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To Renew Grassroots Democracy is to Renew the Church

In this essay I argue that renewing grassroots democracy (not political parties) will also renew the Church. I’ll substantiate this argument by briefly outlining 1/ the purpose of political parties, 2/the purpose of religion and of Christianity; 3/what I mean by grassroots democracy, and 4/end with how the renewal of grassroots democracy can and is renewing (some) congregational life in America.

The Purpose of Political Parties in America
As I understand it, the purpose of political parties in America – Democratic, Republican, Green and Constitution -is 1/to raise money to fund local, regional, state, and national campaigns to elective office; 2/to choose Presidential nominees; 3/to promote winning candidates for elections; 4/to organize and execute voter turnout or voter turnout suppression; 5/to win elections; in 2012, the average cost of a House race was $1.7 million and of a Senate race was $10.5 million, with minimum-maximum costs ranging from $110,000 (American Samoa) to $42 million (Massachusetts).

  • To explain ideological, philosophical, and political positions on issues in order to justify and make laws, represent the people and pass the federal budget.
  • To represent the political will of their constituents and of the broader polis (this claim is highly contested). The problem with representation is that the typical Congressperson is a white, Protestant male, a lawyer by profession, and wealthier than the average citizen. For example, 25% of Americans are racial minorities; in the House and Senate, its 15% and 3% respectively. 50% of Americans are female; 14% (House) and 14% (Senate) of Congress is female. Only 1% of the U.S. population holds assets of $10 million or more, yet in the House and Senate, the percentages are 16% and 33% respectively.  In sum, wealthy, white, Protestant males overwhelmingly represent a nation of middle class wage earners who are in the aggregate becoming browner and blacker every passing day.
  • To distribute patronage jobs

The threats to traditional political party power include the rise of the independent voter, and of special interest groups and super PACs, and the effects of the Citizens United decision which determined that corporations and unions can use their treasury funds for independent political advertising.

As they are currently structured, political parties are not the answer to teaching good citizenship practices and deepening grassroots democracy. Their purpose is to raise money (small donors, mega-donors, PACS), distribute money to viable candidates, test and refine political ideas, field candidates, develop them through the rigors of fundraising and finding/mobilizing eligible voters, and getting those voters to the polls on election day. After election day, partisans have little use for voters. The best organizers understand this transactional, highly narrow process and offer a richer and more relational alternative.

The Purpose of Religion Particularly, Christianity Specifically, and the Practice of Grassroots Democracy

My understanding is that religion – religio – “puts fences around our behavior. It (should) inculcate in society the essential beliefs, values, and basic convictions on which a society constructs its life together. My understanding is that the purpose of the Christian religion is “to make disciples for the transformation of the world” (United Methodist Church). Lives are transformed when safety and security, education and housing, healthcare, clean food and water are secured for all people. All the better when Christian disciples are formed in the work of securing these benefits – these human essentials - for all people. This is what I envision when Jesus says to go into all the world making disciples of all nations. I know this command to be true in having seen thousands of poor Namibian woman (re)build their own houses, with their own hands and with the help of other men and women-and in so doing, substantially change their lives and the future hopes of their children (2008-2010). These houses were built – not because of political parties – but rather in spite of political parties. The houses were built through the work of ordinary people organizing themselves to demand land, money, and resources from the central government in order for the women to build their homes themselves. They waited not for a government or a political party to help them. They did the work themselves. In other words, it was grassroots democracy worked out on the land, with hands and bodies and concrete and bricks and pipes. In so doing, lives have been changed, people are living in dignity, safety, and community.

Renewing Grassroots Democracy and Renewing the Church
As I understand it grassroots democracy is the work of finding and developing leaders and potential leaders, working together across difference to do justice, developing trust and building community, and in so doing, transforming the world. At this moment, it seems that the Democrats are better at working across difference to enact policy, and that Republicans are using difference to divide the nation, propel forward progress for favored ones and to impede forward progress for the many.

In this maelstrom, the major organizing networks – IAF, Gamaliel Foundation, DART, and PICO – offer ordinary people the opportunity to participate powerfully in public life; that is, in taking their religious values into the public square and concretizing them in  into policy. The relational alternative to transactional partisanship is laborious work. We find and develop leaders and potential leaders, catechize them through crucibles of heterogeneity, have them do research, action, and reflection on issues that are important to them and to the broader community, and learn how to successfully negotiate with business and government leaders. These parents and grandparents – steelworkers and rabbis, pastors and school teachers – speak before large delegate assemblies, present issue platforms and ultimately, win on their issues. We do this work primarily, but not exclusively, through religious congregations because congregations are organized, because they mediate in communities, and because they have a mandate to transform the world.

It’s in the hard work of organizing and reorganizing communities that concrete changes that materially improve lives happen; it’s where leaders, followers, and potential leaders are mentored face-to-face and in real time; it’s where living wage campaigns are waged and sometimes won. The glad result is that working people have more take-home pay and a bit more breathing room to live and move and have their being. It’s because of public pressure on the 364 days when people are not voting, but are just living their lives where new school buildings are built, new ecologically efficient buses are purchased, and new bus shelters are constructed

Political parties do not build democratic practices and good citizens; they develop ideologues, partisans and party operatives and apparatchiks. They seek winnable candidates for communities that have gerrymandered districts where outcomes are predetermined and settled. These predeterminations harden partisanship, ideological divisions, diminish healthy conversation and disagreement, increase tribalisms that stifle democratic practices of deep listening, understanding, conversation and relationships across race, class, ethnicity, and location, and embolden partisans and single-issue people to make narrow decisions @ single issues, and a decrease in decisions made for the good of the whole.

Paradoxically, it is in the deliberate, self-conscious focus on human beings and their development that we do in organizing that can also help renew religious practice. It is the focus on the common good and in having people who are affected by particular issues do research, action, and reflection on those issues that develops them. And it is in the house meeting, the relational meeting, and the delegates assembly where ordinary people gain a sense that they can be powerful and effective in making our communities more democratic and fair for all. For me, that is gospel work at its best and makes us be true and right Christians, making disciples for the transformation of the world.

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