love that He taught so long ago.
They call their political work “faith-based community organizing,” or sometimes “congregation-based organizing” to avoid confusion with George Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” which is a very different thing. In Bush’s approach, religion is supposed to take the sin out of the sinner. That, congregation-based community organizers will tell you, is a case of blaming the victim. The problem lies not in the supposed sins of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. The real sin is an oppressive economic and political system that deprives people of rights, resources, and hope.
That sinful system flourishes — as they reminded themselves many times over in the CBOSS meeting — because the powerless let the powerful get away with it. When the powerless heed the divine call to organize, they can exert enough political power to force sinners to mend their ways, and so to mend neighborhoods, schools, and social institutions that their greed has destroyed.
I happened to meet only representatives of the Lutherans, but progressive Christians, it turns out, are everywhere. The Lutherans organize in interfaith coalitions with Catholics, other Protestants — and increasingly Jews and Unitarians. In some locales, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faith communities are joining in, too. They also work hand-in-hand with non-religious, non-believing activists — even out-and-out atheists. If you are involved in any kind of campaign for justice, these are people you want on your side. They will probably support most of the same causes you do. In fact, they may already be working for many of them.
To be perfectly frank, all their God-and-Jesus talk may make you nervous. A whole weekend of it made a non-Christian like me kind of twitchy. If your knowledge of Christian activism comes mainly through television and radio, you probably hear words like “congregation-based” and “faith-based” and think “conservative” or even “fanatic.” If you hear “baptized” and “resurrection,” the words “Bush” and “right-wing” undoubtedly come quickly to mind. No wonder Christians make us nervous.
I went to CBOSS as an outsider, accompanying my partner, the director of Interfaith Funders, a national consortium of faith-based and secular grant-makers who support faith-based community organizing. (Their website is a great resource for learning more about the nature of this community.) But at the closing session, when they called for evaluation and feedback, I decided to join in.
I asked the Lutherans to understand how hard it is for secular activists like me to hear their talk. I said they should cut us some slack when we seem anti-Christian to them, or mistakenly lump all activist Christians together as “the religious right.” I urged them to overlook our trepidation and work with us for common political goals. They gave me a rousing cheer. The spiritual godfather of their movement, Rev. John Heinemeier, a minister who transformed whole neighborhoods in the Bronx and Boston, came over to shake my hand and tell me how much they need to hear that message.
But we need to hear their message, too. There is nothing inherently conservative in Christian language. It can point in any political direction, even the most radical. After all, it’s the language of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers. If all that stuff about “the power and glory of Christ” and “all praise to the Lord” makes for knots in your stomach, or even a gag in your throat, let it be. Put it in the same class as those aching feet after a long day of leafletting or your aching head from an all-night organizing meeting. It’s just a price to be paid to get our political work done.
We’ll pay a much bigger price if we let the Christians’ God-and-Jesus talk keep us from making alliances with people like those at CBOSS. If we want to make social change, the faith-based are the people to work with. Their organizing techniques are among the most sophisticated I’ve seen. They’ve built at least 180 ongoing organizations in cities and towns across the country, often linked in huge networks like PICO, the Gamaliel Foundation, the DART Center, and the Industrial Areas Foundation. By some estimates, they involve nearly 6,000 congregations, with a total membership of some two million or more.
We’re not talking about single-issue coalitions that win a victory and then dissolve. These are religious denominations that have been around for centuries. And they plan to stay around for centuries more. They can tap into powerful national organizations with immense resources. Most important, they have an almost inexhaustible energy. They get it from all that praying and singing and talking about God. So the next time you hear someone praise Jesus, stop and ask them about issues like health care, a living wage, affordable housing, and police brutality. You may be surprised to find an invaluable ally for your own activism.
True, there may be some issues dear to your heart that you and some of these Christian organizers don’t see eye to eye on. Their views on social issues like abortion and gay rights span the spectrum from radical to conservative. But faith-based organizers have learned a vital lesson from Saul Alinsky, one all of us should absorb: To build a broad political base, have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. Work with anyone who shares your current goal. If there are some subjects that might create tensions, just don’t talk about them, at least until the goal is won.
At the victory party, you may discover that your Christian allies have turned into friends. You may find that now, over a beer, they are ready to listen to your views on subjects once too tense to talk about. But watch out. They’ll be praising the Lord for turning the world toward justice. And their enthusiasm is infectious. You might be astonished to hear yourself praising the Lord, too.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea and later this year will publish Monster to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.
This article appeared first, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.