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Religious leaders pray

Religious leaders pray for workers during a 2004 San Francisco hotel lockout. (Photo by: Photo Courtesy Of Interfaith Worker Justice )

The Religious Left, Born Again

Progressive activists are finding inspiration in churches, synagogues and mosques.

BY Theo Anderson

For three decades, the religious right has monopolized media coverage of religion in American life. But the big story of the next few decades, spiritually speaking, might be the re-emergence of the religious left as a powerful political force.

What’s going on in Illinois offers solid evidence for that theory. This past spring, the state’s General Assembly considered two controversial bills. One proposed to give courts the authority to seal the criminal records of people who were arrested and then released because the charges were dropped or the defendant was acquitted. As it stood, the records could not be sealed if the person had a prior conviction. Employers almost never hire job seekers with a recent arrest on their record, so the law left large numbers of people unemployable. The other bill proposed the legalization of medical marijuana.

Until recently, both bills were politically toxic because voting for them would leave politicians vulnerable to the charge of being soft on crime or pro-drugs. Yet the General Assembly passed the bill on May 23, allowing court records to be sealed. The medical marijuana bill fell short by only a few votes, but the Assembly will likely vote on it again this fall.

Both bills became politically viable in part because they were high priorities with Protestants for the Common Good (PCG), a lobbying organization that focuses on Illinois politics. Its executive director, Rev. Alexander Sharp, said that a small investment of time and energy can have a big impact on policy. “Legislators look at probably 2,000 bills in any given session,” Sharp says. “There’s extraordinary value in simply taking the time to sit down with them and talk about a piece of legislation. They’re almost uniformly receptive to that if you give them good, clear information.”

PCG distributes educational materials to about 400 churches, but its primary focus is legislative lobbying. It is organizing a network of about 100 people across Illinois who will pressure legislators on short notice when progressive voices might sway a vote in the Assembly. “That’s not a huge number, but it can make a major difference,” says Sharp, who earned a Masters of Divinity from the University of Chicago in 1996, the same year he became PCG’s founding executive director. “It’s strategic involvement that makes a big difference. An awful lot of what we’ve accomplished has been because we were a distinctive voice at the margin that tipped the opinion.”

Another faith-based organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, has been pivotal in putting wage theft on national and local legislative agendas. Kim Bobo, who founded the organization in the mid-’90s and is IWJ’s executive director, said that its single-minded focus on economic justice has helped it cooperate with congregations across the theological and denominational spectrum. It is especially active among Catholic churches that serve primarily Latino populations. “There is a set of social issues that are very divisive within the religious community,” she says. “But when you come to economic matters, the divisions are not as clear.”

IWJ, a national organization based in Chicago, consists of a loose network of local organizations nationwide. About 40 of its affiliated groups foster cooperation between religious institutions and labor unions. IWJ also supports 26 “worker centers”–places where victims of wage theft can turn to for information and legal support.

Bobo says there has been a noticeable uptick in activism among religious people in the wake of recent anti-union activity in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states. “We’re seeing a lot of religious leaders…saying, ‘You can’t balance your budget on the backs of workers,’ ” she says. “t’s an opportunity to engage more people.”

IWJ has supported federal-level legislation aimed at curbing wage theft, with little success. But it has made progress at the city and county levels. Florida’s Dade County, for example, passed the country’s first countywide wage-theft ordinance in 2010. The South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice chapter was key to making that happen. A similar ordinance is being discussed in San Francisco.

These recent victories by PCG and IWJ suggest a promising strategy for the progressive movement’s future: partnering with religious people and institutions to generate reform at the grassroots levels. That strategy was at the heart of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. Where it could lead today, and the impact it might have on national politics, God only knows.

“A majority of the people in the U.S. consider themselves spiritual or religious,” Bobo says. “So we believe that the moral language and the core principles [of religion] resonate with a lot of people in this country.”

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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