By Bill Mefford
I remember the first term of the Obama administration, specifically working with the leaders of the faith-based office. I led the work for the United Methodist Church on issues like immigration, gun violence, and mass incarceration. There was great excitement among the faith community working on public policy on Capitol Hill for what could be accomplished with a “friendly” administration.
But we quickly found out that the faith-based office was not really all that friendly; well, not with us at least. Sure, their doors were open to us - something that had not happened with the Bush administration at all. But every time we met with them to pursue various policies their only question to us was whether we had “evangelical” groups working with us. When they were, they were genuinely helpful. When they weren’t, doors to see other important leaders in the administration - and these were people in positions that could help advance important policies that impacted real peoples’ lives - these doors remain closed for the most part.
I played along at first, but realizing that the political windows for getting things done and achieving real policy change would not remain open for long, I began to push back to the folks that headed that office. I reminded them that most denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, already had a large number of evangelicals as members. I reminded them that it was not our responsibility to make evangelical groups have good policy on these issues (and most of them still do not). I also reminded them that not having evangelicals with us might be more important than actually having them; meaning, when the values and principles of these groups are so focused on things like maintaining an economic status quo in favor of the affluent and against genuine and long-lasting reform, such as granting citizenship to ALL undocumented immigrants, then it is imperative to NOT be in alliance with any group that is not committed to achieving real reform just for the sake of political convenience.
But more than anything, I reminded them - actually I implored the leaders of the faith-based office in President Obama’s first term - that we could mobilize more people, more voters, to support our progressive policy stances than evangelical groups could mobilize their people on their very moderate (and by using “moderate” I am being kind) stances. And the truth is, at least among the United Methodists I was a part of, we did. Regularly, in President Obama’s first and second term in office, United Methodists out-mobilized evangelical and Catholic churches in public witness events (despite never getting any funding money, which was poured into evangelical groups by the thousands). Every time.
And you know what? It did not matter. No matter what I reminded the leaders of the faith-based office in President Obama’s first term, no matter what I showed them in terms of the number of people we had mobilized and the number of events that were organized, they only wanted to know how many evangelical groups we worked with.
So, with a new Democratic majority in the House, let me offer a “friendly” note of advice: forget the evangelicals. Seriously. If evangelicals want to join progressive religious people then they are welcome - ALL people are welcome to join, but you gotta be on the same page policy-wise and you gotta keep up. But if they can’t - and there are real reasons below on why they cannot - then Democratic leaders should leave them behind.
Let’s take immigration reform, for example. Even though there was an Interfaith Immigration Coalition that was first established in 2006 (when I first got to DC), evangelicals, with the help of lots of foundation funding, started their own coalition. Two of their policy goals include, “guarantee[ing] secure national borders” and “ensur[ing] fairness to taxpayers.” Neither one of these have anything to do with fighting for immigrants and their families and, in fact, these goals actually inhibit the much-needed work of emphasizing the impact that anti-immigrant policies have on immigrants and their families.
Or you can look at mass incarceration and the recently passed First Step Act. I recently wrote a piece on the collateral damage of this legislation, which passed with full support of evangelical organizations while some progressive faith organizations rightly did not support it. But evangelicals have traditionally been the ones in DC to support the economic and political status quo - no matter who continues to experience oppression and marginalization, while progressives tend to support a more vigorous and fully thought out reform, which calls for greater justice and equality for all. This happened repeatedly with a number of issues.
The argument that the faith-based office used for focusing so heavily on evangelicals was that, supposedly, they were the key to get something done. In other words, progressive faith people just cannot do that on their own.
In 2015, Senator Grassley of Iowa, who was also Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke on the Senate floor and said he would never allow sentencing reform legislation to pass through his committee. Working with some amazing - and entirely progressive - faith leaders in Iowa, we flipped Senator Grassley on his stance on sentencing reform which led to the passage of a bipartisan sentencing reform legislation through his committee in September of that same year. Evangelical organizations did not lift a finger to help us and you know what? We did not need them.
Democrats now in charge of the House do not need evangelicals. Sure, if they want to follow the lead of progressive faith folks then the more the merrier! Building alliances with as many groups is absolutely crucial so I am the first to reach out, but when they fall short of the policies that are needed for justice - and most of the time they fall far short - then it is time to go on with everyone who can go the full distance. Never - and I mean never - should progressive organizations or Democrats themselves change their stances on policies that they know will work and provide for just and inclusive remedies for the serious problems facing this country in order to attract the support of evangelical organizations. Sadly, it happens all of the time.
My piece of advice to the House Democrats is to dance with the ones that brought you here. The country is becoming increasingly progressive and inclusive in their religious experience, or folks are becoming nonreligious entirely. Quit wasting time worrying about evangelical organizations who have blown their credibility on kissing the rear end of the man in the Oval Office and let’s focus on getting things done.