For years it seemed that the only people talking about community organizing were those already doing it, like Saul Alinksy and his proteges, Nicholas Von Hoffman and Ed Chambers. It took the early work of Mark R. Warren and Richard L. Wood to introduce academics to the field. Now, in an insightful and thorough state-of-the-field account of community organizing, Wood teams up with Brad Fulton to address the role of organizing practices, political culture, and racial justice in faith-based community organizing (FBCO). Wood and Fulton have worked together before, along with Ruth Braunstein, to study the role of prayer in organizing practices. These scholars have produced the best sociological work on FBCO in recent years. A Shared Futureis a must read for anyone looking to get a handle on faith-based community organizing literature or the future of FBCO in confronting white supremacy.
In the introduction, A Shared Future names three demons that threaten the future of democracy in the US: economic inequality, policy paralysis, and racial injustice. FBCO, however, has the necessary scale, scope, and political culture to confront and perhaps defeat these demons (18).Drawing from a new national survey, the first chapter in part 1 outlines the contours of FBCO. Here, two interesting trends deserve mention: The first is a shift in methodology from the use of hard to soft power (38). Along with this, the field has become more interconnected, and a sort of cross-pollination has taken place. Credit for organizational wins is now more widely shared. Some organizing networks are beginning to think nationally, not merely locally or regionally. Networks are expanding their political imagination along with their organizational capacities in the effort to defeat the three demons.
Racial injustice has long been the elephant in the room for FBCO and the next two chapters address racial diversity in leadership and strategic capacity. Chapters 2 and 3 illustrate how some networks are engaging in the slow and patient work of changing their organizing culture and practice. This internal work is yielding lessons crucial for the entire field (61). Though racial and gender diversity has increased, the field is still dominated by Christian churches. FBCO may have shifted away from a “color-blind approach" to racial justice, Wood and Fulton say, but the same cannot be said for religious diversity (88).
In recent years, the topic of religion and religious diversity in FBCO has been repeatedly addressed by theologians and religious ethicists. Melissa Snarr, in her 2011 All You That Labor, wrote an ethnographic account of living wage campaigns a few years after Wood’s first book (Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing, Chicago, 2002). Soon after, Luke Bretherton contributed two volumes to the field, and now, Peter Heltzel and Alexa Salvatierra, Dennis Jacobson, and Vincent Lloyd have contributed to theological accounts of FBCO. The most keen of these scholars note that FBCO emerges from four broad religious traditions: Catholic social teaching, Latin American liberation theology, Black liberation theology, and the Protestant social gospel. Future work on organizing needs to address the movement’s roots in at least one of these traditions. This historical attention will show that FBCO is its own theological-political tradition worthy of study. A Shared Future makes nods in this direction in the concept of “ethical democracy.” Ethical democracy is deeply influenced by the “spiritual resources” and “socioethical” teachings of religious traditions, thus making the work “faith-based” (96).
Part 2 focuses on one specific organizing network: the Oakland-based People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), and give an interpretative analysis of the future of FBCO. The crucial point for Wood and Fulton is that PICO stands as the best attempt at “ethical democracy” (96). Wood has written previously on this concept, but here it has a deeper theoretical structure in the democratic theory of Jürgen Habermas. Not all affiliates and not even all FBCO networks are exemplary in “ethical democracy” (192-195). But PICO combines two key elements: a universal democratic moral foundation with attention to multiculturalism, and a politics of difference. Chapter 4 and 5 trace out the hard work that PICO did in analyzing and adapting its organizing strategies in the direction of racial justice. Such a shift depended on a symbiotic relationship between leadership, organizational structure, and culture, along with a symbiosis between the “sanctuary” and the “street” (135). Chapter 6 is an interview with one PICO organizer who led this shift to racial justice, and chapter 7 links that interview to the theory of organizing. In the conclusion Wood and Fulton write that FBCO exhibits a “bootstrapping” of ethical democracy (190). Social movements like FBCO—along with strategic allies—can uplift a public sphere, where “ethical democracy” thrives (191-92).
Two small points deserve more attention than Wood and Fulton gave them in A Shared Future. There is an all too brief connection made to the tradition of democracy as an ethical way of life first inspired by John Dewey in 1888 (205). This is where scholars of grassroots or radical democracy like Jeffery Stout and Roman Coles make an important contribution to the field. These scholars tend to leave behind the overly structural, blueprint-like model of society and social change that comes with Wood and Fulton’s Habermasian concept of ethical democracy. The focus instead is on the democratic habits, virtues, and character necessary to withstand and contest the onslaught from the three demons. Thinkers and practitioners like Harry C. Boyte and Mary Beth Rogers, along with Ernie Cortes and Michael Gecan, are notable predecessors on this point.
Wood and Fulton note that the “color-blind” approach to religious diversity still reigns. Organizers need to pay attention to the theological and religious differences within their affiliates and networks, and how these differences impact the practice. To my eyes, these two matters mark the horizon of FBCO. How can organizers create a substantive democratic culture that is attentive to the religious and theological differences in their constituency?
A Shared Future introduces all of these issues and more, making it a necessary volume for anyone interested in the fight against economic inequality, policy paralysis and, most importantly, racial injustice.
Aaron Stauffer is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.
Date Of Review:
April 27, 2018
Richard L. Wood is professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico.
Brad R. Fulton is assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.
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