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Power, religious faith, and social change

Two books take up the knotty challenge of citizen participation and the democratic process.
By Rosemary Bray McNatt
March/April 2003 3.1.03

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Noncreedal though Unitarian Universalists are, we tend to embrace the UUA's Seven Principles as part of our personal faith. More a compass for our choices than a statement of doctrine, the Principles set the course for our religious movement, and many of us try to steer our own lives by their ethical guidance, too.

We talk often about the First and Seventh Principles that affirm, respectively, each person's inherent worth and dignity and life's interdependent web, but our typical response to the other five Principles ranges from indifference to confusion. Still, if ever there were a Principle deserving of our focused attention in this new century, it would be the Fifth: "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large."

Though the democratic process may be alive and well in our congregations, it is in serious peril elsewhere—not just in countries far, far away, but in our own. The structures of democracy still exist in the United States, but they are eroding from within, beset by corporate money, cynical political operatives, and a growing group of disaffected people who believe their votes to be worthless. Such erosion is dangerous for everyone.

With power concentrating in the hands of a narrow and self-serving segment of society, instead of the vigorous and principled debate that keeps a democracy vibrant, we have a monologue. Those on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum should not be the only ones alarmed by this state of affairs. If the conservative American voice calls for limits on government power, then the progressive American voice seeks to extend freedoms and opportunities too often reserved for the few. It is out of the struggle between these two primary voices that the country we love is continually reborn.

Anything that weakens the democratic process in our society ought to concern Unitarian Universalists.

Two books recently published by the UUA's Beacon Press take up the knotty challenge of citizen participation and the democratic process. Both share a commitment to grassroots community organizing and are rooted in the work of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago sociologist, strategist, and activist widely considered the father of the modern community organizing movement. Alinksy began his work in Back of the Yards, the neighborhood adjacent to Chicago's legendary stockyards, organizing groups of working-class ethnic whites to improve their communities and make local leaders more responsive. Alinsky's model, greatly refined, forms the basis of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide network of local community organizations. IAF groups exist to teach local people how to "do politics," and their successes may offer a model for reviving genuine political activism in the United States, even as their failures might serve as a cautionary tale.


In the early pages of Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America, Paul Osterman, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a prolific author on economic development and the labor market, offers a blunt diagnosis of the prospects for a credible and coherent progressive political movement in the United States: "The core problem facing progressives is the declining participation of their constituency: the falling voting rates and declining political activity of people below the median in income distribution. . . . Politics is increasingly biased toward the better off. What is missing are opportunities for poor and working people to participate and learn firsthand about politics and to become connected in an ongoing way to a political organization."

Osterman is clear about why someone should care about the declining progressive voice in American political life. "Fundamental ideas about what it means to be a democracy are violated when few are engaged and when those who do participate are not representative of the constituency," he writes. But many Americans have dropped out of political life, and Osterman shows that those who have withdrawn from politics are more open to issues that matter to progressives than more affluent people who still feel some connection to the political process.

Osterman sees the IAF model of local community organizing as a much-needed corrective to this lack of participation. He examines the work of Valley Interfaith, a Texas IAF group in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, and finds that its effectiveness is rooted in practices of relationship and accountability among the IAF members, practices that lead over time to an impressive level of commitment. Such a commitment led members of Valley Interfaith through a years-long struggle to create a free health clinic in McAllen, Texas. That struggle included researching the valley's health care system and pressuring a county commissioner to keep a promise to fund the clinic.

What makes IAF controversial is its blunt emphasis on power—how to get it and use it in service of the community's self-identified goals. IAF groups stress political pragmatism, or, in IAF-speak, "the world as it is, not as it ought to be." In their trainings as well as their day-to-day work, IAF leaders emphasize a strategy that sees no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent issues to be addressed. This is a far cry from more traditional activist strategies that depend in large measure on true believers.

Osterman helpfully unpacks the complex role of faith and religious institutions in the work of IAF groups. Churches are key players in IAF organizing, and local groups are quite conscious of their use of religious symbols in public activities. But to think of such moves as simply another politically pragmatic strategy, Osterman says, would be to miss the point completely. "Many IAF organizers are deeply religious and view their work as a way of expressing this commitment," he writes. One of the churches in Valley Interfaith, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, organized the equivalent of base communities, the reflective prayer groups that form the bedrock of liberation theology as practiced in Latin America. Such groups provide valuable spiritual and emotional support for their members, but they also cultivate political skills.

Osterman is not unaware of the limits of IAF organizing. Surveys show that those who are the most liberal politically are also the least religious—a fact that may limit the appeal of IAF-style community organizing for progressive causes, since IAF groups proudly tap into traditional religious institutions and values. And the IAF's unwillingness to organize in any way around issues of so-called identity politics closes the door to the possibility of deliberate outreach to communities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. It also leaves IAF groups forever vulnerable to the racism that has haunted IAF from its earliest days when Alinsky's Back of the Yards organization became a pivotal part of the successful effort to block integration in Southwest Chicago neighborhoods.

In spite of the pitfalls that IAF organizing represents, Osterman believes that the groups' core message is one worth heeding by progressives. "In the end, the IAF model aims to reconstruct politics. Politics is not simply about elections every two or four years, but rather about creating space for an engaged citizenry at every step." Anyone thinking deeply these days about the fate of democracy should add Gathering Power to their list.


In contrast to Paul Osterman's third-person analysis, Michael Gecan distills thirty years of experience as an IAF organizer in his book, Going Public. Gecan's commitment to participatory citizenship grew out of a lifetime watching struggles between the powerful and the powerless. He learned that "you couldn't just 'reform' the abusers of power, legislate against them, sue them into submission. . . . You had to battle them . . . , to check them and counter them and ensure that your vision of society and community, rooted in the best blend of democratic and religious traditions, had a chance to grow and survive."

Gecan divides his book into four sections, each meant to delineate four habits that he believes can change communities: the habits of relating, acting, organizing, and reflecting. Of these four, he regards relating as key. IAF community organizing is highly relational work: Long before an IAF chapter embarks on an action, its members have spent months getting to know each other.

Community organizing in this model may seem warm and fuzzy, but in practice it can be anything but. By the time an IAF group has coalesced, gotten to know one another, and identified issues to work on, everyone knows the drill: "Start on time and end on time. Recognize yourself and one another. Hold yourself accountable . . . so that you can demand public accountability from others and hold them to it. Take the power you build and test it against the power of others. Bring energy, joy, and irreverence to the public square."

Gecan is most provocative in defining his life's work in opposition to what passes for grassroots activism these days. He describes once seeing hundreds of police officers preparing for a demonstration; intrigued, he returned to the scene at lunchtime. "Five people stood. . . . Two had splashed black paint on their clothing and smeared black paint on their faces. They writhed on the sidewalk while a graying demonstrator pounded a drum and a young woman harangued the passing crowd. . . . What I was observing was not an action at all, but a reenactment . . . more theatrical than political . . . not just scripted, but plagiarized. . . . They were political idolaters."

He contrasts this political theater with the "constructive and creative action" of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. According to Gecan, Parks "studied the forgotten phonics and lost language of public action. She mastered this vocabulary, with depth and discipline, then 'spoke' to her fellow leaders and followers. . . . She demonstrated once again that an ordinary American could learn about action, could lead the action, and then could transmit the lessons and limitations of that action to others."

Half the fun of reading Going Public is hearing Gecan's many war stories that include calling recalcitrant politicians to account. (An early story recounting an evening with then-New York Mayor Ed Koch is worth the price of the book.) But just as energizing is his dogged belief that the creation of what he calls a "third culture"—not simply bureaucratic, not simply market driven, but relational at its core—will salvage our badly damaged democratic life. "The dynamic of the relational culture is created by leaders who initiate and deepen and multiply effective public relationships. . . . Their bottom line is not profit and loss . . . but expanding pools of reciprocity and trust among people who can act with purpose and power."

Gecan writes movingly of the potential that human beings have to change themselves and the circumstances of their lives as they grow into ever-deepening relationship. If this sounds familiar—akin, perhaps, to the task of a religious community—that is hardly an accident. Both Gecan and Osterman acknowledge the primacy of religious communities in the work of IAF. But what is the role for Unitarian Universalist congregations in the work of IAF groups? Its emphasis on practical political action has great appeal for people in the pews tired of symbolic politics. On the other hand, Unitarian Universalist ambivalence about issues of money and power may make us uncomfortable with IAF's realistic, tough-love strategy for effecting social change. Whether our congregations work to support the democratic process using IAF's approach or other ways, it's time for people with progressive religious values to enter the public sphere unashamedly and to offer faithful alternatives to the narrow and market-driven politics of exclusion. After all, democracy is, for us, a matter of religious principle.


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