During the earlier series on the Evangelical Christian Movement I skimmed over the discussion of the Movement’s political influence in the U.S. It’s a story that’s been covered at length by the mainstream media [New York Times, Huffington Post, CNN].
There is no doubt the Movement is having a powerful impact on our upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections, but I am convinced that the more insidious influence is in our local and state elections. In the 1990s the Movement intentionally shifted their focus to these smaller elections where their voting block would have a greater impact.
As explained more than a decade ago by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition:
The Christian community got it backwards in the 1980s. We tried to charge Washington when we should have been focusing on the states. The real battles of concern to Christians are in neighborhoods, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures.
[Hankins, American Evangelicals: A Contemporary History of a Mainstream Religious Movement]
In the early 1990s, Reed reported that 4,000 evangelicals were sitting on school boards in the U.S. and the People for the American Way reported that the Movement won 40 percent of the state and local elections they participated in. [DeFilippis et al, Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing].
Of course, its been a long ass time since the Christian Coalition essentially imploded. [Washington Post]. So you may be asking yourself why the hell we should care. Well, personally, I’m not sure the influence of the remaining grassroots organizations is as dead as we might think. As I argued last time that:
[T]he goals of the modern Evangelical Movement are to create social and legal restrictions on abortion, contraception, financial safety nets, family structures, and sexual behavior.
And these principles appear, to me, to be driving the vile legislation we’ve seen in recent years [Feministe]. Of course it’s just a theory.
Assuming this theory is correct (and I recognize the size of that assumption), there is one rather obvious (if impractical) solution. We have to organize to contest candidates who share the Movement’s values.
A lot of work has been done by others about how organize for social and political change. [Online Conference on Community Organizing.]* Step One? Identify the problem. Or in this case, the candidates in our state, local, and judicial elections that are aligned with the Evangelical Christian Movement.
Easier said than done of course. Such candidates are not always visible. In local and school board elections there usually isn’t significant advertising. Instead politicians rely on political party membership or “handshake” campaigning. Affiliated churches, as the organizing institution of the Movement, are extraordinarily effective for these candidates. Sometimes they are even recruited or “called” from churches in part because they are perceived as having a built-in voter base. [My father was once "called" to run for office. Fortunately, he ignored that calling but as a consequence we had to leave that particular church.] In addition, there are rousing sermons (Remember Pastor Hagee?) that instruct members about the importance of voting and voting according to “God’s will.” [Feministe] Perhaps more importantly for local or school board elections, affiliated churches provide access to motivated voters and getting a voter to recognize your name is 90% of the battle. But unless a candidate reaches national attention, the general public may never know the candidate’s association with the Evangelical Christian Movement.
Project Vote Smart (one of my favorite websites of all time) can give us some indication because they aggregate the interest group scorecards (like the one for Planned Parenthood!). Still, these are an imperfect metric for local and school board elections where that level of analysis is not available.
Ideally, I would love to see a special interest group that engages candidates at this local level on the specific issues the Movement is trying to push: for example, allowing bullying in schools, reducing sex education, permitting CPCs to operate without proper oversight, modifying school curriculums to whitewash history, among others. The cool thing is, I think it’s actually doable. If we do the work of putting together questionnaires about the issues that are relevant to our communities and send them to the candidates, then groups like Project Vote Smart will likely include those results.
So my questions to you are, first, what do you think? Do you think this might be an effective way to counter the influence of the Movement at least at a local level? Is this something you might be interested in participating in? What types of questions would you ask your local candidates given what you’ve seen occurring in your communities?
*Of course this is just my favorite link, there are thousands of other excellent resources out there. Please feel free to link to your favorite in the comments.