Thursday, February 24, 2005
Why liberal Christians should read 'The New Republic,' part 1.
Happy 90th birthday, TNR! Before we get to the Reinhold Niebuhr-tinged anniversary issue, though, a look back: Last week's issue included an article by John B. Judis that really ought to interest liberal and non-right-wing Christians and other religious liberals. Judis writes about the Texas IAF community organizer Ernie Cortés:
When I had seen him in Washington [last September], Ernie had insisted that George W. Bush was going to win because Karl Rove and Ralph Reed knew how to organize and the Democrats did not. He feels vindicated by, although unhappy with, the outcome. "The Republican strategy was developing organic infrastructure," he tells me. The GOP, he explains, worked through churches and urged parishioners to get their fellow parishioners or their neighbors to the polls. By contrast, he says, Americans Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn "parachuted" volunteers into places where they had little in common with the people they were trying to organize. Afterward, they vanished. "They left nothing behind," he says scornfully. He thinks that, if Democrats want to win elections, they have to rebuild the "institutional infrastructure" that used to exist around churches, union halls, and precincts, but he doesn't think ACT or MoveOn have any interest in this kind of patient, person-to-person organizing.
("Organic Chemistry," John B. Judis, New Republic 2.21.05, sub req'd)
The organic infrastructure of liberal churches.
There's a theme here that I emphasized back in December when Democrats where overreacting to the suggestion that their presidential candidates need to learn to talk about religion more effectively: Democrats need some "thick we's":
How liberals talk matters a lot — just not quite so much as panicked secularists who are anxious about the prospects of a Democratic altar call have led us to believe. From a political standpoint, it's not the lingo or the credo that matters; it's congregational life itself — communities of people who know each other, share commitments, interact regularly, and influence each others' choices — that makes religious communities powerful and that made Republican religious outreach so effective this time around. You might say that while Democrats were finessing "message," Republicans were working the coffee hour.
What Democrats need to do is recognize the importance of "thick we" voluntary associations in which people invest their time and generate social capital — and churches, synagogues, and other religious communities are perhaps the most enduring examples of the associations in which many Americans find themselves part of a "thick we."
("Thick we" is a term I learned from organizational consultant Douglas K. Smith's fascinating book On Value and Values: Thinking Differently about We in the Age of Me. You can find a great basic introduction to his idea in a Fast Company profile, "We, Incorporated" (7.04). I asked Smith to apply his ideas to congregational life for the cover story of the latest issue of UU World, "Whatever Happened to We?")
Don't get me wrong: I don't want churches — moderate, liberal, or conservative — to become partisan instruments because I think the very idea of a Democratic or Republican church violates the theological insight of Jesus' famous statement, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s." At the same time, as voluntary associations in a liberal democracy, churches and other religious organizations are powerful local and sometimes even national institutions. Some congregations may wish to pretend that they are not powerful, or even invest considerable energy disempowering themselves (by hiding their light under a bushel, or wasting energy in fruitless internal fights, or embracing indifference in the name of moderation, etc.), but they are nevertheless among the most powerful social forces in people's lives. The congregations involved in community organizing know this, and they've cultivated their power in order to make a difference in their communities that reflects their deepest values.
When churches become clear about their fundamental commitments, recognize that they already have social power, and then decide to use that power to promote their vision in the wider world, they generate change. When genuinely liberal churches do these things, they express a commitment not just to their religious commitments but to the viability of liberal democracy and pluralism, too. We need communities like that.
Of course, congregations that act prophetically create some degree of turmoil. I'm not suggesting that churches "get political" because it will solve congregational problems; it's likely to create a few instead. But Christianity isn't fundamentally about your inner life, and the church isn't fulfilling its mission by neglecting questions of civic and social values. Our failure to act is not being matched by people who embrace different values: They're acting, and we're feeling the pinch.
Tom Schade recently asked a very provocative question:
[D]oes the collapse of public life and organization mean that the church is no longer one voluntary organization among many, but is, in fact, the only voluntary organization out there right now in which people can conduct their public lives?
Ponder that a moment. A lot of political strategists have noticed that many of the other social bases of American liberal politics — especially labor unions — are declining. (The professoriat doesn't constitute a mass movement, unfortunately.) Meanwhile, many conservative churches have sold out to Caesar — or, at the very least, have failed to recognize the political threat to their theological vision in allowing partisan Machiavellis to use them.
Moderate and liberal congregations need to see that their vision of American life has power behind it, if we would only choose to recognize it and learn to use it. We too can build the "organic infrastructure" to support our values.
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 24 February 2005 at 10:13 PM