The End of Christian America

post-christian-america-na01-vl-verticalNewsweek leads with an article suggesting that the number of people saying that religion can answer all or most of the problems in the US today has fallen dramatically in the past few years.

Leaving aside the obvious cheap funnies, this goes all the way back to the founding days, when those who came over on the first little wooden ships were pretty much split between fundamentalist Puritans, seeking a New World to allow for the expression of their strict Protestant religious views, and a bunch of wayward adveturers, looking to make a buck.

This is what led to the ideal of a separation of church and state. It was less to do with some high-minded philosophy about the dangers of religion interfering with the state, and much more to do with the fact that Mammon wanted to be left the heck alone, and the fundamentalists had already fled one society of religious oppression, and wanted to be sure that it was not replacing it with another. Less accommodation, and more a balance of mutual terror. And it is why we enjoy today the cultural dichotomy of “God Bless America” living alongside Las Vegas and Larry Flynt.

The creative tension, even societal schizophrenia, that has existed between the two opposite national character traits, has defined us as a society ever since. There is a constant jostling for influence between the desire to be moral and the freedom to earn money any which way that we can. It’s why we have the expression “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, and the phrase “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s why Oliver North took a Bible to Tehran, while selling TOW missiles to Iran’s Islamic leaders.

Religion found itself on the rise in the Eighties, in response to permissive social reforms of the Sixties and the economic difficulties of the Seventies. People from all sorts of different social backgrounds, who might previously have been on opposite sides of the political divide on economic matters (conservative Southerners and blue-collar Northerners), suddenly found themselves beating the same drum on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Those beating the drum loudest, of course, were the Christian Right. The Evangelicals. The Southern Baptists. They probably had their greatest victory, not in the Eighties, with Reagan, but with Bush in 2004. Then, even with a still doddery economy, and a deeply unpopular war, they helped to underpin a close Election win for Bush. I remember telling my disappointed Catholic and liberal uncle that the remedy in 2008 lay not in winning back the Democratic Party from the political cynics, but in winning back the Catholic Party from the religious cynics.

I believe that what we are seeing now is a reaction against the meddling of the Christian Right in the past couple of decades. A realization that the Bible calls as much for social justice as moral adherence. This began to be seen in 2006, saw further expression in 2008, and deepens every day with growing disenchantment with supposedly caring religious types who call for the failure of a President whom most see as one who is trying to help the nation.

So, I’m not surprised by the Newsweek poll. But, I further believe there is a danger embedded in the poll which activist progressives ignore at their peril – whether the peril is morally altruisitic or politically expedient.

I sense that people generally are fed up with the problems of society and the solutions being cast in any sort of religious context. If we spend too much time wrapping up the activism of President Obama in the moral cloak of the religious and moral calling of Jesus, then, if that activism is less than miraculous, we may be setting up the legacy of Obama for further religious backlash down the road.

By all means, allow our own religious and moral beliefs to inform our own personal desire to help. But let’s mirror the separation of church and state in our own efforts. Let’s leave religion out of governmental good works. I remember a friend telling me how, as an avowed atheist, she happily worked alongside Republicans and Christian Evangelicals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, because everyone agreed to leave their political manifesto’s and Bibles at home.

In this way, religion can be allowed to re-discover its natural and separated role in society, and ordinary folks are left to judge the activism of their Government on its merits, and not by some blind adherence to an irrelevant moral belief – a confusion between practicality and religion that we observe and fear in societies like those of Iran and Northern Ireland.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Offices of Direct Venture Development: Networking for the Marginalized

539w1IDEA: A network of local Offices of Direct Venture Development, established to optimize the impact of President Obama’s economic stimulus and anti-poverty programs on at risk communities, by empowering the individuals, non-profit groups and faith-based charities in those communities to design and fund the plans that will harness those programs, to their best effect, in the communities’ own economic and cultural regeneration and growth.

DETAIL: People in historically disadvantaged communities do not want a hand-out. They may not even need a job. They may already have three jobs.

What they want is the opportunity to stabilize and move forward with dignity, through self-empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

Offices of Direct Venture Development would be financed by a combination of public and private money.

Initially, mobilized by Washington, they would become self-sustaining and community-driven.

I would see them assisting self-empowered regeneration and growth in the following ways:

1) Providing advice and support to individuals in need, much like Citizens’ Advice Bureaus in the UK.

2) Acting as a focal point for advice and the dissemination of financial aid (private and public) for non-profits and faith-based charities, who do the bulk of the supportive work at the grassroots level.

Economic regeneration and growth will not be one-size-fits-all. Policy and aid distribution will need to be tailored to the area in question, and designed by the people in receipt and the organizations supporting them, based on efforts already in progress.

It is important to avoid situations in which an Office such as DVD is seen as dictating solutions to communities and their non-profit and faith-based organizations. Instead, many communities are already well-served by intricate networks of effective support groups, who are already aware of the range of need.

What communities and their support groups want is resources, whether that be in the form of financial support or services such as coalition-building and helping to fill any gaps that may exist.

3) Providing a pro-active networking seed base for individuals and groups in need.

There is a disparity that should be addressed.

For example, when a middle-class family experiences hard times, generally they have the time, the skills and the contacts to find a way to cope.

People in more marginalized situations do not always have those blessings. Offices of DVD would provide a starting point.

4) Acting as the link between grassroots activity and regional and national organizations of support.

There is sometimes a disconnect between what people and groups actually need on the ground, and what Washington and others believe they need.

I would see Offices of DVD, and their personnel, acting as the essential link between at-risk communities and policy-makers.

Initially, translating upwards grassroots accomplishments: it is vital that Washington hears the unvarnished, unfiltered and therefore genuine voice of the least considered, their supporters and their accomplishments.

Additionally, Offices could then disseminate downwards policy and funds (both private and public) in a manner that is respectful, targeted and effective, and which does not unnecessarily intrude on cultural sensibilities and the good work already being done at the grassroots.

CONCLUSION: President Obama has been an effective community organizer. He understands the value of community. He says he wants a grassroots administration.

I believe that a network of Offices of Direct Venture Development would create a new environment of support for community activity.

I believe that the Obama Administration will best be able to achieve his stated goals of renewing the American economy and spirit by harnessing the full power of community ingenuity and empowering communities to heal themselves.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 8:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Obama, ‘Half [US Poverty] in Ten’ and Me…

[I am committed to parlaying a lifetime of community building and social entrepreneurship into assisting the incoming Obama administration, ‘Half in Ten’ and associated anti-poverty groups in their efforts to cut US poverty in half within ten years. Hence, this letter to Lisa Donner, Executive Director of ‘Half in Ten.’ Any reader who has suggestions or contacts that might help me with my social ambition is encouraged to send me feedback!]

“Dear Lisa,

Why am I writing to you? Because you are the Executive Director of the Half in Ten campaign. And because I am a successful community builder and a proven social entrepreneur. I want to help you, your partner organizations and the new President work to halve poverty in the next ten years. But I need your help (and theirs) in working out the best way I can help.

As a starting point, I attach my Resume to indicate what I have to offer. I see several possibilities, which I set out below, and I hope that you (and others receiving a copy of this e-mail) may be able to find the time to review those with me.

My focal issue is that I am a problem-solver, rather than a theorist or ideologue. I want to do what I can to assist in ensuring that, alongside the many good folks and institutions that already exist to advocate policy on how to cure the causes of poverty in the US, there is a complementary effort to tackle the immediate symptoms of poverty, and that that effort is driven as much as possible by pragmatic policy-making based on real grassroots experience.

As I say, I am writing to you in the first instance in your role as Executive Director of Half in Ten. It may well be that you say there is someone more appropriate with whom I can exchange. And for that reason, I have copied this e-mail to a few other people. But you seemed to me to be the best starting point!

I know this may all seem a little presumptuous, but I am one who believes that, sometimes, the only way to help solve a problem is to be direct and persistent, while remaining charming and respectful, but always a passionate advocate – even when it is advocating me! So, please forgive my forwardness. I feel strongly about this.

Why now? As you will already know, Melody Barnes, President-elect Obama’s choice for director of his Domestic Policy Council, recently delivered a keynote address at a national board meeting of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in which she affirmed the new administration’s commitment to cut poverty in half.

Even if the speech had not been made, it is well known that tackling poverty will be a major commitment of the new administration. What that means is that there may soon be a rapidly-formed and major effort, quite bluntly, to direct a lot of money at the problem of poverty in the US.

This promises to be one of the largest programs of its kind since the days of FDR. There is a little by way of modern template. A lot of policy regarding implementation of the program is very likely going to be made on the hoof. I would suggest that it’s going to need a whole team of committed and proven grassroots community builders, who listen, learn and are not afraid to make decisions, when there is either too much or too little information available on the ground.

While the potential availability of new money and drive is to be welcomed, you will know better than I that there are inherent dangers. Much of the work with hunger and homelessness is currently being undertaken at the grassroots level by tightly-knit networks of established non-profits.

Sure, they need money. But I think that the distribution of that money – to them and to individual applicants – needs to be handled with sensitivity, so as not to upset the inter-relationships that already exist; to ensure that the funds are directed in the most effective and efficient manner; to respect the dignity of the recipients; and so as not to impose upon the grassroots volunteers a bureaucratic mentality which they may not understand, and which could stymie their best efforts.

In other words, and in my opinion, I would hope that there will be as much emphasis on policy-making from the ground up, as from the top down. And that there will be active efforts to enroll experienced community builders to act as a buffer between government and the non-profits.

In-the-field development troubleshooters who, on the on hand, know how to talk to those in need and those helping them on the ground, without talking down to them, and who, on the other hand, have experience in translating grassroots experience upwards into regional and national strategy, and who are comfortable addressing Washington policy groups such as yours. Frankly, values-driven professionals like me.

Why me? I have been a community builder since I was 16 years of age. I have an extensive background in social entrepreneurship at the grassroots level. And I have spent more than my fair share of time making and advocating policy in regional and national circles.

In 2005, I researched and presented a four-part radio series on the subject of alleviating the immediate symptoms of poverty. That effort led to FOCUS On Poverty,which I spent much of the ensuing three years advocating to various groups (including yours and the Center for American Progress) and the Presidential Campaigns of John Edwards (whose national campaign headquarters were just across the road from where I work in Chapel Hill) and Barack Obama.

I am committed now to devoting the next four to eight years of my life to doing what I can to help you, your colleagues and the Obama Administration reach the goal of halving poverty levels in the US, with, as I say, an especial focus on alleviating the immediate symptoms, and supporting (or building) the structures and processes that can assist in ensuring there is solid input from grassroots policy-making, and the wisest distribution of assistance to the existing efforts on the ground.

It may well be that what I am describing already exists, with a team of people like me committed to the same ideals and goals. In which case, please just point me in the right direction!

Alternatively, these may be ideas that are under consideration, in which case I would be delighted if you (and others receiving copies of this e-mail) could perhaps begin with me a conversation that might lead to some enactment that could include me, and other grassroots experts like me.

What are my options?

1) Approach the Obama Administration direct. Already done. I have completed the online job application, and left a note on with a few ideas about an anti-poverty approach at the grassroots level.

One of my primary concerns is the dignity of potential recipients. I know of many families in the Appalachians who struggle to make ends meet. They are certainly eligible for assistance. They are primary targets for existing and new anti-poverty programs. But they are too proud to admit the fact.

They would never own to needing help. Indeed, they have a universally dim view of charity and liberals. And even though they know in their hearts no Republican will ever help them, they consistently vote Republican because they don’t trust politicians who assume they know what is best for them and appear to be out of touch. Plus, they need to keep up appearances.

Any effort seriously to reduce poverty is going to need to be able to employ language, processes and structures which respect these grassroots practicalities and accommodate this and similar cultural mindsets – and that, in turn, could well require consensus builders like me, who are comfortable negotiating with peoples of all sorts of different social backgrounds.

Anything that you or others can do to help my efforts in these regards, and with the Obama Administration, would be much appreciated.

2) Find room on the bus with you or your partner organizations. Indeed, I noticed that the Center for American Progress is looking for a Director of its Poverty and Prosperity Program. While I admire the work of CAP, and feel that I am qualified for the position, I am, quite honestly, not looking to spend as much time in Washington as the job description seems to suggest.

I recognize that the work of the Director, as described, has an important support function in filtering, co-ordinating and consolidating disparate ideas before they reach the Obama administration itself. Indeed, I would see participation by grassroots policy-makers in such work by the CAP as an important part of keeping government strategy relevant. But I’m not sure it’s the direction I would wish for myself at the moment. Not as a daily occupation.

I’m looking to spend more time on the front lines of social instability. So, I would prefer to be out in the field, talking with grassroots people and organizations, confirming what works and what doesn’t, and determining real needs. Only then would I want to feed upwards into policy-making circles (in Washington and elsewhere), and subsequently, helping with the effort to distribute downwards.

If my reading of the job description in question is wrong, or if CAP (or one of its partner organizations in Half in Ten) is looking to open up a position as I have described it, then I would immediately be interested.

3) Create my own effort, with help from the likes of your organization, its partners and the Obama Administration.

Now, while I have a healthy regard for the talents I have been given, and the experience I have gathered, I like to think I’m also sufficiently self-aware to know my limitations.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. My greatest ongoing development project is myself. I am always listening and learning. In that regard, it might be presumptuous for me to talk about setting up an entity, which may well be duplicating what is already being done, and could be stepping on toes.

That is why I have been sharing these particular thoughts with colleagues who specialize in the raising and distribution of funds for non-profits.

My preliminary thoughts run along the lines of setting up a small team which would assist targeted areas. Immediately, I am looking at the network of non-profits working to alleviate homelessness and hunger in Raleigh and Durham, in North Carolina.

What I envisage is liaising closely with those organizations, agreeing their needs, and then, through existing contacts, establishing direct relationships with small donor foundations around the country.

In this way, I would hope to create personal and ongoing partnerships between foundations who have money to give but no capacity to research appropriate recipients, and deserving anti-poverty causes, who are unable to sustain their own sufficient fund-raising efforts.

In due course, I would see this initial effort possibly expanding into a people and web-driven clearing house, marrying private and public money, through a knowledgeable clearing process and structure, with the enormous but disparate grassroots anti-poverty effort, in a fashion that does not interfere with that effort on the ground.

As I say, these are early thoughts. But, as with so much that I anticipate will be happening in the coming months, a lot is going to be needed to be put together in a short time period. I’m trying to do my bit to respond as quickly and as effectively as I can. And that means that much is still on the drawing board! And again, I would be grateful for any advice, support and assistance that you and others could give to this effort, if this is believed to be a useful way forward for me.

I want to help. I hope you can help me. I thank you for taking the time to read this far. And I truly hope this e-mail will lead to fruitful progress. I look forward to your response. Happy New Year!

All the best,
(Peter Geoff Gilson)”

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment