When we heard the weather report predicting another snow storm
on its way to Washington, D.C., our hearts sank. The Call to Renewal
organizing conference was about to begin in the nation's capital
and those of us planning it worried that people slated to attend
from around the country might be dissuaded by the forecast. But
on Friday morning, February 2, the large meeting room at the Capitol
Hill Holiday Inn quickly filled up, and smiles returned to the
This first national gathering of the Call to Renewal was announced
as a "working conference," a time to train, organize,
and mobilize for the election year. The purpose of the Call to
Renewal during 1996 is twofold: to lift up a visible Christian
alternative to the Religious Right and to lay the foundations
for a "new politics" rooted in spiritual values beyond
the old categories of Right and Left.
More than 200 key grassroots activists from every region of the
United States braved the snow and came ready to work. They included
evangelical pastors and the founders of successful church-based
urban programs; diocesan social action directors and Catholic
sisters in social service ministries; conveners of local coalitions
and leaders of national networks such as the Christian Community
Development Association (with more than 250 affiliates in 100
cities), Pax Christi, Bread for the World, Evangelicals for Social
Action, SCUPE (the largest urban ministry network in the country),
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Leadership Foundations
(building faith-based partnerships in 21 cities); and more. Pentecostal
preachers from the streets and the head of a mainline denomination
attended, as did representatives from local councils of churches
and Christians from every walk of life eager to mobilize a voice
other than the Christian Coalition.
It was a weekend of listening to stirring speakers, wrestling
with tough issues, getting ideas, acquiring skills, and creating
strategy. The organizing conference produced concrete results
and a plan of action for the election year. Participants returned
home with real enthusiasm to mobilize Call to Renewal networks
in their own communities; to organize regional conferences and
local town meetings; to prepare churches to hold candidate and
issue forums during the election campaign where a wide range of
moral questions will be discussed and put to those running for
office; to utilize new resources for local churches and groups
such as Recovering the Evangel: A guide to faith, politics,
and alternatives to the Religious Right
(available from Sojourners),
(available from the U.S. Catholic
Conference), and soon-to-be-ready material from Evangelicals for
Social Action; and to distribute the Call's "voter guide"
with biblical criteria for evaluating candidates and issues (to
be ready this spring).
The Call to Renewal will be creating think tanks on public policy
questions, which could lead to a new policy institute for longer-range
work in developing new political directions. Next fall, the network
will call for a "Faith and Politics" Sunday to examine
the elections from a Christian perspective. The Call will also
be hosting a national event in Washington in early September to
offer a clear alternative to the Christian Coalition in the national
political debate. (See the "Call to Renewal" column,
page 44, for more details on the 1996 plan.)
Since its start only nine months ago, the Call to Renewal has
already been successful in beginning to offer an alternative to
the Religious Right. Media coverage of the Call as a new and different
voice has been extensive in major newspapers, radio, and all the
television networks. That voice will grow stronger during this
election year. You can challenge your local media to cover all
the voices speaking on the impact of religious and moral values
on politics-not just the loud voice of the Religious Right.
The second purpose of the Call-to help forge a new political vision-will
be more difficult, challenging, exciting, and ultimately more
important than merely countering the Religious Right. At the conference,
differences arose between participants and constituencies that
make up the growing Call to Renewal network. That was not only
to be expected, but was indeed a very healthy development. Free
and open discussion is welcome in the Call to Renewal, and we
had a lot of it in February. But the Call will be more than an
open forum with tolerance for many views on controversial questions.
Those involved will actually try to forge new thinking, create
new political possibilities, and seek to find new common ground
between those with legitimate concerns.
There was a strong consensus at the conference on issues such
as the biblical priority of the poor, the theological imperative
of caring for the environment, and the spiritual urgency of confronting
racism in America. Less clear was how to address divisive questions
such as abortion and how gay and lesbian people figure in family
issues. These of course are the touchstone issues for the Religious
Right and have become polarizing flash-points in the political
debate. It is clear from this gathering that we need new ways
to address these familiar and important issues.
The Call will not avoid these social issues, like many on the
liberal left have, or simply take a libertarian stance as candidates
on both sides of the political spectrum have done. One and a half
million abortions every year is
a moral issue for most
in the Call to Renewal network, as is the urgent need to rebuild
our disintegrating family systems. Teen-age pregnancy, family
break-ups, and the lack of personal responsibility are just as
key reasons for poverty and human misery as the loss of jobs,
the decline of wages, the marginalizing of the poor, and continuing
racial injustice. Both the Left and the Right continue to make
false choices about these issues of cultural breakdown and social
injustice. They must be put back together.
Why can't we be committed to public policies that discourage abortion
and actively seek alternatives that save lives, while fostering
an environment that protects the equality of women and the well-being
of all children? Why can't pro-life and pro-choice people work
together to reduce dramatically the number of abortions-by working
on teen-age pregnancy and adoption reform, for example-instead
of endlessly debating a constitutional amendment, which even many
conservative politicians now say wouldn't be effectively pro-life?
Similarly, why can't we agree that traditional two-parent families
must be strengthened and supported, even by public policy, but
do it in a way that doesn't scapegoat or discriminate against
gay and lesbian citizens? Blaming homosexual people for the decline
of family life is both stupid and mean-spirited and ought to stop.
At the same time, we must recognize that a critical mass of families
with male and female role models is crucial for the well-being
of children and the stability of any society.
And why do we continue to force a false choice between personal
responsibility or economic justice as the most critical factor
in alleviating poverty, as the conservatives and liberals continue
to do? Why are we forced to favor big government programs or the
withdrawal of government altogether in the welfare debate? Both
bad habits and the lack of economic opportunity create poverty,
often in tandem. New partnerships between non-profit organizations
and governments on all levels are most likely to create the kind
of civil society through which many of our problems can be solved.
On these and other questions, we need some new thinking. The Call
to Renewal is committed to help find the new approaches our country
so desperately needs. At the heart of any new approaches will
be a new political morality, a new spiritual politics. The task
of forging that new politics will take us far beyond the election
of 1996. Join us. (Please contact the Call to Renewal office at
2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 for a list of conference
tapes, resources, and press clips, or for media suggestions and
organizing help. We want to hear from you.)
THE SUMMIT ON ETHICS AND MEANING
Speaking of new politics... Michael Lerner and our friends
magazine are hosting an important gathering in
Washington, D.C., April 14-16. "The Summit on Ethics and
Meaning" will bring together people from diverse religious
communities and beyond the religious community to discuss "a
politics in the image of God." Lerner, whose book The
Politics of Meaning
will soon be released, has spearheaded
this conference, which promises to be an extraordinary three days.
I will be a speaker along with Lerner, Cornel West, Harvey Cox,
James Forbes, Amitai Etzioni, Joan Chittister, David Saperstein,
Henry Louis Gates Jr., Naomi Wolf, Stephen Carter, Jim Hightower,
Mary Edsall, Sharon Welch, Arthur Waskow, Michael Dyson, and Jesse
Sojourners is supporting this interfaith effort led by kindred
spirits in the progressive Jewish community for "a whole
new paradigm for politics, moving beyond Left/Right dichotomies."
The organizers call upon us to recognize the "ethical or
spiritual crisis" of politics and to counter the claims of
the Religious Right to be the only voice for moral values in America.
As the conference materials state, "We seek a society based
upon love and caring-affirming the sanctity of every human being."
All Sojourners members and friends are warmly encouraged to come.
Contact The Learning Alliance, 324 Lafayette St., 7th Floor, New
York, NY 10012; (212) 226-7171.
DANIEL BERRIGAN'S BIRTHDAY BASH
Sojourners members are also invited to celebrate Daniel Berrigan's
75th birthday on May 4, 1996, in New York City. Doubling as a
fund-raiser for Plowshares activists, the gathering will feature
the music of Pete Seeger. Contact Plowshares NY, 618 W. 138th
St., New York City, NY 10031; (212) 234-2447.