Religious progressives get loud and proud

The religious right gets most of the attention, but Minnesota’s religious progressives have big plans for 2020.

By: - May 26, 2020 6:46 am

Khalid Omar was a cultural liaison at Bloomington public schools when the bombing of the Dar al Farooq Islamic Center shook the community. Photo courtesy of Khalid Omar.

Rev. Doug Pagitt says he loves everybody as Jesus commands. But there are limits. 

“As a pastor and Christian, I follow Jesus’ teaching that everyone is a light of the Earth and a child of God, but not every light of the world should be president,” he says. 

That’s why the Minneapolis pastor created Vote Common Good in 2018 to motivate and mobilize religious voters to prevent the re-election of President Donald Trump.

While religious conservatives receive most of the media attention, Pagitt and his allies among progressive, religious Minnesotans are part of a long tradition of a thriving religious left in the North Star state despite national conjecture to the contrary. Some bristle at the term “religious left,” eschewing political labels, but whatever one calls them, they’re more organized and invigorated than at any time in recent memory. 

“The politics of Donald Trump have really energized the religious left. Maybe in some ways it’s sort of equal to the mobilizing power Roe v. Wade was for the right in the ’70s,” says Dan Hofrenning, a St. Olaf College political science professor. “That is the kind of disturbance that gets at people’s core beliefs and issues like economic justice and immigration are just really at the heart of the religious left.”

The stakes for these groups and the Minnesotans they are trying to help are enormous. 

A Trump reelection would likely mean an even more aggressive attempt to make life more difficult for immigrants and prevent family members from joining them here. If Trump performs as well this year as he did in 2016, Republicans would likely keep the state Senate, which would thwart goals that unite religious progressives, from issues like housing and child care assistance to paid family leave and health care for all. 

That’s why ISAIAH, a 501(c)(3), and Faith in Minnesota, ISAIAH’s 501(c)(4) sister organization with additional lobbying capabilities, are running voter engagement programs that will ramp up between June and November, with a focus on important 2020 state legislative races. If their volunteers can help push progressive politicians to victory, the elected officials will be compelled to pay attention to the volunteers’ agenda. 

ISAIAH runs programs like “Claiming Our Voices,” which is designed to motivate religious voters to take political action. And “Greater Than Fear,” a campaign to inspire a multi-racial cohort to back progressive candidates. While registering voters and committing them to action on Election Day, ISAIAH is also focused on holding elected officials accountable after they take office.

The programs recruit and train community leaders to talk with Minnesotans in their individual communities and congregations, using conversations on the importance of political action. The driving philosophy behind the work: A Minnesota where everyone can thrive in a multi-racial democracy and an equitable economy that works for all. 

Vote Common Good’s strategy, by contrast, is focused on Trump. It had hinged on a nation-wide tour, complete with a blue and orange bus with “Faith Hope Love” plastered on the side. But the campaign is currently relegated to online events until the pandemic lifts. 

Pagitt’s approach is multi-pronged: showing religious voters that it’s OK to not support Trump; helping likeminded religious leaders speak to their congregations about politics; and working with progressive candidates to help them connect with religious voters.

So far, Vote Common Good has raised $1.5 million in donations, but has a target of $2 million by November. Pagitt will continue finding remote venues for his work until he can hit the road again. He’s doing weekly Pray for the President Facebook Live events; formed action teams in electoral college battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan; and organized voter calling programs, among other virtual activism. 

Rev. Doug Pagitt’s Vote Common Good believes they can persuade religious voters to keep an open mind about the November election. Photo courtesy of Vote for the Common Good.

“Voters don’t want you to hold the faith that they hold, but they want you to like them, so show up and address their issues,” Pagitt says, describing how he advises candidates. “Most politicians have never been in a union or served in war, but they talk about their grandfather who has or the power of union organizing.” He encourages them to use the same strategies to reach religious voters, even if they don’t share the same faith.

Pagitt is clear that he’s not asking his audience to become Democrats for life, or to even be partisan at all for that matter — just to decouple religion from its recent Republican political identity: “We need to do something about it rather than complain that the religious right is speaking up too loudly, not tell others to be quiet but speak loudly ourselves,” Pagitt says.

Pagitt and his allies will have to find a way to amplify their voices given Trump’s strength among white evangelical voters.

Indeed, for religious progressives, the evangelical movement’s puzzling embrace of Trump is a cruel irony. He’s thrice divorced, crude and often unnecessarily cruel, even to putative allies who work for him. 

But despite his wicked ways, the data are clear: While only 34% of white evangelicals believe Trump shares their religious beliefs, 81% say he “fights for what I believe in” either “very well” or “fairly well,” according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly 60% say he has “helped the interests of evangelical Christians.”  Most recently, 77% of white evangelicals, comprising 26% of the total electorate in 2016, are satisfied with Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pagitt obviously disagrees. Trump’s response to the pandemic, he says, has exposed a festering crisis of moral leadership in America.

ISAIAH, Faith in Minnesota work closer to home

While Vote Common Good is executing a national strategy aimed at Trump, ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota focus on life in Minnesota, where a vibrant progressive legacy has often met with a failure to welcome new Americans who now call Minnesota home.  

As Minnesota has become more racially diverse, it has also witnessed huge racial disparities in education and income, as well as rising Islamophobia.

Khalid Omar’s experiences as an immigrant from Kenya who endured racism here in Minnesota motivated him to get involved with Faith in Minnesota. “In public school in Minnesota, the disparities are very high,” Omar says. “I was Muslim, young, and didn’t know the language. You constantly get bullied for your identity and who you are — Islamophobia and being called a terrorist.”

After high school, he worked as a cultural liaison at Bloomington public schools when the bombing of the Dar al Farooq Islamic Center shook the community. “[My] students didn’t feel safe anymore. After that I was like I’m going to do something.”

Omar connected with the leader of ISAIAH’s Muslim coalition and learned about what Faith in Minnesota was doing. “I immediately jumped in and started organizing,” he says, creating a faith delegate program. “The whole goal was to [go to caucuses,] become delegates and have the issues we care about” heard and represented — eventually at the 2018 DFL state convention. 

“We were trying to become 10% of the state delegates in Minnesota,” he says. Omar recalls taking his parents to a 2018 caucus in Lakeville where they live. “Everyone around us was just so old and white and then there was me, a 21-year old, and my mom, fully covered in a hijab, and my dad. I remember I told my mom, ‘When they ask, raise your hand.’” She became a delegate and went to the Senate district convention.

Omar says the overarching goals of Faith in Minnesota is better public programs. “People in the state of Minnesota should be able to get paid sick leave, schools should be fully funded, and no one should be discriminated against based on their religious beliefs or race,” he says. “These are our sets of values. Having our legislation reflect these values is what we’re trying to do.”

ISAIAH focuses on bringing together coalitions — from Muslim and Black Church coalitions to faith-adjacent enterprises like childcare providers and Black barber shops — under an umbrella of shared issues. They often form partnerships with other, similarly-minded organizations like Jewish Community Action. 

Sarah Gleason, a Catholic faith leader and former board member of ISAIAH, explains ISAIAH’s work in community organizing terms, always seeking servant leaders to drive the ISAIAH mission in existing and new faith communities. 

Sarah Gleason is a Catholic former board member of ISAIAH who planned an anti-racism event at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis the day after the 2016 election. Photo courtesy of Sarah Gleason.

Through ISAIAH, Gleason helped launch an anti-racism initiative at her church — St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis — the day after the election. The results were crushing but made the event more necessary than ever, she said. 

“We can admit that we thought it would turn out differently when we planned the date, but we need to be wherever we needed to be, addressing racism and white supremacy and creating a system where everyone can thrive, not contingent on one politician or another,” she says. “This isn’t going to go away with one election.”

Religious progressives can take heart in the fact that Minnesota’s political culture is hospitable to their mission. 

In 1966, political scientist Daniel Elazar asserted that there are three main political subcultures in America: Traditionalistic, individualistic and moralistic. Elazar considered Minnesota, his birthplace, to be the epitome of the moralistic culture. Minnesota’s political culture is characterized, he argued, by the belief that “the whole people” have an interest in political society “in which the citizens cooperate in an effort to create and maintain the best government in order to implement certain shared moral principles.”

This approach to politics that’s guided by a moral responsibility is well illustrated: Minnesota is leading the nation in census responses, it has topped the nation in voter turnout for the past 10 election cycles, and has consistently high rates of volunteerism and participation in programs like the Peace Corps

But that moral vision also invites inevitable conflict. Welcoming and protecting immigrants, for instance, can run afoul of the law as the battle over sanctuary cities has shown. The Bible and other religious texts contain both descriptions of cities of refuge as well as precepts that dictate abiding by the law, offering conflicting interpretations between the religious right and left. 

Gleason, for instance, has faced opposition from conservative Catholics. 

“As a Catholic, I can certainly speak to times when Catholic congregation [members] or clergy have had tensions about some of the ways that we are naming what we mean by justice and inclusion,” she says. Yet she, like Omar and Pagitt, remains undeterred.

In fact, Gleason has a bright view of the future: “For me, people of faith have a huge advantage. We have a set of values and stories and texts — we have all these things that we’re already rooted in,” she says. “We’re talking about what our shared values are — and how they’re being violated.

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.