What Role do Faith Communities have in Shaping Public Life?

By: Dori Baker
October 10, 2016

Can faith communities create space for conversation about the policies that shape our collective future? Can we do so in ways that invite civility rather than divisiveness?

We gathered with those questions the morning after the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In a room overlooking the U.S. Capitol, FTE hosted a Community Forum on Faith and Politics.

A panel made up of activists, scholars, and pastors named several reasons faith communities should be wary of politics, including a history of being ensnared in unjust ideologies, falling prey to partisan politics, and failing to maintain a healthy suspicion toward power. Mindful of those dangers, the panelists encouraged faith leaders to seek alternative ways of engaging politics to lead change for the common good.

Here are seven challenges to leaders of faith communities that surfaced in the D.C. Community Forum:

1. Educate voters.

“An uninformed electorate is a danger to the future of any democracy,” warned panelist Gabriel Salguero.

Salguero, who identifies as an evangelical Latino, told the story of becoming a human bridge between church folk and the LGBTQ community in the aftermath of the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this past June. “As a pastor,” he said “my job is to make sure people have as much information as they can before they go to the voting booth.” Without taking a partisan stance, congregations can circulate ballots, invite candidates, and stimulate conversation about voters’ choices.

2. Provide tools for thinking structurally.

Faith communities are often better at offering community service than they are at addressing the larger systems that create inequity.

Lisa Sharon Harper offered this practical advice to leaders hoping to engage congregations in addressing structural change: “Ask ‘what makes you weep?’; Google that, along with the the word ‘equity’; then, show up. Following this advice will help identify groups that are challenging unjust structures, not simply helping individuals,” she said. “We need a holy matrimony between charity and justice,” Salguero added.

3. Create multiple entry points.

Not everyone is led to participate in a “Black Lives Matters” rally, but many want to show support for this cause.

Adam Russsell Taylor offered the example of supporting a boycott planned for December. “We have to get much more creative and practical about what people can do from different stations in life to show common cause with these movements,” he said.

4. Preach and teach embodiment.

Carolyn Davis reminded us that, “There is no ‘state’ and then ’us.’ It is us.”

On issues such as voter suppression and paid family leave, she said “It matters when you have more skin in the game…These are embodied questions. For Christians the question is: What is our engagement with the care of people’s bodies?”

5. Look for the intersections between diverse Christians.

Christians have a lot of shared convictions that might go unnoticed, but engaging across difference requires high levels of commitment.

“It’s hard to argue that Christ did not share a deep concern for the weak and the vulnerable,” said Taylor. One participant wondered whether white Christians might be called to serve as “human shields” to black citizens amidst growing incidents of police brutality. This, she said, would build on a successful model used by Christians to show solidarity with Muslims during post-9/11 backlash. Instead of shying away from high commitment partnerships such as this, “Let’s talk about the risk involved,” urged Salguero.

6. Get to know people who don’t look like you.

Panelists lifted up the tendency of people to surround themselves with others who think and act like them. Such self-segregation minimizes the potential for civility across difference.

Congregations might foster a deeper connection between people of different walks of life “so that we can be in relationship with others and see the world through their eyes,” Taylor advocated. Similarly, Davis reminded, “The way we talk to each other can matter.” Christians and other people of faith might model weighing their own convictions with the desire to think together with people who think differently.

7. Pay attention to changing demographics.

The growing numbers of Asian-American and Latino/a evangelicals are changing the politics of the traditional Christian right, from which new coalitions might form.

“We’re seeing politics emerge around issues of race, immigration, gender and sexual identity,” said panelist Janelle Wong. “Churches are our most cherished institutions. They can provide the edge of a new kind of politics.”

The Community Forum began with the expression of disappointment, frustration, and even fear about current political divisiveness. After inviting reflections from participants and brainstorming practical ideas around engaging congregations in action, the conversation shifted into a space where, as one panelist stated, “we might even have a little more hope.” This movement—from frustration and fear to hope, even in the smallest degree—occurred as a result of deep listening. This is the sort of deep listening that honors the image of God reflected in all people, and is perhaps a most promising tool in the hands of faith communities seeking to lead change for good.

Additional Resources

Community Forum Video

To Serve This Present Age : Social Justice Ministry in the Black Church, Danielle Ayers and Reginald Wade Williams, Jr. (Judson Press, 2013)

The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can be Made Right, by Lisa Sharon Harper (Waterbrook, 2016)

Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2015

Photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum

Tags...: Inside FTE, Inspired Leaders, Thinking Out Loud

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