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We Need a Change in Strategy



 

This past Saturday marked the three-year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection. The crowd that attacked the U.S. Capitol that day was peppered with the religious iconography, text, and meaning. Some people carried Bibles, crosses, and Jesus Saves flags in the belief that they were engaged in spiritual warfare (Olmstead, 2024). As astonishing as the attack was, still some folks weren’t surprised about the level of religious influence. There has been a lot of attention to White Evangelicals since the 2016 election cycle when that group carried Donald Trump to the White House (e.g., Jones, 2021; Whitehead & Perry, 2020).

 

Evangelical support for Donald Trump did not appear out of nowhere. The Religious Right movement has been one of the most successful social movements of American history –hanging on to inherited institutional structures and policies despite incredible demographic change for more than four decades. Already by 2000 it was "the most powerful interest group in the GOP" (Williams, 2010, p. 3)

 

While the movement painted itself as a bulwark against the modern world, it’s tactics (and success) sparked several social reactions its leadership did not intend.

 

Sociologist Ruth Braunstein teased out these reactions in her must-read article “A Theory of Backlash.” She identifies not only the mass disaffection from all institutionalized religion and particularly from White Evangelical denominations, but also the “purification and radicalization” of the Religious Right itself as backlash effects (Braunstein, 2021).

 

But while the Religious Right’s leadership and grassroots supporters are responsible for their own anti-democratic choices, the snide, rather contemptuous attitude of the left toward religion in general and conservative religion in particular has spurred on both the Religious Right’s success and their radicalization.

 

More of the same will not improve our broken politics. It’s time for a change in strategy.

 

Instead of just focusing on short-term policy wins, it’s time to add an analysis of long-term culture change to the mix. Policy change is vital to keep pace with changing technologies and social norms, it won’t, in itself, change those social norms (Nosek, n.d.). Policy changes without attention to broader culture shifts just push dissent underground to fester. If enough dissent festers without attention, communities that feel aggrieved will find a way to make themselves heard, and to rearrange policy in their favor even if they must break laws to do it.

 

The January 6th insurrection was a prime example. I’m not suggesting the perpetrators were justified – they weren’t. I’m suggesting that progressive policy changes of the last thirty years were not paired with culture shift efforts grounded in relationship and collaboration on shared interests. The gap was ingeniously exploited to shift antidemocratic ideas from the edges of the conservative social movement right to its center.

 

Long-term culture shifts need broad community support. For that, numerous unlikely partnerships are needed to pull would-be dissenters to support, or at least not actively work against, the policy aim (Kleinfeld, 2018). Even better, the diversity those would-be dissenters bring to the policy conversation can improve the policy outcome itself and other democratic processes (Talisse, 2021).

 

Grantmakers have outsized opportunities to develop unlikely these partnerships to work toward long-term culture shifts and effective policies. It’s a win-win.
  • Grantmakers can review their own portfolios to see whether they are attending both to any immediate policy shift they seek and to the long-term culture change needed to support it. If only the first, they may see gains lost to time and an organized response, and inadvertently fuel polarization (Masters, 2022).

  • Separately, grantmakers can partner with peers, collectively attending to policy change and culture shifts. Funder affinity groups can be excellent platforms for collaboration, allowing grantmakers to do the both/and of policy and culture change more effectively. (Democracy Funders Network, and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, e.g.)

Granted, developing unlikely partnerships is not exactly easy. First, it requires some internal work around values priorities. Second, it is important to set clear boundaries and expectations for partnerships. Finally, collaborating outside your organizational comfort zone is uncomfortable for staff too, and they should be allowed to opt out of individual projects.

 

I’ll be writing blog posts on each of these issues in the coming weeks. For organizations seeking more support – such as a field analysis of existing efforts in a particular space or help working through values conflicts – schedule a free consult at https://www.cohesionstrategy.com.

 

You don’t have to reach all the way to the extremes of “the other side” but there is expansive territory for goals that are still shared, despite the high level of polarization. Look for shared concerns and you’ll find them.


Where is religion in this? If it is correct that the left’s inattention, or derisive attention, to religion accelerated the success and the radicalization of the right, then the left must include religious communities, faith-based nonprofits, and multifaith nonprofits in its efforts to develop unlikely collaborations. For that matter, the Right could do with some of the same medicine and reach out themselves across the secular divide in pursuit of shared goals. See some of my other published works for the specific why and how (Ralph, 2020, 2021).

 

There are other resources available too, including a set beautifully curated by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) through their Faith In/And Democracy Fund. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on their advisory council for the last three years, but last November, they closed the four-year learning experiment with an impressive and truly pluralistic Summit. Last month, they released other resources for folks interested in the intersection of religion and democracy, including an extensive Funding Guide and a set of evidence about how faith can positively influence democracy. They have also partnered with the Democracy Funders Network to produce a guide on funding social cohesion, which I highly recommend.


As you develop strategy during this charged election year, consider ways to partner with would-be dissenters. Seek support from peers and specialists along the way.
Start with one partnership on one discreet area of shared concern.
Just start.

 

Works cited 

Braunstein, R. (2021). A Theory of Political Backlash: Assessing the Religious Right’s Effects on the Religious Field. Sociology of Religion, srab050. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srab050

Jones, R. P. (2021). White Too Long. Simon & Schuster. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/White-Too-Long/Robert-P-Jones/9781982122874

Kleinfeld, R. (2018). A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security. Pantheon.

Masters, S. B. (2022, March 31). Philanthropy Needs to Own Up to Its Role in Fueling Polarization. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/philanthropy-needs-to-own-up-to-its-role-in-fueling-polarization

Nosek, B. (n.d.). Strategy for Culture Change. Retrieved September 18, 2023, from https://www.cos.io/blog/strategy-for-culture-change

Olmstead, M. (2024, January 6). The Radical Evangelicals Who Helped Push Jan. 6 to Wage War on “Demonic Influence.” Slate. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2024/01/january-6-insurrection-mike-johnson-evangelical-christian-apostolic-reformation.html

Ralph, A. K. (2020). The Multiplier Effect: A Case Study of Faith-Based Community Organizations in Chicago, IL. The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/the-multiplier-effect-a-case-study-of-faith-based-community-organizations-in-chicago-il/

Ralph, A. K. (2021). But What if They Preach: A Guide for Funding Faith-Inspired Grantees with Boundaries and Integrity. The Aspen Institute.

Talisse, R. B. (2021). Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side. Oxford University Press.

Whitehead, A. L., & Perry, S. L. (2020). Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford University Press.

Williams, D., K. (2010). God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. Oxford University Press.

 

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