Obama, religion and civil society

Madeline Bunting discusses Obama’s religious faith in today’s Guardian in particular his understanding of religiously-motivated civic activism:

Obama’s faith cannot be explained away as political opportunism to meet the conventions of American politics. The conversion was well before a political career seemed possible; besides, his faith has dragged him into plenty of controversy during his campaign. Recently, liberal secular allies have been shocked by his decision not to dismantle, but to take over and expand, Bush’s controversial flagship policy of funding faith-based organisations to provide social services. Even worse, he has chosen the evangelical preacher Rick Warren (opposes gay marriage, anti-abortion but passionate on social justice and climate change) to deliver the prayer at the inauguration. The point is that Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

If this sounds a little abstract, Matthew Bolton, a 25-year-old organiser at London Citizens, helps make it very concrete. From a state school in south-east London, followed by Cambridge, he ended up working with cleaners campaigning for a living wage. He describes his job as firstly finding unlikely heroes – such as the Jamaican great-grandmother who had seen four private cleaning companies come and go and knew more about her job than any of them. Secondly, linking them with unlikely allies – such as the local mosques attended by Somali cleaners. Then organising protests and demos; the result was the cleaners won themselves a 40% pay increase and sick pay for the first time.

What Alinsky had spotted was that in poor communities, the strongest institutions with the deepest roots were faith-based; they provided vital resources to poor communities – a measure of dignity and a sense of meaning in lives scarred by poverty. Find a way to connect them and you have the power to bring about change. The great heroine of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, heads a list of some of the most powerful social activists in the US who have gone through the Industrial Areas Foundation training.

It was Neil Jameson, one of the founders of London Citizens and its parent The Citizen Organising Foundation, who did his training in Chicago in 1989, just after Obama had moved on to Harvard, and saw its potential for Britain’s inner cities. Independent research has analysed that the London Citizens’ Living Wage campaign has put £32m into the pockets of low-paid workers since they started in 2001. This is money fought for and won by hundreds of activists, and the achievement is not to be measured only in material terms, but in the increased self-respect and confidence. This is not about charity or political favour or impersonal bureaucratic allocation, it is about empowerment.

What this kind of community organising – and it has spread across the US – can do is draw deeply on the passion for social justice that runs through all religious traditions. It finds common ground between Muslim, Christian and Jew in places where poverty and crime can often set them apart.

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