By Fran Quigley 3-03-2017

The constant onslaught of news is destabilizing: Immigrants are at great risk of being uprooted from their families. The social safety net, especially access to the basic need of healthcare, is under threat. Aggressive, warlike messages are issued from the highest level of our government.

But this time of crisis may also be a time of opportunity for people of faith, as the Matthew 25 Pledge and other calls to action are asking. Of course, U.S. faith-based activism played a critical role in the abolition movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and many other historic efforts to fulfill the gospel message. And Trump’s unlikely ascendance to the presidency is prompting some social movement experts to point back to the faith community for next steps.

“If anything, the 2016 elections have deepened my belief that religious purpose and meaning can be found in an even wider array of political causes,” said Ziad Munson, a professor of sociology at Lehigh University, who has studied and written extensively on the role of faith communities in social movements. “President Trump received a higher proportion of Catholic and (white) evangelical Protestant votes than any other Republican presidential candidate in modern history. And he did so in large part because the enormous infrastructure of these faith communities was used to advocate for his candidacy.”

Munson and others have long pointed out how the decline in U.S. civic groups and labor unions have left religious congregations holding relatively enhanced social and political roles. But can faith communities lend their significant clout to advancing an inclusive, caring agenda? Munson and others believe so, noting the particular resonance that access to healthcare has in religious traditions.

“The longtime role of faith communities in healthcare provision gives them a particularly strong platform to advocate for access to care,” Munson said. In fact, an interfaith coalition has already come together to express support for retaining the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that protect the most vulnerable.

The healthcare debate also exposes the internal divisions in faith-based advocacy that led to contrasting positions on the Trump candidacy. Chief among those divisive issues is the question of abortion. But Munson points out that faith-based groups have worked to bridge the pro-choice and pro-life divide before, efforts that anthropologist Faye Ginsburg chronicled in her book Contested Lives. Similar efforts are under way now, too, reflecting the reality that most Americans hold complicated, middle-ground views on the issue.

This all points to an opportunity for faith communities to rally around a common cause built on shared values, such as the rights of the poor and marginalized. As Jim Wallis recently wrote, “If you voted for Trump because of your desire to protect vulnerable unborn lives, a concern I share, do you now also care about the vulnerable ‘strangers’ and their children now living among us?”

Munson’s research suggests that if such messages can help build faith-based coalitions, they could be a powerful force for social justice.

“We are living in an era of greatly diminished public legitimacy of traditional institutions, from Congress to courthouses, and from political parties to the media,” he said. “This represents a particularly important opportunity for faith-based advocacy, as churches and other houses of worship have not suffered the same fate.”

It appears the opportunity is there if people of faith are prepared to take it.

Fran Quigley is director of the Health and Human Right Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and coordinator of People of Faith for Access to Medicines. 

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