Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Religious Left and Organizing

Last week’s Daily Kos posts on the religious left got me to thinking about what, exactly, I think the "religious left" is. One way to think of the religious left is as a group of individuals with liberal political goals that find motivation and justification for their political actions in their religious traditions. This is to say that the religious left is the coming together of a liberal/progressive/leftist political agenda and religious traditions. In this view, the religious left is inhabited by self-identified religious folk who desire and work towards specific liberal ends such as: enacting environmental protections; fighting for equal rights for the marginalized whether that be undocumented immigrants, the indefinitely detained, or gays and lesbians; fighting for economic justice through maintaining social security and unemployment benefits; the list could go on.

This way of envisioning the religious left neatly juxtaposes it with the religious right, which I typically think of as a highly partisan group with very particular political aims that is compelled into the political arena by its religious beliefs. The distinction between the religious left and right, then, is drawn based on social and political issues. If a religious group champions conservative political positions or policies, say, outlawing abortion, then they are a part of the religious right; likewise if they pick political fights on liberal issues, e.g. workers rights, then they belong to the religious left.

But this issue-based way of distinguishing the two sides misses a larger dynamic that exists, and probably has existed for a long time but is coming into particularly sharp relief at this present moment. I suppose it could still be considered an “issue,” but it is much larger than the particular political issues I’ve enumerated so far. I’m thinking of the struggle for democracy itself, which I view as a struggle against arbitrary domination.

While this fight sometimes breaks down along Democrat-Republican lines, I think the fight over whether power should be vested equally in all members of a community, or whether that power should be vested into a smaller group or even single individual, goes beyond party politics. The current struggle in Wisconsin between public employees and Republican elected officials is emblematic of the kind of fight I’m thinking of, but it is not always the case that Democrats are on the side of the people. The bipartisan support of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the arbitrary use of incredible power by the federal government against its citizens, provides a recent example.

In the fight between those who want to keep power in the hands of the individual citizens of this country, i.e. disperse power democratically – and those who want to deliver (or continue to deliver, I should say) power into the hands of an increasingly small fraction of the population, usually the uber-wealthy corporate elite, the main method of the defenders of democracy is and has to be organizing. Frederick Clarkson touched on the importance of organizing for the religious left, and provides some wonderful descriptions of the goals of organizing. He ends his piece with these reflections:
…organizing for politics, religious and otherwise, is necessarily still a primarily human endeavor: One in which we engage and change one another en route to wider social and political change. How we do that has everything to do with how we develop long term political capacity for ourselves in our own communities. And it is how we do this, that I think will make the greatest difference as we relearn the art and science of organizing in ways appropriate to our time.
But what is “organizing”? I want to pick up this thread and say a few things about the how of organizing, which I think will go a long way in describing the “what” or organizing, and why I think the how, that is the activity, is and ought to be at the center of all groups that consider themselves a part of the religious left.

There are many types of organizing, but the sort I have in mind is often called broad-based organizing (as opposed to issue-based organizing, or community organizing). Groups doing broad-based organizing are not defined by identity-politics or by any particular issue. The organizing process begins and is sustained through face-to-face meetings, either individually or in small groups between individuals who are usually already affiliated in some way, for example by being members of the same synagogue, citizens of the same town, or parents of children in the same school. The purpose of these meetings is to talk with and listen to each other – especially to listen to each other. Political issues that the group eventually takes action on arise from common concerns that are brought out in the telling of stories. If a group of parents get together and share their stories, and many of them tell a similar story about how unhealthy they think the cafeteria food is at their children’s school, then they may have the beginnings of a political action in which they put pressure on the principal or superintendent to switch to a food-service provider with healthier options.

This process of sharing stories, finding common cause, and taking action in a way that holds those further up the power-hierarchy accountable is democracy at its heart. These sorts of political actions address a need of the community, and the community itself has decided to act upon it.

Compare this to a situation in which a third-party organization does some research on the healthiness of the largest cafeteria food-providers’ food. Armed with this information, a regional political organization starts up to try to pressure schools into changing their cafeteria foods. This organization hires “organizers” to go door to door in a given community, informing people that their children are eating terribly unhealthy food, and trying to enlist them into helping, either by coming to a rally or donating money. Even if this organization’s mission gathers steam, and even if it succeeds in forcing schools to change their food offerings, it will have done so in a completely different way than the broad-based organizing approach. The former begins with a concern for hearing the interests and anxieties of community members; the latter begins with an issue already decided, and then attempts to recruit various people to the cause, regardless of what their own highest concerns are. With broad-based organizing, the authority to act drives from the power of a shared concern that is developed and cultivated by the community itself. In the later example, the authority to act comes from a research report.

I think the religious left needs be involved in this form of broad based organizing precisely because it is a quintessentially democratic activity, and its exercise promotes democracy and forms individuals into democratic citizens. The religious left is and ought to be concerned with the democratic power that citizens have, and should encourage and protect the exercise of that democratic power.

Why is this necessary? It’s necessary because there are other political actors who want to take that power away. These individuals want to consolidate that power into their own hands (e.g. Bush/Cheney increasing the scope of executive power and Obama’s legalization of and extension of these policies), or into the hands of their allies (tax cuts for corporations, which in turn fund the campaigns of the politicians who enacted the tax cuts). This consolidation of power is anti-democratic; it is authoritarian. And it is the backdrop to many of the current political issues being debated – especially the absurd argument that public workers need to give up their collective bargaining rights so that states can balance their budgets (see, e.g. former governor Ted Strickland on the situation in Ohio: "They’re using a fiscal challenge as an excuse to consolidate political power.").

The religious left should count as a member any individual, group, or alliance that organizes people and helps them democratically stand up to the exercise of authoritarian power. Far from being defined by particular issues, this means that members of the “religious left” could endorse conservative policies. So long as those conservative policies are the outgrowth of true concerns of our neighbors (in the broadest sense), then they demand our respect and our attention. And as long as the proponents of such organically grown conservative policies are willing to engage in conversation in which reasons are exchanged in good-faith, then we should welcome them into the religious left, for that form of conversation is itself a cornerstone of democracy that needs to be defended.

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