How Faith Makes Us Purple

Michael Holzman
Feb 9, 2018 · 5 min read

Last year was a major opportunity for civic engagement in the Commonwealth of Virginia: we were the only state with a truly contested gubernatorial election, just one year into the Trump administration. So when the leadership of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) gathered to plan our strategy, we knew national media attention would give us leverage to push for whatever issues we chose. VOICE is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the venerable group founded by Saul Alinsky, to help local people organize for change in their communities. We are an interfaith team representing around 50 houses of worship, and our issues tend to skew left, so given this opportunity in the summer and fall of 2017, what did we do?

We went non-partisan. And it wasn’t easy.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) hosted the largest event of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign with both candidates present (1565 people).

Within our individual houses of worship, especially in the past year, we had all sensed the pain of our congregants or parishioners feeling estranged from each other — from neighbors, friends, and family on the other side of the political divide. That day, we elevated above any individual issue, the sacred American covenant between citizen and community, which is rooted in the electoral process. We knew that hearing both sides fairly was essential to our purpose as people of faith seeking to better God’s world.

We devoted the next hour to developing a stealth assault strategy to get the reluctant candidate in that chair. And we succeeded. Our event was the largest in the entire campaign where both candidates were present. We had explicit non-partisan ground rules. We refused the temptation of yes/no or “gotcha” questions. We politely asked the crowd to refrain from booing and cheering during the speeches, and then we had to admonish them when they initially could not resist. And afterwards, more than one person remarked how reasonable “the other guy” sounded.

The VOICE 2017 Election Action was based on specific ground rules to preserve the non-partisan ethic that the interfaith community had established.

Why did we choose this path? At our roots, people of faith rely upon the tools of religion — prayer, text, community, and acts of kindness — to discover God’s voice in our lives. Those tools shape our souls and build our institutions, but we see how they chip and crack upon the harsh stones of bitterness within and around our houses of worship. We can hear God’s voice drowned out by pointless partisan warfare. Alongside the relentless call we might hear for immigrants, the poor, the weak, and, for some, the unborn, we also hear the call of our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues struggling to hold our community together.

As much as I feel the need to shout about the inequality of our educational system, I must also pray with the people who love that system. As much as I see our criminal justice system as an affront to the divine in every human being, I must also welcome every human being to sit with me as we study text. As much as God demands us to seek Medicaid expansion dollars for the sick, we must also visit the sick who oppose those dollars.

At this moment, while we feel pain for the suffering members of society, we also feel pain as members of a society that suffers. That is what drove us to be proudly non-partisan.

Though their non-partisan Get-out-the-Vote campaign, VOICE volunteers raised turnout by over 25% in most precincts where they worked.

Through Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the interfaith community committed ourselves to getting out the to vote, and so, with our purple shirts on, we reached out to huge lists of people who had never voted in a non-presidential election. When they opened the door, the first question we heard was often a cynical sneer, “Which one are you for?” When we said, “We have no opinion on that,” faces brightened and smiles widened. So we followed with, “We just want you to vote, so that whomever gets elected will see that this neighborhood cares enough to show up.” This simple practice helped us to increase voter turnout by 24–39% in six of the precincts where we worked. Many of the people we met knocking on doors were first-time voters.

This is the bottom line of civic engagement: while we may have strong and divergent opinions about the best solutions to particular problems, our commitment to the democratic process must transcend disagreement and the parties on either side.

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

Michael Holzman

Written by

Husband, father, writer, interfaith leader, devotee of tough questions, and a rabbi at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, VA.

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.