Faith in Public Life: Ecumenical Politics

By Stephanie Block

Meet Jim Wallis. The Reverend Jim Wallis is a writer[1] and a progressive political activist who founded and edits Sojourners magazine and directs an organization by the same name. He is a non-denomination Evangelical Protestant minister.

In anticipation of the 1996 elections, Wallis convened what was, at the time, called an “evangelical parachurch political action group,” Call to Renewal – Christian for a New Political Vision, “created out of the perceived need to present an alternative viewpoint to the dominant conservative political agenda – represented by such groups as the boards of Christian Coalition.” [2] Today, its literature describes it as “an interfaith effort to end poverty” and during the summer of 2006 it merged boards with Sojourners’.

Call to Renewal partners and affiliates were a modest fellowship six years ago, comprised primarily of progressive protestant organizations and a handful of powerful Catholic groups.[3] It described itself as politically “moderate.”

“Moderate,” was a rhetorical term meant to sooth anxieties about Call to Renewal’s political activism. Wallis, who was the president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)[4] during his college days and is a stout supporter of Alinskyian faith-based organizing, is certainly aware of the organizing adage: “You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments….all effective action requires the passport of morality.” [5]

Now, as the 2008 presidential elections loom, Wallis has begun a more ambitious political project, Faith in Public Life. The website for Faith in Public Life [6]explains that its founding was sparked by the 2004 elections to support what it calls the “social justice faith movement” and develop “increased and effective collaboration, coordination, and communication on the national, state and local level.” In contrast to the “religious right,” Faith in Public Life eschews, according to its spokes-folk, the issues of abortion and homosexuality and focuses on “social and economic justice” – although many of its 2470 affiliate groups will tell you that abortion and homosexual rights are social and economic justice issues.

Who are Faith in Public Life members? First, there are the faith institutions. Catholics are particularly well represented by diocesan offices around the country and various chapters of Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Social Services, to name some of the more respectable players. Groups that exist to destroy Catholic teaching and Church structure have an impressive presence, too, particularly Call to Action and its related Pax Christi and Dignity chapters.

Liberal factions of Jews, Methodists, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Muslims are participants, also, as one can readily see from a small sampling: The Episcopal Public Policy Network, Jews United for Justice, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Council of Churches, andthe Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Secondly, there are the organizers. Among Faith in Public Life affiliates are hundreds of faith-based groups and their member institutions, from all around the country, and all of them related to the organizational theories of Saul Alinsky. Most of them fall into their own networks – the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, Gamaliel, ACORN, ICWJ – producing a dizzying array of names and acronyms, but besides history, they have structural and “prophetic” commonalities. That means they think and work alike – and together.

Lastly, there are the “friends,” the secular organizations that have, over the years, contributed to the “vision.” Among these are the Children’s Defense Fund, The Interfaith Alliance, People for the American Way, and the Center for American Values and Public Life.

A little background. The great social upheaval of the 1960s had been taking place, underground, for some time. Its US roots lay, in part, with the Protestant “social gospel” movement of the late 19th century and the Catholic “liberation theology” movement that began in the mid-twentieth century among European intellectuals and spread to impoverished areas of Latin America. The common denominator of both movements is a false historicity,[7] a reinterpretation of the Christian faith through an economic-political lens, and a flirtation – if not open marriage – with socialism.

The US Catholic Church witnessed the first major, public assault against its authority during a three-day Call to Action Conference in Detroit in October 1976, which had been sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. This Conference brought together delegates from across the United States to ratify eight position papers that had been prepared in advance.[8]

Several of these papers had the clear imprint of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) on them. For example, the working paper on Neighborhood recommended (and it was approved by the Call to Action delegates) that every parish support a “competent,” ecumenical neighborhood action group, with diocesan resources used to train organizational “leaders” for their use.[9] The IAF had also been involved the year before in a pre-Detroit “hearing” on the topic of Nationhood. The Nationhood working papers subsequently proposed that the Church establish priorities for public policy, define major election issues, educate the laity on the moral dimensions of public issues, and implement these goals ecumenically, that is, in conjunction with other churches and civic groups.

Monsignor Jack Egan of Chicago, “a longtime Alinsky supporter, IAF board member, and activist on Chicago urban issues,”[10] served as co-chair of the 1976 Call to Action plenary sessions. [11] The Call to Action “working papers” contained specific challenges to the discipline and doctrine of the Church. “…[M]ore than 2,400 delegates at the conference - people deeply involved in the life of the institutional church and appointed by their bishops - approve such progressive resolutions, ones calling for, among other things, the ordination of women and married men, female altar servers, and the right and responsibility of married couples to form their own consciences on the issue of artificial birth control.”[12]

Obviously, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was in no position to ratify these proposals but it has been the effort of Call to Action-related organizations, including the IAF, each within its own sphere of influence, to bring about the changes it could. For example, in the years after the 1976 inaugural Call to Action Conference, it may not yet be that every United States Catholic parish supports a “competent,” ecumenical neighborhood-action group, with diocesan and parish resources used to train organizational “leaders,” but there are over scores local IAF affiliates in various cities around the United States, most of which have the membership a number of Catholic parishes. These IAF locals receive Catholic money through an annual “poverty appeal” called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and through the dues of their member parishes. Add to that dozens of additional IAF- style networks that are also receiving CCHD funds and local Catholic parish membership dues, and one can see that the Call to Action dream of organizing every Catholic parish is underway.[13]

So far, we’ve only been speaking of Catholic history. There is a similar story to tell in each of the mainstream Protestant denominations.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was born in1987, the product of various splits and realignments among the US Lutheran population.[14] According to a Faith in Public Life document, “Community Organizing and National Denominations,” the ELCA began meeting with members of the larger, national organizing networks in the early 1990s. From these discussions, the ELCA developed a six-point strategic plan on the integration of faith-based organizing throughout the denomination, hoping “to produce a powerful force that can act as a real agent of social change.” [15]

The four major Alinsky networks are all involved – the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky, and DART, Gamaliel, and PICO, whose founding organizers learned their craft at Alinsky’s feet. The Faith in Public Life document explains that “[t]he ultimate goal of this effort is to change the culture of the church so that community organizing is an integral part of every congregation of the ELCA.”

It is hardly coincidental that at the same time the ELCA has been moving toward the goal of reinventing itself as an earthly “agent of social change,” that the denomination has been changing doctrinally, too. Official positions on homosexuality – expressing the traditional, Biblical belief that marriage was between a man and woman, that homosexual erotic activity was sinful, and that people leading homosexually active lives could not hold positions of ministry – have been shifting over the last two decades.

Naturally, the newly organized ELCA will bring its new moral values into the public – and political –arena.

According to the same Faith in Public Life document, the Presbyterian Church has signed a joint statement with the ELCA concerning plans to get more involved nationally with local community organizing. It’s a fascinating position paper,[16] the product of a national gathering coordinated by the Urban Ministry Office of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Congregation-based Community Organizing/Leadership Development for Public Life Office of the

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It observes that congregation-based (faith-based) community organizing, already an established fact in many congregations, has “proven to be a revitalizing strategy for congregations and expands the reach and vision of ministry.” It therefore advocates that each denomination increasing funding for organizing and explore the ways it “can be a vital part of congregational re-development and new church development…. working together with other denominations on a national strategy around public policy using a community organizing framework.”

For seminarians, there is the particular recommendation to “engage in appropriate learning projects related to congregation-based community organizing. Faculties of seminaries [should] be encouraged to provide resources to the larger church of the theological and biblical foundations of social justice through a CBCO [congregation-based community organizing] strategy.”

Lastly, congregations are to employ “the strategies of community organizing – individual meetings, house meetings, building a relational culture – for congregational transformation….[u]sing CBCO as a primary strategy for mission, understanding its systemic approach as compared to direct service or advocacy.

Rabbi Jonah Presner is a Faith in Public Life spokesman who serves the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network as co-chair of its Boston IAF affiliate and also as the director of Just Congregations, a social action program developed by the Union of Reform Judaism to train Jewish congregations across the country in IAF-based organizing. Just Congregations provides the “language and organizing out of their faith tradition,” as “the language of Christianity, in particular, can make Jews uncomfortable and hesitant to participate. Exacerbating these feelings can be conflicting positions by the two faiths on issues such as abortion and gay rights.”[17]

Like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, there is a Jewish funding mechanism for faith-based organizing – the Jewish FundS for Justice (JFSJ). “The Just Congregations Initiative would support several JFSJ projects: recruiting synagogue leaders for the national gathering; engaging clergy in the CBCO [congregation-based community organizing] task force, connecting leaders locally to JFSJ initiatives; and encouraging [seminary] faculty and students to support and attend CBCO seminary training sessions…. most importantly, the Union/Just Congregations staff members would coordinate a national strategy together with JFSJ staff to determine together which geographic regions are ripe to be targeted for Reform Jewish engagement in CBCO.”[18]

What’s it all about? The pertinent aspect of this organizational effort is to use the wealth and “moral capital,” that is, the respect and influence that religious institutions have in the US, for political purposes – specifically left-wing politics.

With over 150 homosexual-activism organizations among its members, Faith In Public Life will be promoting same-sex marriage around the country.

With groups like the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – an organization that “seeks to ensure that every woman is free to make decisions about having children according to her own conscience and religious beliefs” – Faith In Public Life will be fighting any efforts to curtail legal abortion.

With groups like the dozens of Pax Christi chapters among its members, Faith In Public Life will be an advocate against US military interventions.

With faith-based community organizations among its members, Faith In Public Life will be changing religious institutions into “mediating” institutions between government and its citizens. Every participating congregation will eventually reflect some variant of liberationist theology.

One reviewer for a book on the liberal politics of mainline churches makes two sanguine observations. The first is that all liberally-minded mainline denominations are in decline. The second is that the political threat of conservative Christianity is vastly over-rated as most conservative churches are not focused on politics. She may be right on both counts, and there is no comfort in either observation.

[1] God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (2004); Faith Works: How Faith Based Organizations Are Changing Lives, Neighborhoods, and America (2000); The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left" (1995).

[2], accessed 1/15/07.

[3] Specifically identified as “collaborating organizations” were the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the United States Catholic Conference – Department of Social Development and World Peace, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pax Christi, USA, Maryknoll Justice and Peace, and Catholic Charities, USA.

[4] Students for a Democratic Society was the youth branch of the socialist educational organization League for Industrial Democracy (LID).

[5] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: Tenth rule of the ethics of means and ends, (1971)


[7] Various thinkers in these movements accuse the Christian churches not only of indifference toward the plight of the poor, but of a class-based alignment with the rich and powerful couple with “pie in the sky” theology. While one can, of course, find examples of such abuses throughout its 2000 year history, the Church has been one mankind’s most powerful earthly advocates.

[8] The position papers were on the topics of 1) Nationhood, 2) Neighborhood, 3) Family, 4) Humankind, 5) Personhood, 6) Ethnicity, 7) Church, and 8) Work. They are described in a number of places, one being the Call to Action “Working Papers: Introduction,” NCCB, undated (@ 1976).

[9] 1976 Call to Action working paper on “Nationhood,” p. 12, l. 13-17.

[10] The Neighborhood Works, op.cit.

[11] Heidi Schlumpf, “Remembering the First Call to Action Conference,” The New World News, September 20, 1996.

[12] The New World News, op. cit.

[13] Other IAF-style networks, with hundreds of affiliates around the US, are PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organization), ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now), DART (Direct Action and Research Training Center), and the Gamaliel Foundation. There are other, smaller networks, as well.

[14] carries a detailed history

[15]; The ELCA has a website for those interested in its organizing efforts:

[16] “Lutheran—Presbyterian Congregation-based Community Organizing Consultation,” signed October 13-15, 2005,

[17] Daniel Levisohn, Assistant Editor, JTNews: “Faith Alliance reaches out to Jewish congregations,”


Part 1 - Faith in Public Life
Part 2 - American Catholics and Faith in Public Life

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