I just had a good conversation with Randy Brinson, chairman of Redeem the Vote, with whom I’ve talked several times before. If you look at the Redeem the Vote website, you’ll see a strongly conservative political organization that questions evolution, favors Judge Alito, and otherwise takes positions consistent with the “Christian Right.” However, there is a huge difference between Redeem the Vote and some of the more partisan political groups on the religious right. It is the difference between principle and partisan expediency–a difference that also distinguishes groups on the left.
Redeem the Vote wants to help citizens solve what appear to them to be public problems. I disagree with some of the “problems” on the organization’s list. For example, I don’t think it’s bad when schools exclusively teach evolution. Nevertheless, I recognize genuine democratic problem-solving when I see it, and I believe it contributes to our civic life.
In practice, this means that …
1) Redeem the Vote registers young voters in all demographic groups and communities. As a result, a substantial proportion of their registrants are Democrats. They want people to vote “pro-life” and otherwise conservatively on social issues. They make conservative arguments while canvassing. But their approach is open-ended because they are willing to take the chance that they may register people who will vote on the other side, which happens a lot. This is an authentically democratic and civic approach. By the way, Redeem the Vote seems to have turned out a lot of new voters, a majority of whom supported Bush in the end, even though many chose to register as Democrats. That shows that when you give people an opportunity to make up their own minds, they tend to trust you and listen to your arguments–which is a lesson for activists on all sides.
2) Redeem the Vote works with strange bedfellows. For example, they have released a paper on the freedom to teach about religion in public schools. They distributed it jointly with the Alabama chapter of the National Education Association, normally seen as a bedrock liberal organization. The paper was originally written by my friends at the First Amendment Center, who are staunch civil libertarians. All agree that it is legal to teach about religion in schools. Redeem the Vote has also worked with anti-poverty groups to try to support economic supports for pregnant women that may lower the abortion rate.
About a lot of American politics, we can say what James Madison wrote of Pensylvania’s government in Federalist #60. He wrote that “it was split into two fixed and violent parties. … In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on their opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer … that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions.” By the same token, today’s Republicans and Democrats tend to line up on opposite sides of all issues, even when there is no principled reason why they should. In contrast, when people “exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them.” It is a sign of Redeem the Vote’s civic responsibility that they quite often “fall into different opinions” from Republicans.
3. Redeem the Vote uses civil language. That’s not just a matter of good manners: it has an impact on the political culture. In a public statement, Brinson defends the Bush judicial nominees but takes the trouble to say:
We as people of faith should never put political ideology above principle, we should never convince ourselves that if we only subscribe to certain political principles that we can somehow prevent certain moral failings in our country. These values are not owned by one particular philosophy or political party, but have been forged by people of many political perspectives who have come together and do what is right.
Since the election of 2004, I have had the distinct honor and privilege to address a number of diverse groups (Common Cause, People for the American Way, Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, Democrats for Life, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, MTV, etc.) as well as individuals from all walks of life across America. This experience has given me a truly unique perspective on the wonderful country we live in. I, today feel equally comfortable talking with a conservative group as addressing a group that may not agree with me but on only a handful of issues, but it is the process of finding “common ground” that is so important.
4. Brinson has the courage to criticize other elements of the Christian Right for not being (as I would say) “civic.” He argues that Redeem the Vote’s approach “is in stark contrast to many of those conservative Christian organizations that seek to develop a partisan mentality and approach to problems that have solutions beyond partisan rhetoric.” He suggests that some don’t want to develop “a working relationships between Democrats and Republicans” because “it would be difficult to raise … large sums of money” if there were “no battle to be fought, or political enemy to be slain.” Brinson concludes, “Our hope is that we can engage evangelicals to support a broad agenda that embraces the common good of all Americans.”
I believe that there are a substantial number of Randy Brinsons out there. Most readers of my blog will not agree with them on some issues. But these evangelicals are building a network of citizens who are dedicated to solving problems and are not owned by any party. This is crucial. It opens the possibility that we can make real progress on issues that concern people across the political spectrum. Often, these issues cannot be resolved by law or government. An overly sexualized popular culture, tolerance of bullying in schools, hyper-consumerism, racist attitudes–these are serious problems that people worry about across the political spectrum and that only can be addressed through voluntary action in civil society.