The persistence of poverty, the decline of social mobility and rising inequality in the U.S. all demand new departures in policy and politics. Yet the electorate and Congress are polarized and trust in government is at an all-time low. Religious Americans have been essential to the success of movements for justice throughout American history. Today, they have an opportunity to sustain a movement for economic justice.The above is from a forum held earlier in the month to introduce a white paper from E.J. Dionne, Jr., William A. Galston, Korin Davis and Ross Tilchin titled Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives (pdf). There are some important observations in the paper, fueled by information from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which collected some of the important data.
For example, the report notes about diversity within Democratic ranks (p. 9):
There are, in short, tensions over religion in the Democratic Party that are (or, at least, have been up to now) largely absent in the Republican Party.
The result is an ambivalence among Democrats about the role of religious progressives. When it comes to religion, the party has a complicated coalition-management problem. This is obvious from the religious profiles of Obama and Romney supporters in 2012. Among Romney voters, only 7 percent were religiously unaffiliated while 75 percent were white Christians—40 percent of whom were white evangelicals, 18 percent were white Catholics and 17 percent were white mainline Protestants. By contrast, fully 25 percent of Obama’s voters were religiously unaffiliated, 34 percent were white Christians while the rest were a diverse array of African-American and Latino Christians and followers of other faiths.
and also talks about parallels with the civil rights movement:
Join us below the fold for some insights into what the future holds for religious progressives from co-author E.J. Dionne.
I caught up with Dionne a few days after the forum for a wide-ranging conversation. We talked about several topics, including the diversity apparent on the progressive side. Dionne talked passionately about the tradition of "civil rights Christianity" and the long tradition in Catholicism, for example, of communitarianism (and for more on this theme, see my review of Dionne's book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, from 2012).
As it happens, Pope Francis weighed in with this tweet on that topic the day I spoke to Dionne:
When I asked Dionne what his biggest concern was for moving forward on that, he brought up the problem of "disengagement," especially with younger Americans, which can be seen not just in disaffection with religion but also with politics and many other institutions.
This led to a discussion about, for example, the contributions of the Occupy movement as well as North Carolina's Moral Mondays, a movement now spreading to Georgia and South Carolina. Dionne was quick to point out the contributions Occupy has made, "especially in moving '1%' into the political lexicon," as hugely important. Yet the disengagement from politics that contrasts Occupy, say, with the Tea Party, or the focused Moral Mondays movement, or even getting "souls to the polls," has implications as well. That disengagement Dionne sees as a potential threat to activism moving forward.
We also talked about the role of unions and business. Unions were a natural topic given the doings in the NBA (Dionne was working on this column when we spoke). Unions are natural allies, but the white paper notes (p. 32):
The decline of unions has also weakened the ability of a faith-based progressive movement to mobilize financing and infrastructure. In the 1950s, about a third of the total labor force was unionized. Today, that figure stands at just one-tenth of the total labor force and less than 7 percent of the private sector workforce. With the weakening of unions, said several participants in our discussions, there is no “special interest group” representing the poor in current policy debates. THE WEAKENING OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT ALSO MEANS THAT RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE HAVE LOST A PARTNER.Just as it's important to have union partners, it's also important to partner with business, at least wherever one can find business leaders to partner with. E.J. noted that those kinds of allies can make it easier for religious progressives to succeed, be it on minimum wage or paid sick days or other issues important to working people that fit into the economic justice framework.
A different PRRI poll recently conducted discussed differences between religious Catholics and white evangelicals.
The economic similarities were as striking as the cultural differences, suggesting economics (i.e., social justice) remained a potentially unifying theme. This fit the white paper's conclusion about opportunities for religious progressives to:
Create a new narrative based on the popular and widely held notion of the “common good” and on economic justice as a means of strengthening families;To be clear, not every progressive is engaged in religion, and not everyone in the faith community is focused on politics. But to counter disengagement and to build coalitions, the "Big Tent" concept is as necessary here as with any other winning political coalition, and Dionne pointed out how true that's been historically.
Build bridges with conservative people of faith who are engaged in action for social justice globally, and with secular partners, who share very similar views on economic questions;
Use the model offered by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, a movement that combined religious and civic themes, was racially, ethnically and generationally diverse, was accepting of the realities of power but focused on persuasion, not simply the defeat of adversaries.
See also remarks by Sr. Simone Campbell (Nuns on the Bus) at that same forum introducing the white paper:
Sr. Simone told the Brookings audience stories of two people she had met who were quite different, but who are examples of her call to focus on "justice and the hundred percent." At a White House ceremony to witness President Obama signing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, she sat next to a young woman wearing a blue dress named Robin. This woman explained to Sr. Simone how she worked full-time at a national clothing store chain and bought the dress with her employee discount, but that she also lived in a homeless shelter because she couldn't afford rent. "That's wrong in the richest nation on earth," Sr. Simone told the audience. "It's wrong because Robin is being robbed of a future. We've got to stand up for the Robins of this world."Sr. Simone makes clear from that and other anecdotes why economic justice is at the heart of the coalition building.
My own advice, (though I don't think Dionne and/or the other authors would disagree) would be to build on common ground rather than differences, and worry less about the secular-religious divide and more about common goals, from combatting voter suppression to fighting for a decent living wage (social and economic justice).
Religious progressives can be a strong voice in that coalition, and should be a welcome one. I for one, secularist though I am, would be happy to have them on board.