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.
Many of our congregation members were angry that we would give “the other guy” a platform to speak. And when one of the candidates refused to attend our marquee event in October, many of our members were angry we did not publicly shame him for disrespecting the Northern Virginia faith community. The “empty chair” tactic was on the table. We could point to the chair in front of the 1,565 people we had painstakingly recruited to our event and say, “Look, that’s what candidate X thinks of you.” But as we looked at each other across a crowded conference room, just weeks before the event, we felt the kind of clarity that people of faith call, “God’s voice.” We could not go baldly partisan. We could not shame one side.
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.
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.
Religion’s role in supporting the pillars of our democratic system is uncommon in the history of religious involvement in civic engagement. Faith leaders have played key roles in major American policy debates since the founding of our republic; history shows that some of our best national decisions (Civil Rights) and our worst (Temperance) were driven by the faith community. But across that time, and through much of America today, religion has pushed groups away from compromise and moderation. If our body politic suffers the diseases of polarization and partisanship, history teaches that religion can only be another complicating infection. But the disease did not progress with us that day in October — or since. Instead, religion functioned to unify people across party lines through a commitment to the greater good of democracy, of citizenship, and of our sacred electoral rights and responsibilities.
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.
I believe that as our faith compels us to model non-partisanship, open-mindedness, calm discourse, and inclusive disagreement, we can heal the body politic and strengthen the office of the citizen. I believe that our faith institutions and the regular practice of prayer, study, community, and acts of kindness hold us accountable as citizens, and they demand a different kind of activism. And I believe that our interfaith partnerships can become a foundation for redeeming politics from the meaningless warfare that it has become to instead be a source of peace and public decision-making we need.