The Common Good

Transforming Politics

Date: January 21, 2009
The feverish pitch and high stakes of the election is finally over.  Some celebrated while others are still coming to terms with the results. Both parties worked hard to sway the hearts and minds of young Christian voters, particularly Evangelicals.  Democrats emerged from a religious wilderness post 2004 with candidates talking more openly about their faith and investing in robust religious outreach efforts.  Overall most white evangelicals remained in the Republican camp with John McCain holding 74 percent of the white evangelical vote compared with 24 percent for Obama. However, Obama doubled his support among young white evangelicals (those ages 18 to 44) compared with Senator Kerry.  Polls also signaled that Christian voters were swayed by a much broader agenda that included the staples like abortion but also prioritized the crumbling economy and global warming. Regardless of how you voted, I believe that this represents a transformational moment for our nation and world.  The question is whether you will embrace or resist this transformation?  In a speech commemorating the Selma voting rights march President-elect Obama thanked the Moses generation for leading our nation to the edge of the Promised Land and challenged a Joshua generation to take us across.  I agree that it will take a new generation of young leaders to help our nation cross into the Promised Land of social and economic justice.  A close reading of history shows that young people are so often on the vanguard of social change, serving as moral interrogators.  For instance, so many of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)  were young college students and young adults who committed incredible acts of courage sitting in at lunch counters, registering people to vote in the oppressive Jim Crow conditions of the South, and marching for freedom across the nation.  I applaud many in our generation that have been re-inspired to work on the inside of government.  However, for the rest of us, our faith calls us to remain independent of any single political candidate, party, or system and instead work to build the moral and political will that can transform our politics.    The Religious Right’s foray into politics over the past thirty years has often given Christian political engagement a bad name, demonstrating the risks of aligning your agenda with one political party and focusing only on a narrow set of issues.  And on the left, too often religious outreach represents a means to an end. Too many Christians and non-Christians alike feel burned and bruised by these models, which only accelerates a turn away from political and social engagement.  This would equal one of the biggest mistakes of the “Joshua Generation.”  Instead, we must engage in politics by bringing a renewed ethic and new methods that are consistent with a biblical faith.  We can become the ultimate swing voters, bridging the cultural and ideological divides that have kept our nation hamstrung between left and right, blue and red, Democrat and Republican.  We can embrace a more holistic and active faith.  Below are ten ways that we as the Joshua Generation can transform our nation’s politics?  Each way is followed up by a concrete recommendation for action.   
1. WHAT: We must model a commitment to critical but constructive engagement. I learned this approach from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other South African leaders who worked to hold the post-Apartheid, African National Congress (ANC) led government accountable after coming to power.  This requires balancing praise and support with challenge and constructive criticism.  The Catholic document Faithful Citizenship provides a helpful rubric, arguing that Christian involvement in politics must  be civil but never soft, engaged but never used, principled but not ideological, and political but never partisan.  Dr. King said it best that “the church should never serve as the servant or the master of the state but as the conscience of the state.” 
 
HOW: Learn best practices from other religious leaders.  I recommend a couple of readings that can shape your understanding of social movements and further ground a commitment to constructive and critical engagement, including: Walking with the Wind by Congressman John Lewis, The Politics of Jesus by Obery Hendricks, The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis, Faithful Citizenship by the Catholic Conference of Bishops,  and For the Health of the Nation by the National Association of Evangelicals.   
 
2. WHAT: We must invent and harness new forms of engagement.  Even as we constantly remember that we stand on the backs of those who came before us we can’t simply rehearse the same tactics and methods of the past.  This election campaign demonstrated the power of social networking and the internet in fueling fundraising and engaging volunteers in action.  The future of activism must find ways to harness these tools, while never seeing them as substitutes for grassroots organizing. 
 
HOW: Get plugged into existing Christian social activist networks.  To receive compelling commentary, updates, and online action alerts around a range of social justice and peace issues sign up for our weekly Sojomail at www.sojo.net.  To learn more about faith-based organizing check out two of our partner organizations, the PICO National Network at www.piconetwork.org and the Gamaliel Foundation at www.gamaliel.org.   
 
3. WHAT: We must model a new kind of politics that reframes and builds common ground around even some of the most divisive issues.  Our generations are anxious to move beyond the shrill cultural wars of the past.  Even on polarizing issues such as abortion we can lead the way by advancing common ground approaches that don’t compromise our core principles.  For instance, there’s a growing consensus that increasing access to health care and providing greater social and economic supports to low-income women are proven strategies that could dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America.   These are policies that all sides could agree to.   
 
HOW: Be open to new frameworks around old debates that have achieved little results. Learn about efforts to build common ground solutions that are aimed at making progress in reducing the abortion rate at www.DemocratsforLife.org and www.thirdway.org .   
 
4. WHAT: We must elevate often ignored issues to the top of the agenda.  Injustice and inequality continue to break the heart of God.  We are confronted with new crises that too often slip off the political agenda including: modern day slavery; the effects of global climate change and extreme poverty around the world. These issues will define our activism and test our faith.  We can become the generations that no longer tolerates genocide, declares an end to modern day slavery, and puts an end to extreme poverty.  In the context of elections, the poor are often invisible and poverty is a taboo issue.  With pressure and encouragement from the faith community, President Obama agreed during the campaign to cut poverty in America in half over ten years and help realize the Millennium Development Goals.  Achieving these bold promises will require an engaged and well-mobilized constituency to open up new political space and overcome many obstacles and competing priorities.  The current recession and economic crisis only add urgency to this cause.   
 
HOW: Join a growing movement to end extreme poverty. This coming April 27-29 join Sojourners, World Vision, the ONE campaign, Oxfam America, and a broad range of Christian denominations in calling on the new Congress and President to fulfill the promise to cut domestic poverty in half over ten years and realize the Millennium Development Goals through the Mobilization to End Poverty (www.sojo.net/mobilization).  The Mobilization will feature inspiring speakers and worship, practical workshops, a lobby day in Congress, and an Emerging leaders track and dinner.   
 
5. WHAT: We must rebrand Christianity through our activism.  A generation of young Christians embracing and acting on a broad social justice agenda will also help to re brand Christianity, saving the image of Christianity from itself.   Many of you have already heard about groundbreaking data released in the recent book UnChristian.  The book concludes that Christianity is suffering from a serious public relations crisis.  According to their 2006 survey, two out of every five (38 percent) young non-Christians claim to have a bad impression of present-day Christianity.  This is compared to 85 percent that had a positive impression toward Christianity’s role in society in 1996. In this national survey the three most common perceptions of present-day Christians were anti-homosexual (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent).  Providing tangible evidence of Christ’s good news will help to turn around these negative perceptions and attract more people to Christ.

HOW: Run a self-diagnosis: What issues make you the most outraged and motivated? What is God calling you to respond to? Whether it’s ending modern day slavery, fighting HIV/AIDS, ending genocide in Darfur, or eradicating poverty; I believe that your civic engagement will help to rebrand Christianity in new and transformative ways.  Here are a couple of organizations that can help you enlist your faith in building God’s kingdom through civic activism on your campus and in your community: Sojourners, Acting on AIDS, the International Justice Mission, Bread for the World, and the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative and Africa Action
  I hope and pray that you will share other concrete examples of how we as the Joshua generation can best live out our faith. Now is the time to join a movement capable of moving mountains of injustice.