At the Faith in Public Life office in Washington DC with Jennifer Butler

Jennifer Butler describes Faith in Public Life (FPL) as a ‘multifaith stategy center’. It was founded after the 2004 Presidential Election, during which the Bush campaign (Karl Rove was the key figure) mobilized ‘values voters’, i.e. those exercised by personal moral issues, especially abortion and gay marriage. After 4 decades of the Christian Right bringing (non-progressive) religious voice into the public arena, FPL was founded to bring back the into the public debate the ‘mainstream’ Christian voice. 

For the old ‘mainline churches’ were ill-equipped to do so. They had been telling their people that they were becoming less relevant due to secularization. At the same time as Jerry Falwell set up his radio station (beginning the rise of the right-wing politico-religious pundit-preacher on the airwaves), the famous liberal congregation of Riverside Church in New York City was closing its radio station. Falwell and others on the Christian right had not qualms about using the media to achieve a ‘yoking’ of right-wing politics and conservative religion.

Meanwhile, moderate religious groups have largely withdrawn from the media. Most have no media strategy (unlike conservative groups). They worried that using the media would lead to ‘simplistic’ religion (although, as Jennifer pointed out there is no evidence that church growth has any relationship to simplistic religion). Many of the old denominations won’t accept recommendations about how they should change the way they relate to the media. It is as if they have given up on reaching out to the culture around them (Jennifer commented, ‘Mainline churches worry that they cannot reach out to people- because they don’t try!’). And so the (former) mainline churches have abrogated their (historic) role and responsibility to be voices for progressive social policies. For example, right-wing organisations will produce one page ‘talking points’ on contentious issues to briefly put across their main points to their supporters; churches pushing progressive social policies tend not to have such media strategies at all. And right-wing bodies have tried to undermine the advocacy and activist efforts of the denominations: they were notably successful with the Southern Baptist convention.

FPL has made some progress in making the media interested in progressive Christians. Jennifer gave me some recent examples-

  • faith communities were able to get healthcare reform passed by targeting senators before the crunch vote
  • they campaigned against the ‘tea party’ movement
  • faith leaders’ intervention and activism of religious people helped swing the Senate vote for Obama’s healthcare bill

Christians speaking up for progressive policies are now appearing on or quoted on top satire shows Colbert, and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and on more serious places: CNN, The New York Times, the Associated Press. Michael Livingstone, director of the National Council of Churches’ Poverty Initiative has become a regular on Fox News, patiently countering the arguments of Fox’s favourite pundits! A recent good use of media happened last year: on 28 July 2011, at the height of concerns that the budget making its way through Congress would be extremely regressive and damaging to the poor, a number of religious leaders held a prayer meeting beneath the cupola of the the Capitol building. Eventually they were arrested as cameras looked on. The protest made the news bulletins and a half page with picture in New York Times. Among those arrested were Jennifer Butler herself, as well as J Herbert Nelson, Michael Livingston, and leaders of other denominational Washington offices.

FPL organised a Candidates Forum at the last Presidential Election, which gained a large audience as candidates were asked questions important to religious voters (one viewer’s comment- ‘I didn’t know Hilary Clinton had faith’). Senator John McCain turned down the invitation.

Those supporting FPL include some 40 national religious leaders, including the nun’s lobby (much in the news at the moment) and Sojourners. The founders included Res Republica, an organisation promoting ‘public good’; a congressman famed for his ‘conviction politics’; avaaz, an online organising community; and John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, founder of Center for American Progress, himself a Catholic layman.

But by way of comparison: Progressive social religious foundations have an estimated combined annual budget of $1.2 million and 11 staff (resourcing many different groups). The budget for right wing religious groups is around $1.1 billion.

For too long, the denominational offices in liberal denominations didn’t serve their congregations, says Jennifer. She reflected that perhaps the way they could re-energise their base would be if the mainline churches were to pick topics on which almost everyone can agree and go at them hard!- that might be a way to help ordinary members feel they were ‘invested’ with the issues.

So what philosophy undergirds FPL’s work? There are values which most religious outlooks seem to share:

  • a vision of human dignity
  • the importance of respect for others
  • the Common Good (against an individualism which goes too far)
  • a global outlook
  • the belief that all people are made in the image of God

Of course, there are those who wish to keep faith out of the public square. Jennifer is not too concerned by ‘new atheists’ (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc), although they, of course, point to people like Falwell to ‘prove’ their points.

FPL’s strategy is to reach out through the (secular) media. ‘If I write an op-ed [British English: opinion column] in the New York Times’, says Jennifer, ‘I will reach far more Presbyterians than a piece in the denominational newspaper’; for mainline churches still have dreadfully poor information distribution networks. And if these concerns then do reach the ‘flock’ in the pews, that will make an impact on the politicians. And perhaps, mused Jennifer, it would help if mainline Church leaders were prepared to be a bit more ‘edgy’.

There are still difficulties facing FPL as they try to reach their goals. It’s taking longer than expected to get secular progressives to reach out to religious people. Very often their leadership is often ‘naturally’ secular, so they don’t see the point of working with or reaching out to religious people with whom they might have more in common than they thought. Yet there is some progress in making the political world more aware of the relationships between religion and concern about justice issues. For example, pollsters will now more often include questions about religious affiliation.

But two problems still loom large. Liberal congregations are often dying off fast (but those which aren’t are often those fired up by social justice issues: there is a connection between congregational health and social justice). And in the US there is still a polarized media which ‘boxes’ people into ways of thinking.

Again, another fascinating discussion, which shed more light on some of the issues already raised in my discussion with J Herbert Nelson. It all made for a busy first day in DC. The next day would bring another visit to Capitol Hill to see the PC(USA) inviting its members to the Washington office.


About Rev Peter W Nimmo

Minister of Old High St Stephen's Church, Inverness, Scotland, UK
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2 Responses to At the Faith in Public Life office in Washington DC with Jennifer Butler

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