Since 2004, I have been insistent to the friends and comrades around me that the radical left needs to learn more from both the right wing and from evangelical churches. I think this started when I watched a PBS frontline special about George W. Bush called “The Jesus Factor.” Watching that, I realized the scope of the divide in this country; that there was a whole spectrum of millions of people who I had no daily contact with who had wildly different views about Bush, about the war, and about what even life and society are all about. I jumped into that, reading lots of stuff, and I came to see both the evangelicals and the right wing more broadly as a form of mass movement that had tons of elements that the left could learn from. At the time, this wasn’t a very common idea, and people around me thought I was a little weird…but now this is pretty much accepted as true.
When I went to Guatemala, my thoughts got even more complex about this. I saw a country that had experienced a 37 year civil war, in which revolutionary ideas, though suppressed, were spread throughout the population, and yet, after the peace was signed, in the areas where the guerrillas had been really active the only social force that was really growing was the evangelical church (one can read about this in Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America by Garrard-Burnett and Stoll). Especially since my wife herself calls herself an evangelical, I felt a need to understand this phenomenon and at least try to respect it.
Okay, so I think the left has a lot to learn. But what, specifically? What do I see the evangelicals and the right doing that I would like to see us doing more?
1) A Comprehensive Worldview
One point that I’ve often made is that both evangelicals–and the right more generally–offer a totalizing worldview that offers masses of people a way of processing the ups and downs of their daily realities and a way of participating in communities of people that share that worldview. At the same time, the left tends to only offer single issue or wishy-washy ways of interacting with left values, and doesn’t offer sufficient spaces to engage deeply with a comprehensive worldview–especially in ways that connect with our personal lives and contradictions. Sure, in small revolutionary collectives it happens, but these are often insular and elitist spaces…on a mass level, the left doesn’t trust non-activist people to engage with a left worldview…as if they aren’t prepared or can’t handle it or something.
2) Multi-Layered Infrastructure
Make no mistake, there are probably millions of U.S. evangelicals who have embraced what is more or less a duel-power strategy. They are building a Christian country parallel and under the surface of the larger U.S. society. Evangelicals have their own flag that they raise, they put that little jesus fish on their businesses to signal out which businesses to support, they have their own TV channels, toy lines, video games, publishers, therapists, food producers, summer camps, etc. And the very reality of everyday church buildings themselves is worth paying attention to. On almost every other corner in the U.S. there is a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue with comfortable meeting spaces, a kitchen, a childcare area, music equipment, and more (not to mention the stadium sized mega churches that serve more than 10,000 people at a time!) Contrast that to a handful of labor temples and the occasional super-uncomfortable info-shop.
One recent example: Glendi has a side job with a non-profit that sells fair trade Guatemalan goods at various festivals and sales throughout Seattle. Each weekend of November and December Glendi had me helping her at these different winter bazaars at different progressive evangelical/protestant churches. We went to 5 different churches, and all of them were multi-leveled, disability accessible, with playground equipment, a stage with sound system, meeting spaces and classrooms, childrens programs, and each one had current events bulletin boards and posters put up from their “social justice committees” about issues of LGBTQ rights, the war, poverty, etc. These are people who I would never expect to see at a protest. Yet they are utilizing these space and even talking about social issues each week.
3) Whole-Life Programming
Evangelicals don’t just do sermons. They don’t just do bible studies. They have music. They have socials. They have excursions. They have couples support and singles meetups. They have sports leagues. That is, they look at every facet of life and they have tried to create and support a response from within their own movement and values.
4) Grassroots Fundraising
One of the reasons they are able to support their intense levels of infrastructure isn’t just because they have the numbers, but because they have a culture of grassroots fundraising through tithing and weekly offerings. Though it can definitely be manipulative, fraudulently used, and competitive, the regular stream of money coming from ordinary people’s pockets and into church infrastructure is huge! Now the left has something analogous with non-profit infrastructure, but the crucial difference is that with churches people are paying for something that they participate in monthly, weekly, even daily. With non-profits we are usually just donating to a separate, professionalized group that isn’t intimately connected to our daily lives or even accountable to a social movement.
5) Clear and Unapologetic About Values and Purpose
One highly recommended read about evangelicals is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. See, Christian bookstores have a whole section in them called Church Building (they also have another section on “Spiritual Warfare,” also worth checking out), and one day in 2005 I found that book. It’s pretty incredible and one of the big lessons of it is that churches shouldn’t pretend to be what they’re not. They shouldn’t hide their beliefs in order to grow. Instead, they should clearly state their purpose and doctrine, and then they should build a warm and inviting environment for those who choose to embrace that purpose as well.
See, evangelical churches don’t really care about alienating non-believers. They believe, by and large, that the bible is the inerrant word of God, and that there isn’t that much room for interpretation. Thus, if you don’t like it, tough. Now I don’t advocate the same arrogant attitude for the left (and I do think it is arrogant on the part of evangelicals and all fundamentalists), but I do think it offers important lessons about movement building.
The left can build mass organizations with clearly stated, radical politics, and still have them be warm, accessible spaces for people of all political levels and levels of commitment. We don’t need to do this thing of picking a single issue with a simple message, and then looking for the most promising elements within that single struggle and offering the deeper truth of our radicalism to those select few who can “take it.” We can be fully, openly radical from day one, and build from that position with all people, even the non-political.
6) Widespread Leadership Development and Small Group Democratic Practices
Because evangelicals in particular (except for maybe some pentecostals?) don’t believe that God speaks to only select elites, everyone is capable of leadership and active participation in the church. Sure, patriarchy is often heavily in play within churches, and a lot of churches have power tripping pastors, but at the same time churches are filled with all sorts of committees and study groups and charity societies that empower ordinary people–particularly women and young people–with real leadership roles. Once again, if you go to that Church Building section of the Christian bookstore, you will find literature on building “small group ministries” and other types of cell structures that teach evangelicals how to maintain, recruit, resolve conflicts, and evolve small groups of active members. That is, they have put serious thought into bottom-up leadership development and mentorship!
7) Mind-Bogglingly Huge
There are tens of millions of evangelicals involved in all of the above stuff. That means that they are participating daily in building and evolving their infrastructure and ideas. They are learning lessons about structure, small group dynamics, recruitment strategies, conflict resolution, leadership development at a pace and scale that significantly dwarfs anything we’re doing on the radical left. Sure, not all their lessons learned apply to us, but there are lots of things that are common to any social movement that we could learn from them so that we can grow faster and smarter. Which brings me to my last point for part one:
8 ) They have Spawned Their Own Radical Left Current
Ever heard of Shane Claiborne? I hadn’t either, but he’s a bestselling young evangelical author who’s basically a Christian crusty-punk type anarchist. He’s anti-imperialist, anti-consumerist, and he gets massive stadium mega-churches to chant along with him this catechism of radical Christianity he wrote. He is just one of thousands and thousands of a new generation of evangelical radicals who still believe in the bible (and thus retain some really messed up views about things like queerness) but who have interpreted the bible to be a total rejection of capitalism, the state, and the current system. These ideas are being discussed RIGHT NOW in hundreds of bible studies across the country, and they have very little overlap with the language or culture of the left. But the evangelical movement is such a huge force that it spawns its own internal movements to develop, especially with new generations of youth who have different interpretations of doctrine than their parents. Seriously, this stuff is worth checking out and seeing how we can ally with them!
These are just 8 points that I could think of this hour about why we should be learning from the evangelicals. Ironically, many of these points also apply to how we could learn from Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have very similar processes going on that are making them a scary force to reckon with in their countries.
These observations about churches and evangelicals have progressively made me more insistent in my view that revolutionary anti-authoritarians should try to experiment with creating similar structures but which are rooted in our visions and values.
In complete seriousness, I believe that we should consider a strategy of building revolutionary congregations.
When I say this some of my comrades end up agreeing with me, but most dismiss me pretty quickly. Fair enough, but since 2004 I have yet to be convinced otherwise. So I’m starting to think that I should be working hard to do some convincing of my own. So, in part 2 of this piece, I’m going to lay out a proposal for what I mean by revolutionary congregations.