What's Next for Call to Renewal?

When we heard the weather report predicting another snow storm on its way to Washington, D.C., our hearts sank. The Call to Renewal organizing conference was about to begin in the nation's capital and those of us planning it worried that people slated to attend from around the country might be dissuaded by the forecast. But on Friday morning, February 2, the large meeting room at the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn quickly filled up, and smiles returned to the organizers' faces.

This first national gathering of the Call to Renewal was announced as a "working conference," a time to train, organize, and mobilize for the election year. The purpose of the Call to Renewal during 1996 is twofold: to lift up a visible Christian alternative to the Religious Right and to lay the foundations for a "new politics" rooted in spiritual values beyond the old categories of Right and Left.

More than 200 key grassroots activists from every region of the United States braved the snow and came ready to work. They included evangelical pastors and the founders of successful church-based urban programs; diocesan social action directors and Catholic sisters in social service ministries; conveners of local coalitions and leaders of national networks such as the Christian Community Development Association (with more than 250 affiliates in 100 cities), Pax Christi, Bread for the World, Evangelicals for Social Action, SCUPE (the largest urban ministry network in the country), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Leadership Foundations (building faith-based partnerships in 21 cities); and more. Pentecostal preachers from the streets and the head of a mainline denomination attended, as did representatives from local councils of churches and Christians from every walk of life eager to mobilize a voice other than the Christian Coalition.

It was a weekend of listening to stirring speakers, wrestling with tough issues, getting ideas, acquiring skills, and creating strategy. The organizing conference produced concrete results and a plan of action for the election year. Participants returned home with real enthusiasm to mobilize Call to Renewal networks in their own communities; to organize regional conferences and local town meetings; to prepare churches to hold candidate and issue forums during the election campaign where a wide range of moral questions will be discussed and put to those running for office; to utilize new resources for local churches and groups such as Recovering the Evangel: A guide to faith, politics, and alternatives to the Religious Right (available from Sojourners), Political Responsibility (available from the U.S. Catholic Conference), and soon-to-be-ready material from Evangelicals for Social Action; and to distribute the Call's "voter guide" with biblical criteria for evaluating candidates and issues (to be ready this spring).

The Call to Renewal will be creating think tanks on public policy questions, which could lead to a new policy institute for longer-range work in developing new political directions. Next fall, the network will call for a "Faith and Politics" Sunday to examine the elections from a Christian perspective. The Call will also be hosting a national event in Washington in early September to offer a clear alternative to the Christian Coalition in the national political debate. (See the "Call to Renewal" column, page 44, for more details on the 1996 plan.)

Since its start only nine months ago, the Call to Renewal has already been successful in beginning to offer an alternative to the Religious Right. Media coverage of the Call as a new and different voice has been extensive in major newspapers, radio, and all the television networks. That voice will grow stronger during this election year. You can challenge your local media to cover all the voices speaking on the impact of religious and moral values on politics-not just the loud voice of the Religious Right.

The second purpose of the Call-to help forge a new political vision-will be more difficult, challenging, exciting, and ultimately more important than merely countering the Religious Right. At the conference, differences arose between participants and constituencies that make up the growing Call to Renewal network. That was not only to be expected, but was indeed a very healthy development. Free and open discussion is welcome in the Call to Renewal, and we had a lot of it in February. But the Call will be more than an open forum with tolerance for many views on controversial questions. Those involved will actually try to forge new thinking, create new political possibilities, and seek to find new common ground between those with legitimate concerns.

There was a strong consensus at the conference on issues such as the biblical priority of the poor, the theological imperative of caring for the environment, and the spiritual urgency of confronting racism in America. Less clear was how to address divisive questions such as abortion and how gay and lesbian people figure in family issues. These of course are the touchstone issues for the Religious Right and have become polarizing flash-points in the political debate. It is clear from this gathering that we need new ways to address these familiar and important issues.

The Call will not avoid these social issues, like many on the liberal left have, or simply take a libertarian stance as candidates on both sides of the political spectrum have done. One and a half million abortions every year is a moral issue for most in the Call to Renewal network, as is the urgent need to rebuild our disintegrating family systems. Teen-age pregnancy, family break-ups, and the lack of personal responsibility are just as key reasons for poverty and human misery as the loss of jobs, the decline of wages, the marginalizing of the poor, and continuing racial injustice. Both the Left and the Right continue to make false choices about these issues of cultural breakdown and social injustice. They must be put back together.

Why can't we be committed to public policies that discourage abortion and actively seek alternatives that save lives, while fostering an environment that protects the equality of women and the well-being of all children? Why can't pro-life and pro-choice people work together to reduce dramatically the number of abortions-by working on teen-age pregnancy and adoption reform, for example-instead of endlessly debating a constitutional amendment, which even many conservative politicians now say wouldn't be effectively pro-life?

Similarly, why can't we agree that traditional two-parent families must be strengthened and supported, even by public policy, but do it in a way that doesn't scapegoat or discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens? Blaming homosexual people for the decline of family life is both stupid and mean-spirited and ought to stop. At the same time, we must recognize that a critical mass of families with male and female role models is crucial for the well-being of children and the stability of any society.

And why do we continue to force a false choice between personal responsibility or economic justice as the most critical factor in alleviating poverty, as the conservatives and liberals continue to do? Why are we forced to favor big government programs or the withdrawal of government altogether in the welfare debate? Both bad habits and the lack of economic opportunity create poverty, often in tandem. New partnerships between non-profit organizations and governments on all levels are most likely to create the kind of civil society through which many of our problems can be solved.
On these and other questions, we need some new thinking. The Call to Renewal is committed to help find the new approaches our country so desperately needs. At the heart of any new approaches will be a new political morality, a new spiritual politics. The task of forging that new politics will take us far beyond the election of 1996. Join us. (Please contact the Call to Renewal office at 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 for a list of conference tapes, resources, and press clips, or for media suggestions and organizing help. We want to hear from you.)

Speaking of new politics... Michael Lerner and our friends at Tikkun magazine are hosting an important gathering in Washington, D.C., April 14-16. "The Summit on Ethics and Meaning" will bring together people from diverse religious communities and beyond the religious community to discuss "a politics in the image of God." Lerner, whose book The Politics of Meaning will soon be released, has spearheaded this conference, which promises to be an extraordinary three days. I will be a speaker along with Lerner, Cornel West, Harvey Cox, James Forbes, Amitai Etzioni, Joan Chittister, David Saperstein, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Naomi Wolf, Stephen Carter, Jim Hightower, Mary Edsall, Sharon Welch, Arthur Waskow, Michael Dyson, and Jesse Jackson Jr.
Sojourners is supporting this interfaith effort led by kindred spirits in the progressive Jewish community for "a whole new paradigm for politics, moving beyond Left/Right dichotomies."
The organizers call upon us to recognize the "ethical or spiritual crisis" of politics and to counter the claims of the Religious Right to be the only voice for moral values in America. As the conference materials state, "We seek a society based upon love and caring-affirming the sanctity of every human being."
All Sojourners members and friends are warmly encouraged to come. Contact The Learning Alliance, 324 Lafayette St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012; (212) 226-7171.

Sojourners members are also invited to celebrate Daniel Berrigan's 75th birthday on May 4, 1996, in New York City. Doubling as a fund-raiser for Plowshares activists, the gathering will feature the music of Pete Seeger. Contact Plowshares NY, 618 W. 138th St., New York City, NY 10031; (212) 234-2447.

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