Playing Catch-Up With the Evangelicals

A speech by Rev. David Dyson: December 2, 2004

The evangelical movement so widely reported on after November 2nd is not the monolithic monster of the post-election reports. It is a broad and amorphous movement with a complex and often contradictory set of beliefs. A large number of evangelicals went for Carter in 1976 and for Clinton in 1992. They should no more be ceded to the Republicans than should the South.

Evangelicals are descended from the great outdoor revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. For reasons of either geography or lack of education, early evangelicals felt alienated from the mainline religious traditions of the day and crafted their own model in the nation’s heartland. They were also influenced by the Puritan movement which placed a heavy emphasis on personal rather than social morality. This was brilliantly portrayed by Alex Haley in Roots in the character of the slave ship captain who trafficked in human lives for a living but would not let alcohol touch his lips.

Religious progressives, in the wake of the election, are scrambling to play catch-up with their better organized evangelical brethren. They have a long way to go. Several attempts to organize a progressive alternative to the religious right before the election either sputtered or failed. Most of these attempts were based on a leadership model which was both top heavy and ego driven. Religious progressives must now learn the lesson evangelicals learned long ago: the key to organizing people of faith is not through celebrity clergy but through congregations. Congregations are where the rubber hits the road. This is where the faithful meet, greet, eat and mobilize. E-mail lists are great and an important tool, but congregations are the long established historical and spiritual bases of operation. Congregations are the very definition of grassroots. The right knows this and the left does not.

Organized congregations provided much of the punch for the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990’s. Here was an issue which united Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and progressive congregations. Regional lists of prospective congregations were compiled by painstaking and usually anecdotal work. Key contacts were established in each congregation, sometimes the clergy, sometimes a lay activist. Organizing packets were sent out including reliable research on the campaign target, written in congregation friendly language. Each packet contained background material, names of other friendly congregations in the area and a concise, doable action program. Many congregations are looking for something meaningful to do, but do not have time to research and develop their own campaigns. If and when the campaign clicks, people line up after services to write letters, sign postcards, or sign up for a delegation. Once a congregation member gets a surly response from an apparel company executive or is treated rudely at a retail store, they are hooked for life. They are now part of the struggle.

One problem for religious progressives today is a lack of trained organizers in their midst. The religious right has been training organizers for years. Religious progressives, with some heroic exceptions, have not. Progressives need to enlist the help of professional organizers from the likes of the labor movement and community organizations to fill in the gaps and train a new generation of activists. Otherwise there will be lots of message, lots of talk, lots of spin, but it will not filter down to the congregations with sufficient force to mobilize significant numbers.

Clearly there is much work to do around message, language and even vision. I have confidence that a new generation of energized religious progressives will create a compassionate, inclusive and intelligible call to faithfulness. What is not in place is the delivery system to inspire, activate, mobilize and deliver our base. Not yet.

Progressive people of faith in the US may never have the numbers or the money of the evangelical movement, but they nevertheless comprise thousands of mainline, middle-sized, middle class congregations who were not sufficiently engaged in 2004. Progressives possess the message if not the means to cut into the Republican stranglehold on the evangelical vote. When elections are as close as they were in 2000 and 2004, can we really afford to ignore any sizeable constituency?

In the Book of Proverbs it reads, “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 28:19) True enough, but without a vehicle, the vision has no wheels. What is needed now is a campaign to identify, quantify, organize and mobilize congregations who are waiting for the call.

Rev. David Dyson is the pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY. He is a former staffer with the United Farm Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union.