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The Next Great Awakening

BY Kim Bobo

A few years ago, a young union organizer asked me, “Which are the good churches and which are the bad ones?” He wanted a quick (and intellectually easy) way to understand which faith bodies would be the most supportive of workers’ rights.

“It’s not that simple,” I told him. His question was like asking, “Which are the good unions and which are the bad ones?”

Understanding faith communities, especially understanding the complexities of the evangelical and Catholic worlds, is now an easier task, thanks to two new books, The Great Awakening by Sojourners Editor Jim Wallis and Souled Out by syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne. Though written in different styles–the preacher (Wallis) and the political journalist (Dionne)–together offer insight into religious activism and the possibilities for a more progressive approach to religious engagement in the public square.

The strength of Wallis’ book lies in its stories. They include impressions on the diversity of the religious community and on encouraging cases of evangelicals who are engaging in social justice. Few writers have talked with evangelical leaders and spoken at religious events more than Wallis. The Great Awakening reflects upon evangelicals’ concerns with poverty, and observes that the Right has lost its stranglehold on many white members.

As I know from my work as executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network that mobilizes people of faith in support of economic justice, evangelical and Pentecostal traditions have a long history of supporting working class struggles. And the best indicator of whether a church will do so is based on where the workers attend services.

When coalmining members of Four Square Gospel churches in Appalachia go on strike, those churches get involved. When janitors who are members of Pentecostal storefront churches seek a contract, that church gets involved. When an unethical employer cheats members of a mega-church out of their wages, leaders of the church are likely to join a delegation to visit the employer, praying on the employer’s home doorstep until wages are paid.

Though such congregations are often written off as “conservative,” many are willing to advocate for workers if their members are affected. On the flip side, a wealthy congregation may be liberal on cultural issues but less likely to engage on worker justice issues. In other words, class matters–often more than theology.

Dionne’s book is an excellent complement to Wallis’. Like Wallis, Dionne was raised in a loving Christian family in Fall River, Mass. But unlike Wallis, who is evangelical, Dionne is Catholic.

Both are frustrated with Christians who would focus all their time advocating for children before they are born but then forget about them after birth. Dionne writes:

Speaking as one of those progressive Catholics, our anguish grows from our own affection for the Church, the debt we feel we carry for its moral guidance … and for its passing along the inspiration of Christian hope. Over the years, the disdain that some liberals showed toward the Catholic Church and other churches bothered us–especially because so many of us came to what are seen as liberal views largely because of, not in spite of, Christianity and the church.

While The Great Awakening recounts stories from an activist preacher who traversed the nation, Souled Out gives facts, analysis and inside details on religious leaders’ views. Dionne is well-equipped for the task, having covered the Vatican for the New York Times in the mid-’80s.

Many of Dionne’s chapters are must-reads for progressive activists. In a chapter titled “Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War,” he points out that the United States has always had a culture war. (Remember prohibition?) On the other hand, there are the varying poles of opinion. Dionne suggests that 15 percent to 20 percent of the population is largely religious and staunchly conservative and another 15 percent to 20 percent is largely secular and staunchly liberal. The rest he calls the “warring middle.” Many of them are people of faith who care deeply about the economy, living wage and social programs for poor families, but they are also concerned about divorce rates, garbage shown on television and rampant consumerism.

In another chapter, Dionne writes that the “central divide among religious Americans” is “over government’s role in alleviating poverty.”

If we are ever to engage larger numbers of people of faith in addressing the barriers to ending poverty, we must talk about the importance of private and public responses. We can affirm the private responses that congregations and individuals undertake, while at the same time acknowledge the limitations of such efforts to address society-wide problems.

The three-decade attack on the role of the government has undermined people’s belief that it can be useful. But public programs have done great things and could do more. Secular progressives must reach out to their more religious brethren to build widespread political support for them.

For those of us who are active in religious communities–and even more so for those of us who actively organize people of faith in justice matters–these books offer great hope. They document what we know from our own work: The right wing is losing its tight grip over evangelical communities. Similarly, within the Catholic community, many progressives are developing new ways of engaging congregations.

“There is very good reason to believe,” Dionne concludes “that in the coming years, Americans’ religious communities will no longer be seen as the natural allies of political conservatism.”

That would be a great awakening indeed.

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a columnist for Religion Dispatches, is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid -- And What We Can Do About It (The New Press) and co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling organizing manual in the country.

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