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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

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February 26, 2005 07:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

Salon sort of addresses this in, of all things, a movie review.



March 1, 2005 10:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

More Doug Smith: "What Do We Really Stand For?", Leader to Leader 35 (Winter 2005); via David Sohigian.


March 3, 2005 10:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

Frederick Clarkson goes into more detail about how liberals need to invest more energy in community-organizing work.


March 5, 2005 11:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

These links and articles are enticing . . . and I probably should read them all before I comment. But to jump in here, I think we need to consider that before we get to UU churches helping the Democrats promote liberal values, UUs have to come to terms with promoting UUism and liberal approaches to spirituality. Reading about the history of religion in America, which I have been doing lately, shows that it's all about evangelizing. Not just "door to door" visiting or handing out tracts, but creating a cultural experience that draws people and keeps them involved. The revivals, the drama of being saved, the charisma of leaders, the emotional bombast, the publicity stunts, the charge of a new and superior identity gained from membership, the feeling of power in numbers . . . all this is much more than just "working the coffee hour." The story of American religion is also one of media manipulation, from the earliest days of the first Great Awakening to now. Fundamentalist religion is all about PR and marketing, about manipulation of public opinion in not always "ethical" ways. And through these techniques they have become powerful enough to shift elections to their candidates and become a major and threatening social force. Liberals need to start challenging fundamentalism as well as find ways to actively evangelize liberal religion (which presents a conundrum since liberal religion is about thoughtful responses to life's questions, not emotional surrender). So liberal believers, UUs, and secular humanists can help the political and societal liberal cause by aggressively expanding our memberships. And we need to do it now. It won't be easy because the very thought of it shocks and appalls some of us, and because finding ways to "sell" the enlightenment is somewhat of a paradox.


March 6, 2005 08:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bless you, Keira. Vision comes first, then strategy, then tactics. The vision is religious: a basic sense of what makes life -- personal life, community life, society -- meaningful and good.

We're starting to discuss how liberal churches can step above partisanship and offer a prophetic response to the culture in the comments to another post.

Lloyd Ryan:

January 20, 2006 08:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

As a relatively "new" Unitarian, and being from a society that, on the surface, at least, is a little more "liberal" -i.e., Canada, and having arrived here via a looooong road from fundamentalism (eh, I was born into it! I'm patting myself on the back for breaking free!) I am wondering how Unitarians, or liberal religionists in general, are going to compete with people who believe that they are buying their way into Heaven with their fundamentalist activitism - moral or otherwise (remember the recent Dover court case about Scientific Creationism where the conservative judge castigated his fundamentalist cohorts for their dishonesty?) - or destined for Hell's flames with the Devil turning them over with a pitchfork for ever and ever - i.e., Dante's Hell - if they aren't activist.
Maybe, we have to realize that it'll be our own living hell if we don't bring the battle to the gates. We believe it to be immoral - or at a minimum unethical - to impose our (liberal) beliefs on anybody else, but disabuse yourself of the notion that the fundamentalists would hesitate to impose theirs on you - and you know what happens to apostates and heretics (if you don't, read your history!)
I believe (at the moment, anyway) that Unitarians need a "conversion experience" but one quite different from the fundamentalist version. But I wonder if is possible to generate the brain chemicals to provide the same chemical kick that the fundamentalist get. I'm convinced that most of them "know" differently, but they can't bring themselves to "believe" differently because they wouldn't feed their addiction to those chemicals. (Moreover, they get the same chemical kick when they hate the likes of us) - the same chemicals, by the way, that produces the "nationalistic" pride that "some people" are know for.
Simply morning musings, folks, from up here in the frozen north. Actually, we don't even have snow, just now. But why weaken a perfectly good cliche?


January 20, 2006 08:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Lloyd, your comments make me eager to commend Doug Muder's six-word mission statement for a UU church: "Becoming the people the world needs." I think it reveals our own sense of urgency without the hellfire language.

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