On Nov. 21, 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study that attempted to provide a comprehensive look at Washington-based religious advocacy groups. The study examines the groups’ faith traditions, organizational structures, tax status, annual expenditures, issue agendas and primary strategies. It also includes a brief history of religious advocacy in the nation’s capital.
At an event for journalists on the day of the release, lead researcher Allen D. Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and author of the 1988 book “Representing God in Washington,” provided an overview of the Pew Forum study and discussed the main findings. Then panelists Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Rajdeep Singh of The Sikh Coalition discussed their firsthand experiences advocating on behalf of religious constituencies and religion-related issues in Washington.
Note: The figures cited in this transcript are from the November 2011 Pew Forum report on religious advocacy groups in Washington. On May 15, 2012, the Pew Forum published an updated version of the report. Five groups were added to the study and one was removed, raising the total number of advocacy groups in the study from 212 to 216. Changing the number of groups in the study meant the Pew Forum had to recalculate many of the statistical findings. In most cases, the figures and percentages did not change by much, but readers should be aware that some of the statistics mentioned in the transcript may be slightly different from those in the revised report. In a few cases, annual advocacy expenditures figures were updated as well. For more information on the revisions and why the Pew Forum made them, see Note for Revised Edition.
Allen D. Hertzke, Presidential Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma
Maggie Gallagher, Co-founder, National Organization for Marriage
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rajdeep Singh, Director of Law and Policy, Sikh Coalition
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director for Research, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Navigate This Transcript:
- Defining Religious Advocacy
- Dramatic Growth of Religious Advocacy Groups
- The Increasing Diversity of Religious Groups
- Impact of Recession on Advocacy Spending
- Breadth of the Issue Agenda
- Influence of Religious Advocacy Groups Today
- Where Advocacy Money is Spent
- Eschewing Involvement in Elections
- Working for Sikh Civil Rights
ALAN COOPERMAN, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE: Thank you all very, very much for coming. I’m Alan Cooperman. I’m the associate director for research here at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We know it’s a short week – a Thanksgiving week – and everybody’s busy, so we are very grateful that you took the time to come. There are people on the telephone, some reporters from around the country listening in, and we’re grateful that they’ve joined us, too.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is a project of the Pew Research Center which, as many of you know, is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions on public policy issues. Today we’re releasing the results of our new report, “Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C.”
With us is Professor Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma. Allen was the principal researcher on this study. He was a senior visiting fellow here at the Pew Forum in 2008-2009, when he did much of the spade work for the study. We’re also delighted to have here representatives from three organizations who have firsthand experience lobbying or advocating on behalf of religious constituencies or on religion-related issues here in Washington.
You have copies of their biographies in front of you, so I won’t go into detail on that. I want you to know, of course, that they are here to provide context to our report and to provide their own assessments, and they are wholly independent in their views.
Maggie Gallagher is the co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. She has advocated against same-sex marriage – for traditional marriage – in public debates and as a syndicated columnist for more than a decade.
Rabbi David Saperstein is the director and counsel at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. It says here, David, and I hope this isn’t a typo, that you’ve been at the center for three decades. I have to suspect that means you started right after your bar mitzvah. I find three decades very hard to believe. But I’m told you’ve been at the RAC for three decades, advocating before Congress and the executive branch on a wide variety of issues of concern to the Reform Jewish movement in the United States.
And Rajdeep Singh is the director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights group in the United States.
A quick word on our format here. Allen Hertzke is going to discuss some of the main findings of the report. Then I’ll pose a question or two to the panel. And then we’ll invite the rest of you and those participating by telephone to participate as well.
Before I turn things over to Allen, I just want to mention very quickly a few other things. On the table in front of you, in the information packet, you’ll find some profiles of the presidential candidates. These are profiles of their religious journeys, if you will. They were put together by the Pew Forum largely from media reports and are full of links to media reports. You’ll find these on our religion and politicswebsite.
I hope you’ll find them useful and that you’ll go to the website. We will keep that website full of the latest news and analysis regarding religion and politics in the 2012 campaign. For example, in the next 48 hours we will have the results of a new poll on religion and politics and the campaign, particularly how various religious groups are approaching the campaign and the impact of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. So stay tuned for that.
Finally, I should point out that this event is on the record. We will have a transcript of it. And a copy of the transcript will be posted on our website. Thank you very much. Allen Hertzke, over to you.
ALLEN HERTZKE, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA: Let me just say what a great honor it’s been to work for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. There is no organization like it that has such rigor and objectivity. I want to offer a shout-out to the Pew research team, especially to Hilary Ramp and Tracy Miller. I think Amanda Nover and Elizabeth Lawton may be listening in. But these researchers have just done an incredible job in amassing this tremendous database that I think will be tremendously valuable.
Before I get into some of the major findings of the report, I want to offer a comment on the significance of this study as a scholar of religion and public life. Personally, I was actually surprised by the number of groups – 212 – by their size and budgets – over $390 million – their huge diversity, and the breadth of the issue agenda – about 300 issues addressed. So even though I’ve been soaking and poking in this world for two decades now, I was really struck by the findings of this study.
I think the growth of religious advocacy here in Washington, D.C., and around the country says something about the sociology of religion in America, about its public character. That religious groups feel the need to have a Washington office, I think, says something about how they view the importance of having that office to signify their place at the civic table of America. I think the public character of religion in America is illustrated.
I would encourage you all to go through the profiles of the various groups in our database – we have profiles of all 212 groups – and their mission statements. If you read their mission statements, you really get a sense of the tremendous diversity and breadth of the groups, but also how they connect their religious values to their public policy concerns.
I think another thing that’s interesting is that the groups see themselves as representing others, by and large. There are some exceptions or some self-interested kinds of concerns, obviously, for all of the groups. But that’s where the language of advocacy comes in. Religious leaders mostly don’t describe themselves as lobbyists; they describe themselves as advocates. And in many cases they see themselves as advocates, both at home and abroad, for what they would describe as the least, the lost, the left out, so forth.
Another thing that I think makes this potentially significant is that religious advocacy collectively potentially represents many citizens and institutions both at home and around the world. Religious institutions have extensive on-the-ground networks in charity, development, educational institutions, health care institutions and so forth, which often provide policy information to policymakers in Washington. Religious groups are woven into the policy process. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have created faith-based councils. You see religious groups at congressional hearings, at the White House. You also see them involved, really, in very specific – what I’d call the policy weeds.
As I was looking through the interviews that I did, I noticed that groups were involved in – here are just a few of the issues: AIDS funding in Africa, second chance for ex-offenders, tobacco regulation, food security, earned income tax refundability, funds for internally displaced people in Columbia, ban on cluster bomb exports, ban on therapeutic cloning, the removal of the ban on mandatory screening of anyone wearing a headscarf, post-Katrina aid to religious schools, the resettlement of the Karen people of Burma. You name it, religious groups have been involved, it seems.
While we in the study do not make an effort – and, in fact, it would be beyond the scope of this study – to try to assess policy influence or degree of influence of different groups, my past research, particularly in the book “Freeing God’s Children,” showed that religious groups collectively in coalition did have an impact on international religious freedom legislation, trafficking legislation, Sudan peace legislation and international debt relief. So we do see the possibility that this collective work can have an impact.
Finally, I would just say that the database itself, which I would really urge you to look at, is a great tool for scholars, students and journalists because it provides information on all of these groups – the issues that they’re concerned about, their missions, budgets, tax status and so forth. In sum, religious advocacy is now a permanent and sizeable feature of the Washington scene.
One of our challenges was defining religious advocacy, so I want to spend a little time on this. Groups are included in this study if they maintain a permanent office in the Washington, D.C., area. So we actually, in a sense, underestimate religious advocacy because there are some sizable groups that don’t have an office here that do in fact mobilize citizens, engage in advocacy, come to Washington and so forth.
We also include groups if they are religiously affiliated or defined, that’s obvious, but also if they’re engaged in religion-related advocacy. I want to stress that some of the groups included in this study would probably tell you they are not religious lobbies or religious advocacy groups, but they are engaged in religion-related advocacy or they have substantial religious constituencies.
Advocacy in this study is defined broadly. We include not only lobbying as defined by the IRS – which is just legislative lobbying or lobbying for referenda – but also other efforts to influence public policy at the White House, executive agencies and so forth. We also look at organizations that use litigation as a strategy of national policymaking. And finally, we look at groups that do education or mobilization of constituencies or the general public on particular issues.
In other words, we don’t just look at lobbying narrowly defined; we looked broadly at how groups are attempting to influence public policy. As I note, the Pew Forum database includes 212 such groups. We don’t claim to have gotten all of them. When the report is released, I’m sure we’ll hear from some groups that want to be included.
The table in the report on tax status actually illustrates our broad definition of religious advocacy because, as you’ll notice, most of the groups are tax-exempt nonprofits – 501(c)(3) groups. Such groups are prevented from devoting a substantial effort to actual lobbying as defined by the IRS. But they are not prevented from education, providing information to their constituents on policy issues, mobilizing their constituents, informing members of Congress about their concerns, testifying and so forth.
Some of the groups, in fact, are registered lobbies and have 501(c)(4) status. Among the more interesting or notable examples would be Bread for the World, which calls itself a Christian hunger lobby, and they embrace the “lobby” term. But those 82% of the groups [that have 501(c)(3) status] would not describe themselves as lobbies or lobbyists. They would say they’re advocates or advocacy organizations.
But Bread for the World describes itself as a lobby. NETWORK, the progressive nuns group, describes itself as a social justice lobby in the Catholic tradition. The Friends Committee on National Legislationcalls itself a Quaker lobby in the public interest. So there are groups that are registered lobbies that, in fact, can do things that the 501(c)(3)s cannot.
A chart in the report shows the rather dramatic growth since the 1970s of religious advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. The early decades on this table represent a part of the report that I would urge you to take a look at. It is a historical overview.
In the report we provide a kind of historical overview of when national advocacy becomes a permanent part of the Washington scene – when groups develop a Washington office. The earliest we’ve been able to determine is around the 1870s and then 1890s, with some of the temperance groups that actually developed Washington offices. Then we chart the Progressive era, with the Catholics, the Methodists and Jewish groups setting up permanent offices in Washington. Then during World War II and its aftermath you get a number of the mainline Protestant groups, other Jewish groups and also some secular groups.
But then what we note is that religious advocacy really seems to take off from 1970 onward. We have more groups every decade than the previous decade. Scholars have expressed a number of explanations for this – one possible reason is the growth and size of the reach of the federal government. José Casanova at Georgetown has suggested that global pushback against secularizing trends was a global phenomenon from the 1970s onward. Ronald Ingelhardt has suggested value-based concerns are drawing religious groups in. I had suggested in other work that immigration and the growing pluralism of the American religious landscape have brought more groups to the civic table.
Finally, globalization and the huge American footprint around the world have drawn groups to Washington who want to influence American foreign policy on behalf of their counterparts around the world. This is sort of self-perpetuating and reinforcing.
A chart in the report provides a breakdown by religious affiliation. As you would expect, a large number of groups belong to the broad Christian family. We have there, as you can see, Catholic groups, about 19%; evangelical, 18%; Jewish groups are well-represented; Muslim groups are actually well-represented as well. This was a notable finding, I think, of our study – the growth of the number of Muslim organizations with offices in Washington, D.C.
And while the number of groups representing religious minorities looks small, I would stress the importance of the growing pluralism – Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, Scientologists are represented in this [trend]. Also, the small peace churches – Mennonites and Quakers. We have secular groups like the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association, which we defined as engaged in religion-related lobbying, and a variety of other Christian organizations.
But the largest category is interreligious, in other words, issue or ideologically concerned groups that are cross-religious in nature. In fact, I would suggest that Maggie Gallagher, with National Organization for Marriage, represents one such interreligious group that focuses on a single issue concern with lots of diverse members.
What we find in the study, first of all, is the growing pluralism and diversity of religious organizations by religion. But we also find a great diversity by organizational structure and type.
Notice we have organizations that represent individuals. Rajdeep Singh with the Sikh Coalition would be an example of someone representing individual contributors or members. But we also have a large number of groups that represent religious institutions, in other words, the large international relief and development organizations, schools, hospitals, colleges, charities and so forth. These institutions reach millions of people around the world and at home.
A number represent religious bodies or are the official representatives of religious denominations or traditions. Rabbi David Saperstein is an example of someone representing an official religious body – Reform Judaism – in America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops represents the Catholic Church, and so forth.
We also note permanent coalitions. There are lots of coalitions that form and ebb and flow. But there are some permanent coalitions that form and develop their own independent structure. We also find that there are a number of think tanks attempting to influence the policy debate from various religious perspectives. Finally, there are some hybrid groups that don’t conform to any one of those categories and seem to blend them in interesting ways. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty calls itself “a think tank with teeth” because it also does litigation in addition to research.
One of the more notable findings of our research involved the actual annual expenditures by, collectively, the religious groups and by specific religious organizations. We were able to get the budgets through public documents of about 131 of the 212 groups. For some of the groups, we could not get budgets because their Washington office or their advocacy program wasn’t separately funded and we could not determine the funding of the advocacy program. A number of the organizations in this study are hosted by parent organizations, and we just could not get specific budgets.
But we did determine that the funding for 131 groups was over $390 million a year. The median is about a million dollars a year. These budget figures reflect our broad category of advocacy. In other words, we don’t exclusively look at just expenditures for lobbying narrowly defined. We look at expenditures that involve the full range of mobilizing public opinion, affecting constituents and so forth around the country.
One final note, we have some tables that show the impact of the recession in 2008 on religious advocacy spending. Overall, it did go down. For some groups it went up – the National Organization for Marriage had a large increase in its budget – but a number of organizations saw a decline in their total advocacy spending. The representative for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a very prominent Quaker lobby that has its own building in Washington, mentioned that spending went down significantly because of the recession, and they’re now building that back up.
There are a handful of groups that had above $10 million in annual advocacy expenditures – and I want to say a few words about this. The methodology section of this report has a detailed description of the decision rules we used to determine advocacy budgets. I can’t go into all the details here, but I will say that for most of the groups – for example, American-Israel Political Affairs Committee, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Bread for the World, National Right to Life Committee and theHome School Legal Defense Association – for the groups that are based in the Washington, D.C., area and that do advocacy as their principal mission, we included their total budget.
Now, others could use other decision rules, could use a more restrictive definition. Bread for the World has both a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), but all of it is focused on hunger issues, on educating the public about the importance of hunger and so forth. So we include the total budgets for those groups that do advocacy.
But there are some organizations that are not based in Washington, D.C. – the American Jewish Committee is an example. There we looked at their annual report or their Form 990 with the IRS. We looked for budget categories that captured advocacy spending, categories that may not exclusively focus on Washington, D.C., but would basically capture what they’re doing in terms of advocacy initiatives. We found about $13 million from the American Jewish Committee was in the categories of government and international relations and domestic policy. Once again, we have a very transparent report in our profiles of these groups. We show how we got the budget for each group and the decision rule we used. So others who want to use a different decision rule can do so.
Finally, there are some groups that aren’t based in Washington, D.C., and that have separate sort of advocacy arms but not exclusively focused on Washington. CitizenLink, which is a Focus on the Family initiative, spends about $10 million. A good part of that expenditure is not for its Washington office but for its national effort to mobilize constituents around marriage, pro-life [issues] and so forth. We interpret that as contributing to their Washington-based advocacy because it’s trying to shape public opinion, mobilize literally millions of citizens to write their members of Congress and so forth.
I would really suggest that you look in the report at the top 40 list of advocacy expenditures because I think that actually captures something of the patterns that we see. Let me just mention a few that I would characterize as patterns when you look at the broader list. Among the best-funded groups, we do find that groups focused on what they themselves characterize as traditional values are among the top-funded groups. Jewish organizations are among the well-funded organizations, but religious right or Christian right opponents – self-expressed Christian right opponents – are also relatively well-funded. And what we might call a social justice cluster of organizations also has substantial funding, between Bread for the World and Sojourners and what the Catholic bishops do and so forth.
So collectively these budgets suggest a wide diversity of expressions and interests and so forth. But we do stress that budgets alone do not necessarily determine impact on any given issue. But this is a notable feature of religious life in America, that religious organizations are spending these kinds of dollars on advocacy.
Now, one of the things that I found fascinating myself is the breadth of the issue agenda. We combed systematically though webpages of these organizations, and we found, after we did a detailed listing, that they address about 300 different issues, specific issues. You see in the breakdown between domestic and international that it’s almost even. In other words, only slightly more groups focus on domestic issues exclusively versus international. And most, 64%, of the groups focus on both domestic and international issues.
If you look at domestic issues, you get a sense of both the number of groups that focus on a particular issue. We’re not saying here whether this is the most important issue. We’re just looking at whether they focused on these issues. Obviously, many groups focus on church-state issues, civil rights, civil liberties, but then you can go down and see the breadth of the issue agenda for religious organizations.
What I would point you to next is what I would characterize as the globalization of advocacy. Not only are international issues almost equally important or prominent among the religious advocacy community, but the wide range of issues, from human rights, poverty, peace, national security, religious freedom, energy and the environment, and now family issues are migrating to the U.N. and so forth.
One of the things that we found in our report is the growth in the number of efforts on the international stage – not just focused on American foreign policy but lobbying at the United Nations, the European Court, international tribunals, lobbying other countries, doing advocacy in other countries around the world. This is becoming a growing feature of religious advocacy, and I think it’s an interesting one. In fact, some of the groups do almost exclusive global advocacy initiatives. The International Justice Mission, which works on justice issues around the world, trafficking and slavery and so forth – we didn’t include their budget because most of that budget is not even spent focused on American policy, foreign policy or domestic. Some of it is.
Finally, we looked at advocacy strategies, and we did a questionnaire of a smaller number of the groups. Most of these groups, once again, are 501(c)(3)s, meaning they’re not registered lobbyists, but they are attempting to inform public opinion, constituents. They sign coalition letters. They meet with policymakers and officials. They issue news releases. They initiate email campaigns. They write policy papers. They give testimony. And they even participate significantly in demonstrations. But only a small number of groups in our sample actually produce congressional scorecards or support candidates for elections. Those activities are restricted to 501(c)(4) organizations; 501(c)(3) organizations can’t do that, and most religious groups eschew that kind of activity.
One of the fascinating things to me was the extent to which we captured the use of new media strategies and especially the social networking techniques as a way to mobilize constituents. Everybody does email, but what we found is a number of groups – and this was confirmed in my interviews – had recently adopted Twitter or Facebook Causes and those kinds of social networking tools as a way to mobilize their constituencies.
For example, the Friends Committee on National Legislation mentioned that they – using sort of viral techniques with Twitter, Facebook, email and so forth – were able to mobilize more people on the torture issue than I think they said there are Quakers in the United States – or there are members, anyway. The lobbyist for NETWORK told me that through the use of Twitter, she’s able to get real-time responses to developments on the Hill. So if a member of Congress seems to be wavering on some issue, they can send a tweet and they can get immediate response to that member’s office from their constituents around the country.
The head of World Vision mentioned that they added 100,000 new activists to their database just through Facebook Causes. They were able to mobilize that many more people. So one of the things that I think has happened is that these new technologies are acting as kind of an equalizer. When I did my study in the 1980s of religious lobbying in Washington, only a few of the groups could really do mass direct mail mobilization. Now all can do it, of one sort or another. And because of software technology that most of the groups use, they can actually record which constituent responded to which issue to which member of Congress’ office and when.
At any rate, to me as a scholar of faith and politics, religion in public life, I think this study is striking, and the database that is underlying the report – in other words, the report you have sits on top of a much larger database of profiles of the groups and so forth. I think this should be a great tool for students. I’m going to use it all the time for my students in the classroom. Thanks very much.
COOPERMAN: Allen, that was great. I’m going to use my privilege for one clarification. Now, would you say that the decline in spending that the study found from 2008 to 2009 is entirely and clearly the result of the recession, or could there be other factors?
HERTZKE: There are other factors. We note in the report the great churn and turnover that exists in the religious advocacy community. Groups rise and fall. They come and go, and so it isn’t – I mean, let me give you an example. In the 1990s, the Christian Coalition was one of the top-funded groups. I think they had a budget of $12 million in 1993, according to a study by Weber and Jones.
By our study, their budget had shrunk to a little over $600,000. So from a $12 million budget to a $600,000 budget, that was not a result of the recession. It was a result of changes in the environment. And so the recession clearly had an impact for some groups, but it did not for others.
COOPERMAN: Yeah. OK, let’s turn to the panel now. Again, using a little bit of privilege here, I’d like to ask a first question. Allen has covered at least in an overview what’s in the study, but I think it’s probably obvious to you all that there are some things that are not in the study, and the study says so. One of the most important is that the study does not try to assess the degree of influence wielded either individually by any of these organizations or collectively by the organizations as a whole.
The reason, I think, is that it’s very difficult – maybe impossible even – to try to do that in an objective and quantitative way. Not only did the Pew Forum study not do it, but to the best of my knowledge, no political scientist has come up with a really clear-cut, solid methodology for quantitatively measuring the degree of influence of various lobbies in Washington, D.C., despite decades of research in this area.
So let’s turn it over to the panel, and I’d like to start in this area and ask whether these folks who’ve been working here on the ground doing this work have a sense. How would you compare the influence of religious advocacy groups today in the Obama administration to, say, a few years ago under the George Bush administration? Maggie, do you want to start us off?
MAGGIE GALLAGHER, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MARRIAGE: Yes, OK. Well, thank you, Alan and Allen. It’s just a great privilege to be here at Pew, which has some of the most intelligent and innovative discussions of the influence of religion in public life. I feel that the question you just asked would ordinarily be a cue for me to puff up like a big cat and brag about the influence of religion in politics. And maybe I’ll get to that in a second.
But I did want to note, as I read through this report, some of these organizations I’m not familiar with at all. Others of them I know extremely well, including my own. And I found myself asking again and again, what counts as religion and what counts as advocacy? I’m sure that you wrestled with these questions. In particular, if you take the traditional position on life or marriage, you are in this report as a religious advocacy [group], and what’s very striking to me is that the other side that we are arguing with is pretty much absent. Let me put the gay marriage issue in – there are a lot of religious people arguing for human rights. There’s also a rather big and influential organization called the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which advocates for same-sex marriage, among other things, but it’s not counted as a religion-related advocacy organization.
COOPERMAN: Actually, Maggie, it is.
GALLAGHER: Oh, they are? Oh, I’m sorry. I missed them.
COOPERMAN: They’re not in the top 40 in spending, but they’re in the study.
GALLAGHER: Their budget is $40 million, but you’re separating out their lobbying?
COOPERMAN: That’s the total budget for the Human Rights Campaign, $40 million, but they do have a religious advocacy component.
GALLAGHER: OK. That explains it. Susan B. Anthony List, whose main mission is electing pro-life women to office, was founded in response to Emily’s List, which has the exact opposite mission. It’s not really a criticism. I do understand that it’s a challenge, but I do think it’s worth noting the kind of presumption of what counts as religious and what counts as advocacy because the organizations on this list actually do really rather different kinds of things.
On the question of whether religion is a decreasing influence in public life, I think the quickest answer to that question is to look at the presidential race on the Republican side. At this point in 2008, Mitt Romney was arguably the most socially conservative candidate in the race, until Mike Huckabee emerged unexpectedly in Iowa. Now he’s considered a relative social liberal compared to the other Republican candidates, and there sort of seems to be a race to see who’s going to emerge as the champion of social conservatives, religiously motivated voters on the GOP side. I think that’s a testimony to the continuing, ongoing influence of religion in public life. And what’s really unique in the American tradition is that Americans are really not afraid of that involvement.
Another trend that you noted, which NOM is a very good example of, is that a great many of these socially conservative organizations are actually ecumenical, right? So openly religious influence in America tends to lead to more religious comity, actually, as different religious groups work together on shared interests, rather than, as is often feared in Europe, leading to the conclusion that you have to exclude religious influence or it will lead to bad things.
The board of the National Organization for Marriage contains Catholics, evangelicals and members of the LDS church, and we could broaden that coalition as well. We certainly worked very closely with Orthodox Jews in New York’s 9th congressional district, where we played a role in helping to elect Bob Turner. So just from the larger standpoint, I do think that it’s the general experience of the social conservatives that it has led not to a religious war but to transcending sectarian boundaries to the experience of working together on issues of common concern. I suspect that is a uniquely American experience and way of understanding it.
In terms of whether the influence is going to continue to grow, to me the most striking – I’ve never seen it quantified. It is not news to me that only 7% of organizations that believe they want to influence public policy are actually engaged in politics, supporting or opposing candidates. I think that there is actually a vast potential for expansion of the influence of socially conservative groups because they have been relying for many, many years on 501(c)(3) strategies alone to influence public policy.
The great exception is the life issue. A number of those groups are (c)(3) groups, but they are more involved in direct political action. I think the impact of that – in that there is no longer a serious idea that you can run for the Republican nomination without adopting a pro-life position – is a result of this rather small number of groups that are doing – they don’t just go on television and talk like they’re in politics. They get involved in the hard work of trying to help elect people who agree with them and trying to un-elect the people who don’t.
So I would say that if the success of the life community in having an impact is beginning, in a kind of slow shift, to draw more groups to political activity. I don’t want to be too self-promoting, but I think the National Organization for Marriage’s success is also rooted in that we have a very clear model of direct political action, either in passing referenda that reflect our views, or in helping to elect or un-elect candidates, both at the state and the national level.
So I see a large potential upside for influence, even as many have predicted a decline because the impact that religious groups have had on public policy has been in the face of what I would call very bad models for political influence that involve avoiding actual political action. As we see that shift, I think you’re going to see an increase rather than a decrease in the influence of religion-related advocacy, to use Allen’s term, in public life.
COOPERMAN: Thank you. That was very insightful. David Saperstein, you’ve been at this a long time. Care to comment on the original question and maybe also on bad models for advocacy?
RABBI DAVID SAPERSTEIN, RELIGIOUS ACTION CENTER OF REFORM JUDAISM: First, I too want to thank Pew. This is an extraordinary entity. As somebody writing a book called “Racing with God: The Use and Abuse of Religion in American Elections,” the amount of hours they’ve saved me with this new religion-in-the-election piece of it is a godsend. I have deep appreciation for Allen Hertzke and the groundbreaking work that he’s done about religious advocacy in Washington here.
I want to acknowledge the presence of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement, arguably the most influential rabbi in the country, and who’s finishing his long tenure as our president at our upcoming convention here in Washington of 5,000 Jewish leaders from around the country gathering together in mid-December.
The question had to do with the Bush administration versus the Obama administration. Advocacy goes kind of two ways. We think of it mostly as the outside towards the government. Clearly, the more conservative groups in the Bush administration had significant access in a way that the mainline Protestant groups and some of the Jewish groups did not. I think this administration is actually one of the most accessible – if you want to meet with someone – of all the administrations (I go back to the Ford administration) that I’ve worked with. So I’m appreciative of that.
Also, you shouldn’t forget this in terms of the relationship of government and the religious community, it goes the other way as well. They want support for their policies, and where they know they have support for their policies, they want – if I could use the Jewish term for a legitimizing kashrut – they want a hechsher, a stamp of approval, a kind of ethical imprimatur that they see religious groups bringing to their work. So very often, we don’t have to wait to have access to someone in the administration or on Capitol Hill, they’re calling us, because they want us to be part of it.
I would say, if you look at some of those diverse groups – like your organization or Human Rights Campaign or People For the American Way – a lot of groups that are single-issue cause groups actually set up religious outreach entities to engage a religious community on their particular issue in a more organized and effective way than the religious groups would’ve done themselves. So all of these are pieces of the question that you put before us.
Let me just take one minute more to now step back from the Bush administration, to go back to the 1930s until today, to talk about effectiveness. Religious groups are the quintessential multi-issue organizations; denominations are the quintessential multi-issue organizations. As a general rule, when it comes to advocacy, on any one issue they are lobbying on, multi-issue groups will never be as effective as a single-issue group just on that.
The rest of the Jewish community may care deeply about Israel, be advocating on behalf of Israel’s security, America’s values and interest in its relationship with Israel all the time. But AIPAC, working only on this one issue, is always going to have a greater impact than the others. When you also put a (c)(4) in and they have overtones to elections and things in the mix, even more so it becomes an issue, although as a (c)(4) they can’t directly be involved in elections.
In the 1930s, the great coalition of decency in America were the labor unions, the civil rights community – particularly the NAACP – the mainline Christian community, including the Catholic community, and the Jewish community. And that remained so until the ’70s. Think about your big spike in the groups coming up. That remained so until the ’70s.
In the ’70s, the success of the civil rights movement led all kinds of people who cared about issues to realize, if I set up a single-issue organization, it will do better work. So you had the splintering of all these single-issue groups in the religious community – hunger groups and women’s rights groups and the religious coalition on abortion rights and the environmental groups here – all of these groups that began to splinter around single-issue things because they believed they would be more effective than the Methodists or the Reform Jewish Movement or the Catholic Church could be on any one issue that they were working on here.
And that helps explain some of the escalation and the growth of the organizations that you see there. So you have this interaction of all these single-issue groups that are working with the existing multi-issue [groups], particularly the denominational national faith group organizations themselves. Where are we effective? We’re effective when we all happen to decide – I don’t mean literally all, but there’s an overwhelming consensus in the groups – let’s work together on this issue, if it’s an issue that comparatively fewer people are working on.
So every religious community was involved in the civil rights movement, in the Vietnam War, in the budget debates going on now and the health care debates. And they had some impact; they helped give that stamp of legitimacy. But they weren’t decisive in those issues.
But if you go to the other extreme of the kind of issues that Allen talked about earlier – the Food for Peace program in the mid-1970s, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the Sudan Peace Act, the debt relief issue, the Jubilee issue here as a whole in which the impact of the religious community was definitive – and on the prison rape bill and the North Korea act.
When we’re working on issues others aren’t and we all get together, we can really have a decisive impact, and we’re far more effective in those kinds of cases. Single-issue groups do that by definition. They focus in on specific issues – we have to do it much more arbitrarily. But where we do, then we have the kind of impact that single-issue organizations can have by making it a single-issue effort. I thought I’d lay out some of the criteria of effectiveness over this to see where the conversation goes.
COOPERMAN: That was also very insightful, thank you. Thank you, David. Rajdeep Singh, a relative newcomer. Your organization has been in Washington how many years now?
RAJDEEP SINGH, SIKH COALITION: The Sikh Coalition has been in existence for about 10 years, and we’ve been in Washington full-time now for just about two and a half years.
COOPERMAN: So go ahead. Give us your take, please.
SINGH: Right. First of all, I’d also like to extend my gratitude to the Pew Forum for inviting us. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be here, and I hope that it can be an entry point for more work with the Sikh Coalition.
I really have very little to add. My fellow panelists were very comprehensive in their assessment of the degree to which religious advocacy organizations have influence with respect to the political process. I’d just like to add that seems to us that it’s a multivariable calculus problem. In a sense, it’s a function of the number of votes that religious advocacy groups can generate, the number of voters that they can mobilize. It’s a function of how much money they have in their pot with respect to advocacy efforts.
It’s also a function of the number of people belonging to certain religious groups who are on the inside, so to say. There are very few Sikhs who hold elected offices, and I think this dictates the degree to which a young community such as the Sikh community can influence the political process.
Often times, in our experience, policies are enacted, promulgated, pronouncements are made about the proper balance between church and state, for example, in ways that presuppose that Sikhs and other religious minorities don’t exist, I’m sorry to say. I think to the extent that any religious community doesn’t have representation in the political process, in the form of political candidates, for example, it is very difficult, particularly for small religious minority communities such as the Sikh community, to muster up votes and money that can translate into influence with respect to the political process.
The way that we measure success at the Sikh Coalition is efficacy. We don’t have votes. We don’t have money. We don’t have people on the inside, so to speak. And so we try very hard to build coalitions with other religious organizations and try to exploit social media and some new blood and know-how in order to move our issues forward.
Just for context, again, the Sikh Coalition is 10 years old. We were founded on the night of 9/11. I heard one of my fellow panelists say that – Rabbi Saperstein said he was with the RAC as of three decades ago. Three decades ago, I was languishing in a crib somewhere – (laughter) –
GALLAGHER: Stop bragging.
SINGH: – learning how to eat and talk.
But hopefully, in the fullness of time, this will change, though; the picture will change. I think that the tipping point, the point at which we reach a critical mass, at least in the Sikh community, will be when we have representation in the political process in the form of political candidates. If you have a Sikh running for mayor or governor or perhaps even president, I think a lot of our fortunes will brighten at that point.
COOPERMAN: Great. That was very, very interesting to hear from the panel, and I’m sure we’re going to hear more from all of them. Let’s open it up for questions, both from the reporters here in the room and those on the phone.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY, VOICE OF AMERICA: I’m wondering, since my audiences are mainly abroad and we do have international representation here, I’d like to ask whether this dynamic of having all these religious advocacy groups – I want to ask Allen – is the result of disestablishment in this country, of the separation of church and state. And is it ironic that you actually have more influence from religious groups in politics as a result? I don’t know if you can compare it to how it works in other countries, whether it’s in Madrid, where the bishops do have a lot of influence, despite the secularization in that country.
I’d also like to ask Rabbi Saperstein if, when politicians are asking you for that certification or blessing or hechsher, do you feel used at all? Those are my questions.
SAPERSTEIN: No, in the following sense. There are times we just have to say no to somebody. Every once in a while we’re asked to get involved in an issue where we know that they just want our stamp of approval and it’s not an issue we normally get involved with, or our take on it is different and we’re not going to bend our position to accommodate that kind of request any more than they would if we went to them to ask for them to oppose a certain policy position or support a particular policy position. It’s the give-and-take end of it.
The fact that they think that it is important in America for there to be a religious imprimatur on the kind of issue they’re doing, I think, is a healthy dynamic and interaction of religion and politics in American life. Where I think it becomes dangerous is when it kind of degrades itself into a religious test for office when it comes to candidates. But where it comes to policy, I don’t mind.
For those who follow the scholarly literature about separationists and the John Rawls kind of take about what role religion has here, I think it’s fine for people to give religious rationale and justification for their policies so long as they also give a secular rationale as well because American democracy depends on being able to test ideas in the free marketplace of ideas. When you put forward an argument, “God told me to do it,” how do we test that in a free marketplace of ideas? When it is only, “I’m religiously …” We’re going to have a debate over the theology behind that kind of statement? That doesn’t get us anywhere in American life. But something rooted in using religion as a kind of moral explanation for why, but then putting it in secular terms that are accessible to all people in the free marketplace of ideas – I think it’s indispensable.
That, to me, by the way, was the genius of the Bishops’ Pastoral Letters, that they talked about Catholic doctrine but then they put it out in natural law terms as well that were accessible to all, whether they accepted Catholic doctrine or not. So we can use it as an inspiration, as a moral reasoning, but only as a motto that is either compelling or not in the free marketplace of ideas, and there you’ll have a secular debate of what’s going on.
So I think that religion’s engagement in public policy is both not only an authentic sense of prophetic witness that we have or, in my tradition, the concept of being a light to the nation, to attempt in human terms to be a moral goad to the conscience of the nations in which we live, but I think it deeply enriches the policy debate in America, and I think that’s good for America and good for the world.
HERTZKE: To answer your question, I will answer it as a scholar of religion and politics and religious freedom, church-state law and so forth, as opposed to as the author of this study. I think there’s no question that the religious freedom guaranteed in America broadly facilitates the kind of advocacy we’re seeing here. Also, I think the openness of our American political system, the accessibility of Congress, even in an age of heightened security and screening and so forth – still, it facilitates the ability of groups to have an impact. I think that the fact that there is no establishment of religion and religious groups are guaranteed equality before the law, to the extent you can achieve that, means that all are invited, in a sense, to make their voices known in the public square.
I wanted to offer, actually, a little comment on Rajdeep’s presentation, which is that he’s a very modest guy, and actually, I think, could legitimately have mentioned that small, emerging groups that can speak to that resonant issue of religious freedom can build alliances and actually magnify their impact. The Sikh community collectively was actually, in the face of intrusive airport screenings, able to get TSA to air a training video on the Sikh religion to all 45,000 airport screeners, impacting the lives of Sikh-Americans who have to go through airport screening. It seems to me that that’s an example of appealing to the religious tradition in America, building allies and finding a sympathetic cause. It can work.
COOPERMAN: Rajdeep, did you want to dispute that?
SINGH: I dispute the charge of modesty. (Laughter.)
SAPERSTEIN: Alan, just one sentence more on the separation of church question. Functionally, the wall separating church and state tends to be a one-way wall: It restrains government. It does little to restrain religion. It allows religion not just to flourish with robustness in America because we’re keeping government mainly out of religion here, but to fulfill that prophetic witness I talked about. So I do think that part of the explanation for why religion is such a robust – in a broad sense – robust presence in American life on these issues does have to do with the fact that freedom of religion has to fulfill its own self-identity in terms of that prophetic witness in America.
ELIZABETH TENETY, THE WASHINGTON POST: Beyond salaries, what is this money spent on? What are the biggest expenditures beyond paying employees for these sort of advocacy organizations?
HERTZKE: I’ll comment and then I’ll let the others comment who have more expertise on their specific budgets. I have actually a slide I used in a presentation of my own that just has the buildings that some of these groups have in Washington, D.C. – Family Research Council, AIPAC, Friends Committee on National Legislation, United Methodist Building. Just maintaining an office is expensive, and also maintaining offices around the country that support national advocacy. But I’ll let members tell us what you spend money on. Salaries are a big part. Go ahead.
GALLAGHER: I guess that goes to my point that these are really actually quite different kinds of organizations, and for some of them – I won’t name them – I wonder myself where the money is being spent. The think tank model is, basically, you influence public policy by doing research and coming up with new legislative ideas and holding conferences and building coalitions. I mean – this is not a Washington organization – but something like the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy I think has been, in New York, quite an influential organization. This can be a very effective model.
Susan B. Anthony List gets involved primarily in trying to elect candidates. I think here it’s important to clear up what a (c)(4) and a (c)(3) can do. With the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) can, in fact, communicate with voters before an election directly, as long as it doesn’t coordinate with the candidate. This is what is referred to as independent expenditures, and this is a model that the National Organization for Marriage uses. We spend the bulk of our money on either getting involved in actual referendum campaigns or getting involved in the election processes that lead to giving voters the chance to vote on the gay marriage issue.
In the 2009-2010 election cycle, we were actually very involved in both Minnesota and New Hampshire state legislative races. I think that contributes to the fact that Minnesotans will be voting on whether or not they will have a state constitutional amendment on marriage. We got involved, and we spent a fair amount of money.
For example, when a pro-gay marriage Republican emerges, usually the voters are not really aware of it. So we’ve had it as part of our mission statement to demonstrate that it’s a really bad idea to be for gay marriage, at least if you’re a Republican. We would like to extend that to both parties, but that’s where we are at this point.
SAPERSTEIN: I would add, Elizabeth, that all of the so-called religious lobbies who represent churches and houses of worship across the country are constantly developing social justice programs for them to do, some of which may have a policy component and some of which may not. But when we try to get every synagogue in America to be part of a feeding program to the hungry in the community, we may also put in our communications that the food stamp program is under enormous pressure and we hope people will write to their congressman or congresswoman on it and to their state and local legislators, as well, on behalf of food programs.
It may be an ancillary part of what this is all about. We may have a whole manual on how to put together a hunger program that’s effective in that synagogue or in that community – how to build coalitions to put together hunger programs – and this may be an ancillary part of it. Some of those overall costs are accounted for in the way Allen did it. If you’re looking through the filter of advocacy, it’s fair to do that.
But for the way we look, a lot of that is providing education and programming that in some cases doesn’t have the policy component to it, and in some cases the policy part is kind of an add-on. If you care about this issue, you not only have to deal with treating the symptoms, but you have to deal with the policy that is the cause of it as well, etc. So some of the lines between these are different.
But education and program work, conferences, training seminars on the issues, all of that would be a big part of the way that this is constructed in terms of those budgets. PR, media work, a lot of that would be part of this as well.
WENDY KAMINER, THEATLANTIC.COM: I have a couple of questions for Professor Hertzke, and then if there’s time and if you’ll indulge me, a couple of brief comments on what Maggie Gallagher has said, which I’m just not going to pretend to turn into questions.
One, I was interested that you included AIPAC in this list because I don’t think of AIPAC as an organization that’s lobbying on religious issues. I think of it as a Zionist organization. I’m not using that word pejoratively, but I just see that very differently from a religious organization. So I’d be interested in hearing your thinking on that.
Secondly, as I was listening to you talk about the way people in these religious organizations think of themselves and describe themselves, I was hearing a lot of the same things that I would say about secular not-for-profit advocacy groups – they don’t call themselves lobbyists, they call themselves advocates, they are more and more involved in global issues – I mean, I could run down the list.
So I’m wondering if you can separate out things that are distinctive to religious lobbying groups, or if they’re just partaking in general trends – if the religious lobbying groups are being in some way substantively changed by the general trends or if they’re contributing to general changes. I know these are hard things to tease out, so I’d be interested in your thoughts on them.
I just wanted to comment briefly on what Maggie Gallagher said about opposition to abortion rights and to same-sex marriage being considered religious and support for those same things not being considered religious. While it may not be true in your survey, I do think that is generally true, and it’s an interesting point.
It may interest you to know that a lot of people in the secular movement really struggle with this. Should they take on support for abortion rights? Should they take on support for same-sex marriage? The answer for a lot of people is no. Because, while there are strong religious components to opposition, there are also irreligious people who oppose abortion rights and oppose same-sex marriage – maybe a smaller number of them, but it’s not exclusively a religious issue.
I also wanted to comment briefly on your remark that Americans are not generally hostile to the mix of religion and public life. I think that’s absolutely true. But I think it’s really important to distinguish the way people feel about religion and public life, and church and state. There, the attitudes depend on whose church is interfering with which state.
HERTZKE: Well, the first question is easier to take on. In this study we look at religious lobbying and what we call religion-related advocacy. We did, in fact, carefully look at AIPAC and other groups like it. I can guarantee you that the leaders of AIPAC would say they’re not a religious organization, that they have broad membership, secular members and so forth.
On the other hand, if you look at their principal objective, persuading American policymakers to support the state of Israel – and, they say, the Jewish state of Israel – in other words, supporting the Jewish state of Israel we would characterize as a religion-related advocacy program. In other words, it’s not defending a secular state of Israel in a sense; it’s defending the Jewish homeland. And to the extent that Jewish groups – most of them – see that as an important part of their agenda – supporting the Zionist project – we would also see that as part of AIPAC. So that’s why we include it.
On the issue of whether religious groups are distinctive, I think it is accurate to say they’re part of general trends – globalization, the nonprofit world and so forth. I think – and here I’m speaking more as a scholar and less in terms of what we present in the study because that’s a difficult question to answer in a study like this. If you read the mission statements of many of these organizations, they see their activities flowing from their deepest faith commitments.
So if you read the mission statements of a variety of groups – Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, evangelical, etc., you’ll see statements about their faith and how they feel mandated, based upon that faith, to engage in work for justice, rights and so forth. Is that distinctive? Given the pervasive religiosity of the American public, I think that is distinctive because it potentially mobilizes lots more people.
Religious communities are the most common form of joining in America, in terms of the groups people belong to. So in that sense, they may be able to reach farther into the grass-roots. But is their character unique? Religious groups will tell you, we feel we’re different because we bring a unique religious moral perspective, but some secular groups see the same. It’s a hard thing to answer. I’ll try to do that in the book I write after this.
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I just wanted to ask the panelists – if I understood Ms. Gallagher right, you said you thought that there’s something like a hesitance to be involved in direct politics, right? So I wanted to see, if I understood that right, if you guys could comment on that – if you think that’s true, that there is a hesitance to be involved in direct political activities, and if so, why? I don’t know that most people would necessarily assume that religious groups are hesitant. So if that’s true, why?
And then secondly, I wanted to see if each of you could briefly give an example, some kind of story that could bring this whole business to life, that could tell us of something where religious groups had an influence and why – even just a short kind of picture of what that’s like – or a time when you tried to influence and didn’t.
GALLAGHER: First of all, I note that in a study of religious advocacy by a wonderful scholar, only 7% of the groups say they are engaged in electoral politics. And only 8% issue congressional scorecards, which a 501(c)(3) can actually do, so it’s not a structural reason why they don’t do that. I think I’m recalling the numbers correctly.
I would just say it’s my observation, as a conservative who’s been involved in politics since the ’80s, that most of the quasi-political organizations formed as the influx of evangelicals in particular into politics – what used to be called the Moral Majority. That all happened in the late ’70s and the ’80s, probably first as the prominence of the abortion issue began the contemporary culture wars.
Most of those formed institutions that are 501(c)(3) nonprofits that are limited in what they can do politically. So given that there’s a public face that suggests our goal is to influence politics, it’s curious, at least, that so many of the institutional structures that they formed were 501(c)(3)s, which are not allowed to engage in political action directly. I think it’s a matter of fact that social conservatives have not been involved in creating institutional structures that can and naturally do engage in political activity.
As for why, I do think that – I speak as a Roman Catholic, but many of my best friends are evangelicals – I think that there is a sense, which is not wholly wrong, that you want to maintain the purity of your religion – that politics is a dirty business, basically, and it leads to angry and nasty, passionate exchanges, and it’s involved with money influencing politics. There’s just a sort of sense that the sacredness of what happens in religious spaces doesn’t mix easily with the idea of getting into the nitty-gritty of politics. And I think there’s an argument for that.
But what that leaves out is, if you’re going to have as a goal – if you believe you’re called to say that every human life deserves protection from the moment of conception – if you’re going to get involved publicly in an issue which is, in fact, going to be decided in part through the political process, you are going to be limited in your influence until and unless you decide to find a way to engage politically directly.
You can put it in the negative, right? Directly engaging in politics is something that religious conservatives really have, I think, been reluctant to do. The positive means that there is a lot of upside for potential influence. There are also downsides to being involved in politics. It’s only one part of the human endeavor.
SAPERSTEIN: On the hesitancy issue, I find it really depends whose ox is being gored. Most Abrahamic faiths believe that speaking out on public policy issues is part of a prophetic witness that people have. It’s the minority in any faith group or the people outside the faith group who don’t like their positions, who will come back with: Stick to religion. Don’t get involved in politics.
And people say, well, did the prophets not see speaking out on public policy issues being at the core of their religious obligation? Isn’t that what we’re about? When you’re in the minority, very often you use the argument, stay away from politics. When you’re in the majority, you see it as part of your religious mission. I don’t mean to be cynical about this, but I find more often than not, on both sides, that’s what’s happened.
In terms of the conservative religious groups and the liberal religious groups, if you remember what I said about the ’30s to the ’60s, many people did their work through their churches. And after we fragmented into all these single-issue organizations – some religious but mostly secular – most people ended up doing the work through those secular organizations on the issues. They didn’t need us anymore.
But if you look at all those public interest groups on this whole range of issues, who are the people who are the staffs? Who are the people who are the donors? Who are the people who are the board members? They’re members of our churches and synagogues on all these – let’s say, on the liberal end of this. I think that to some extent, the more conservative and fundamentalist groups today are where we were 40 years ago.
A tradition had been, particularly among the Baptist groups, not to get involved in politics for a long period of time. In the 1970s when they realized that they couldn’t protect their kids, their communities, from the outside influences of the Supreme Court and the media that brought messages into the lives of their children, they said, we’ve got to go and change the outside world. And so they got engaged in politics, and for these first 30 years, have done it primarily through their churches.
But as conservative groups have begun to pick off the energies and resources and money and time and volunteerism of the folks in these churches, you’re going to see the same kind of dynamic over the next 30 years of their beginning to move more and more outside the churches to do their political work, although fundamentalists of one kind or another tend to do more of their lives through their houses of worship in general. So it’s not an exact parallel, but I think you’ll see the same kind of dynamic there.
In terms of a story, you could pick any of the things I alluded to. I think the great story of the last generation has been the Jubilee movement. Economists had talked about debt relief for decades. A lot of policy argument was made for it, and when the religious communities, hitting the year 2000, began to bring into the public consciousness this idea of the Jubilee year, the cancellation of debts as being a profound moral obligation that people had, it really helped drive the argument in a very deep and profound way. It gave it a political traction that it didn’t have otherwise, and it transformed the debate. So I think it’s one of the great success stories and shows what happens when you give a powerful religious imagery.
Now, you don’t have to believe in the Bible to get the moral power of it. It’s an argument I sometimes have with some fundamentalists when we’re talking about evolution and things. They believe in a more limited God. I believe in a God that can speak in allegory. I think there’s a moral message to that imagery, the biblical concept of Jubilee, that you don’t have to be a believer in the Bible to recognize the moral power of it. And it works as a kind of resonant argument, moral argument, that I think really was transformative on this debate.
I could give you others too. The IRFA bill, the sex trafficking bill, the Sudan bill I think are great examples of this, but I really think the Jubilee one is the most powerful.
BOORSTEIN: Can I follow up for one second, just really briefly?
HERTZKE: Yeah, then I’ll clarify.
BOORSTEIN: You seem to be agreeing on this narrative that the social conservatives are in a development phase. I mean – and maybe this is the limitation of this kind of study – if you look at the biggest expenditures, I think at least five of them are social Christian conservative groups. I don’t know if that’s just because that’s a huge part of the country. It just seems like it sort of contradicts with – you know, to whatever degree fundraising reflects people’s values, it looks like social conservatives are definitely in the arena and advocating and lobbying. Maybe you’re talking about something slightly different. Am I making any sense?
HERTZKE: Let me clarify one thing, and then I’ll let maybe Maggie take this. There’s a difference here, and I’ve seen it in my interviews as well, between the kind of prophetic witness that David is talking about – public policy advocacy – and campaigns and elections strategies. That is the huge distinction. If you talk with religious leaders here in Washington and elsewhere, they draw a sharp, bright line between advocating for public policy concerns, being a prophetic witness, testifying on the Hill, writing position papers versus getting involved in campaigns and elections, which churches cannot do legally – denominations cannot do – and also, many religious groups eschew because they see it as divisive, as just not something they’re comfortable with theologically.
SAPERSTEIN: And there are some on the right that would argue that point. They’ve taken a position of principle that those rules that you’re talking about, that make it illegal, quash freedom of the pulpit. There’s a good debate to be had about it, but I think as a normative description, what Allen said is dead on. We’ve all kind of drawn the line at that point.
GALLAGHER: Again, the influx of evangelicals into American politics that began in the ’70s – it’s obviously been a big movement and it’s had a big impact. Even with a very broad definition of advocacy, we’re pulling in a very tiny proportion of groups. I don’t know how many of those 7%, or 8%, if you count congressional scorecards, do things that are commonly understood as political, which I define narrowly as attempting to elect guy A or un-elect guy/girl B. Some of those may not be part of the religious right. I don’t know who they are, but I know that only a very tiny, tiny handful of groups that you here in Washington would think of as the establishment figures for social conservatives. Then you go back and you look at the institutions that they have created, and they are mostly 501(c)(3)s, which are limited.
I noticed this. I don’t know if this is a story, but one of the reasons I founded the National Organization for Marriage is that I had a kind of front-row seat on debates over the federal marriage amendment back when that was an issue. I was basically a writer all my life; it was very late to help found an activist organization. President Bush came out in 2006, the second time around, and had a press conference announcing he was supporting the federal marriage amendment. There was a vote in the Senate. You needed 60 votes; we knew we wouldn’t get that.
So there was a discussion among groups afterwards about how to respond if the vote was X, if the vote was Y. I raised my little hand and I said, well, it’s June. There’s an election in November. How about we find a senator who voted wrongly from our point of view and see if we can un-elect him?
I was struck because everyone seemed to think that that was a very interesting idea, but they seemed to think it was a very strikingly new idea. So now you’re talking about having a vote for the second time on an issue you’re not going to pass, right? Why in the world would you ask the Senate to vote on legislation that you can’t pass? There is only one good answer: because you intend to use that, and in a deliberate fashion, to elect more of your friends or to show people who oppose you that opposing your position is a bad idea.
I realized, on reflection, that it’s not that the people in the room were not intelligent and competent. It’s that they had ministries primarily, and this is just not what they do. And if there’s only one team on the field in the rougher game of politics, eventually, that team is going to win.
So anyway, that’s my short story on my perspective that not everybody has to be involved in politics, but if you are going to claim to want to be involved in politics and advancing policy, you need to build political institutions to accomplish your goals, in my view. That doesn’t mean that everyone should, and I think it would be inappropriate for many religious denominations to do what an organization like NOM does in a direct fashion.
COOPERMAN: Rajdeep, let’s hear from you.
SINGH: All right. On the hesitancy issue, no. Sikhs, as a matter of a religious mandate, are very eager to participate civically. Obviously, there are constraints on nonprofits in terms of what we can and cannot do in this realm. But as a community, Sikhs are go-getters. This is in our character. This is in our DNA. And as I suggested earlier, our hope is that over time you will see more Sikhs participating more visibly in the political process in this country, precisely because it is rooted in our tradition to be civically engaged.
I’d like to tell you about a project that we undertook in the last couple of years, which actually had a happy ending. You asked about stories, right? Let me give you a feel-good story. In the state of Oregon, it was illegal for public schoolteachers for the last 90 years to wear any kind of religious dress in the classroom. This law was enacted in 1923 or around then by supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. Its effect was to exclude at that time Catholics from public schools. But over time Sikhs, Muslims, observant Jews were impacted as well.
So the Sikh community spearheaded an effort in 2009 to get that law repealed, and we were successful. But it would not have happened without the support of a wide range of religious communities – Christians, Jews, Muslims and so forth. So that’s a feel-good story. But for every feel-good story, there are five sad stories that I could tell you about.
Very quickly, I’d like to tell you that we’re undertaking efforts right now in coalition with a number of civil rights organizations – about 30, including a couple dozen religious organizations – to get the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to clarify that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 actually prohibits segregation of visibly religious employees in the workplace. Perversely, some courts in this country in the last 10 years have held that it is perfectly legal and consistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to segregate visibly religious employees from customers in the general public in the name of corporate image. This story is unfolding; we’re not sure yet whether we’re going to meet with success.
We’re also trying to get the Department of Defense to change its policies so that Sikhs can serve presumptively in the U.S. armed forces with their articles of faith intact. Again, perversely in our views, Sikhs are not presumptively allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces. This is a right that other people in this country enjoy presumptively, but Sikhs and other visibly religious minorities do not. That story, again, is unfolding.
I can go on and on and would love, actually, to speak with you at length about some of the other projects that we’re undertaking, but in the interest of time, I’ll stop there.
BEATRIZ JUEZ, PUBLICO: I am from the Spanish newspaper Publico. I would like to ask a more general question. Taking into account all this religious lobbying in Washington and the importance of religion in American life, do you think that it’s very difficult or impossible for a presidential candidate to become president if he’s agnostic or atheist? Is this impossible, or – what do you think?
HERTZKE: As a good Pew researcher, I’ll say that’s beyond the scope of this study. But as a scholar of faith and politics, I think it’s unlikely in the near future.
SAPERSTEIN: The polls are pretty clear that if you ask people, will they vote for someone of particular religious persuasion, atheists rank at the bottom. Only a minority of Americans will support such a presidential candidate. If you had an elected official who actually publicly said he or she was an atheist, after a period of time it would change. I think exposure – we know this from studies about gay and lesbian rights; we know it about Mormons – leads to more acceptance. The more familiar people are with people – if an atheist presidential candidate came up, and it came out that 10% or 12% of people are atheists but have been keeping quiet about it, their neighbors would start talking about it, and you’d realize there would be a new comfort level. It would change. But right now, it’s very unlikely that someone who is a professed atheist would be able to make it politically.
COOPERMAN: Beatriz, our Pew brothers and sisters at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have done some polling, and I can show it to you afterwards. Essentially, the question that’s been asked is, if a candidate were X, would you be less likely to vote for that candidate, more likely, or wouldn’t it make a difference? And the X is filled in by a variety of different characteristics, some of which most voters treat as positives, and some of which most voters treat as negatives.
So something that most voters seem to treat as a positive – for example, would you be more likely to vote for someone who has served in the military? More people say they would be more likely to vote for that person than say they’d be less likely. If you ask, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for someone who’s had an extramarital affair, most voters will tell you, less likely. Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for someone who’s ever smoked marijuana? Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for someone who is a Mormon? And so on. I can tell you that some of the highest negatives were on the question: would you be more or less likely to vote for someone who is an atheist – someone who does not believe in God, I believe, was actually the way the question was phrased.
There is some other related polling that we have on that question. I’ll also point out to you that the Pew Forum has done an analysis of the religious composition of the U.S. Congress, and there is today in the U.S. Congress one acknowledged atheist, Rep. Pete Stark from California. And he is the first elected member of Congress, in modern times at least, to be an acknowledged atheist. So as a factual point, it’s not impossible for someone to be elected.
One more quick point: the Constitution of the United States says that there is no religious test. So there is certainly no legal barrier to the election of an atheist. What we’re talking about are the political barriers.
GALLAGHER: I just would add I actually think it’s more possible, maybe, than others think, provided that was a person who would respect the ceremonial role of religion in public life in the United States. I think most people would say they wouldn’t vote for a man who had an extramarital affair, but given the choice between two different candidates, that might prove less important to actual voters.
We have “in God we trust” on our coins; in moments of crisis like 9/11, we sing “God Bless America.” I think there is a fairly deep popular attachment to that sense that – and that people find it extremely comforting. And so I would suppose somebody who wanted to make a point of his atheism would find it really difficult.
I don’t know how religious Richard Nixon was or Gerald Ford or – it was actually with Jimmy Carter, or even Ronald – no, although he was certainly a big advocate of the ceremonial civic religion and having faith, yet he was not a church-goer. I think there’s more room for people who are not particularly religious to be elected to office than most people might think.
KEVIN ECKSTROM, RELIGION NEWS SERVICE: Basically, two small technical questions. Maggie raised the question earlier about HRC and whether or not you included them. How did you decide which secular groups to include? I mean, like the ACLU – did you include them? I don’t see a list of all 212 groups, but where was that line drawn?
And then, a sort of related question: Did you cover or does anyone have any thoughts about religious groups who are perhaps on the same side of a religious issue but on different sides of a public policy? I’m thinking of Catholic bishops versus Catholic nuns on health care, or Orthodox Jews versus Reform Jews in gay marriage, or something like that. Did you get into that at all? Or is there anybody here who has any thoughts on the religious divide within communities?
HERTZKE: On the latter question, certainly you can see by the list of groups and their mission statements that there are Catholic groups that oppose each other on the issue of abortion, for example, that evangelical groups disagree on the environment in some cases. There’s the Cornwall Allianceversus the Evangelical Environmental Network. In fact, one of the reasons, perhaps, for growth of some of these groups is the desire to reflect a different position than others. I would say that would be the kind of thing that you could find by digging into the names of the groups, their mission statements. You can pretty clearly see who’s opposing whom on certain kinds of issues.
Your other question about drawing a line is a challenging one, and I suspect that over time we might identify groups that we want to include. The ACLU, I have learned, has a small religion program, which might qualify it for inclusion. [The ACLU’s Freedom of Religion and Belief Program was one of five groups added to the study when the report was updated in May 2012.] The ACLU itself has a much broader agenda, obviously. But generally we included groups that had a significant religious constituency or were engaged in significant religion-related advocacy. The constituency would be one reason why we also included AIPAC. There’s a significant religious constituency there. But there were some fine lines to be drawn, and I think people can look at that and say, I think you should include this group.
ECKSTROM: Is the list of all 200-some groups on the website?
COOPERMAN: Just as a further point of clarification, the Human Rights Campaign has a particular group. Do you remember what it’s called?
HERTZKE: It’s the Religion and Faith Program of the Human Rights Campaign. They actually have a specific program, so we include that as one of our groups.
COOPERMAN: Then Kevin also asked about secular groups, and I think you sometimes have made the distinction about groups that happen to be nonreligious versus groups that take an expressly secular point of view on public policy.
HERTZKE: Right. The Secular Coalition for America or the American Humanist Association see themselves as engaged in opposing what they believe is an untoward religious agenda or religious issues and so forth. They self-consciously or expressly define themselves, you might say, in opposition to a religious agenda. So we include the Secular Coalition and the American Humanists, but not the Environmental Defense Fund, which you could say – David’s probably right; there are a lot of religious people involved in that, secular people involved. But that’s not what we did in our study.
COOPERMAN: Since I’m involved in this as well, I’ll just acknowledge that these are gray areas. There’s no perfect definition, and in some cases, I think we or anybody who does such a study is in a difficult position. Wendy asked earlier about AIPAC. Clearly, her eyebrows were raised by the inclusion of AIPAC. I suspect that had AIPAC not been included in a study on religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., some eyebrows also would have been raised.
KEVIN CLARKE, AMERICAN MAGAZINE: This might be outside the parameters of your study but you kind of glom together a wide breadth of religious organizations. Do you see any significant differences between how, say, progressive religious bodies and social conservative bodies operate in the nature of their advocacy or the lobbying, or is it just the distinction that some are more comfortable being direct lobbyists, at hard-knuckle politics, and some are, I don’t know, soft power advocates, engage more in educational activities?
HERTZKE: I will let maybe our panelists offer their insights on this. I don’t think we could make any judgments from the Pew study about patterns because there certainly are social conservative groups that are much like progressive groups in the way they operate. And as Maggie Gallagher has noted, a number of the social conservatives are equally uncomfortable engaging in campaigns and elections as some of the denominations – progressive or conservative.
SAPERSTEIN: I’m going back to my single-issue/multi-issue discussion. Where someone feels a survival issue or an issue of the absolute core principle is involved, they’re going to be more assertive in their advocacy, where it goes beyond just moral suasion to really suggest: you’re going to alienate a large segment of the community that I represent come the next election.
Right now in the American political configuration, a lot of the energy is on the social issues when it comes to conservative churches. They see them as issues of such core principle that they’re often working with single-issue secular groups or even more overtly electoral political groups on the spectrum to make sure their voice is heard. The differences between the churches and the groups working on social issues can get a little blurred to the people receiving their messages, even though neither the churches nor the groups violate any of the rules against electioneering. The difference gets obscured as to where the lines are drawn between them when they make it clear that there’s going to be a consequence – that you cannot keep the support of my segment of the community in your next campaign if you alienate us on this core issue.
For Jews, Israel clearly is such an issue. And anti-Semitism, if somebody has been saying anti-Semitic remarks. For the black churches in America, civil rights and anti-black racism would fit the issue. For the mainline churches – right now, everyone’s focused on the budget issue and care for the poor. Whether or not they will succeed in giving that the kind of traction as the Jubilee Campaign, as we go through the painful budget debates we’re going through in this country, remains to be seen. That’s what they’re mobilizing around.
But other than that, there’s nothing right now of the same kind of traction, where the Presbyterians can say, if you vote wrong on this, you’re going to alienate most of the people of my church group. I think that’s a descriptive comment, not a prescriptive comment. At different times in history – the civil rights fights – they could say that, make those kinds of assertions, at least for the non-Southern components of their community.
But in the ebb and flow of American political and cultural life right now, much of that single-issue core passion – you will alienate us in a way that you cannot hold us – politically is coming from the right in American politics. So I think descriptively there is a difference right now, Kevin. I don’t think it’s inherent in liberal versus conservative.
HERTZKE: We do offer an analysis of religious tradition and organizational structure. It’s not quite the same as your liberal/conservative divide, but we do see patterns. In other words, Catholics tend to create and are represented a lot by institutions; evangelical organizations and Muslim groups and Jewish groups by membership-based organizations; the mainline Protestants by denominations. So there are certain patterns that do emerge that are distinctive across these religious traditions.
GALLAGHER: This is just an uninformed observation, but it feels to me like one of the differences is that religious progressives tend to feel like they’re sort of an afterthought tagged on to a mainly secular enterprise – I don’t know why – whereas NOM is functionally a secular organization, but it’s being driven – the people who care about this issue a lot are fundamentally religious.
That may reflect my ignorance of the religious left compared to the religious right. I certainly don’t know it as well. But that also may suggest that there’s some upside potential for religious progressives because right now it seems like more of a PR afterthought to an essentially secular left movement. So perhaps if religious progressives come to find their main voice that distinguishes them, you might see that changing. I offer that just as a bystander. That could be wrong. But maybe that’s part of what’s going on.
COOPERMAN: Terrific. That’s been a great presentation by Allen Hertzke, terrific panel – David Saperstein, Maggie Gallagher and Rajdeep Singh. Thank you all very much. Thank you, everybody, for staying with us. And for those of you who are on the line, thank you so much for listening as well. Remember, you can find us all online at pewresearch.org/religion, including the list of 212 groups, their mission statements and brief profiles. Thank you very much.
This transcript was edited by Amy Stern for clarity, accuracy and grammar.