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Anthony Streiff, left, Alex Sand and Nam Dorjee, all of Minneapolis, are in tears when it is announced that voters had rejected a proposed amendments to Minnesota’s Constitution, to ban gay marriage, at an Minnesotans United for All Families election night event in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 7, 2012.
“You will know them by their fruits” Matthew 7:16
The coming weeks will provide ample opportunity for minute, precinct-by-precinct analysis of how marriage equality advocates secured victory on ballot measures in Maryland, Minnesota, Maine and Washington. We’ll all learn more about inroads made in unlikely communities—African American Protestants in Prince George’s County, Maryland or rural Franco-American Catholic communities like Biddeford, Maine, to name a few. Yet, without missing the forest for the trees, there is one thing we already know for certain: a thoughtful, multidimensional engagement with people of faith made the difference in each of these campaigns. We are used to seeing religion as the problem for the LGBT community, but this year we can say with full confidence that religious engagement was a key to the solution. Here are some of the secrets to our success.
We learned from our mistakes.
Even though a substantial majority of gays and lesbians “cite their faith as a central facet of their life,” religion remains a volatile topic in the LGBT community. Many have been taunted, ostracized, even abused in the name of religion. Painful stories abound of faithful LGBT people and families made unwelcome, even exiled from their congregations. And, we see religious entities fund, organize, and message anti-LGBT work.
Such mistreatment has repercussions and LGBT activists have historically been resistant to engaging faith communities.
Although understandable, resistance to religion has not served us well. The 2008 fight to defeat Proposition 8, the infamous anti-marriage equality measure in California, did not focus enough on religious communities to its detriment. The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel wrote after that loss, “It is naïve to believe that rights-based arguments can trump the value-based arguments of conservative religious leaders. It is also naïve to ignore the power and influence of the moral authority given to religious leaders within communities of faith.”
This time around, supportive faith communities and political strategists came together to rewrite the script. The Rev. Marvin Ellison, president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, a multi-faith coalition working in Maine, observed, “The 2009 campaign was basically a secular campaign. When RCAD showed up [in 2009], the campaign was grateful but did not know what to do with us. This time around the campaign understood from the beginning that religion would be a decisive factor.” This sentiment was felt across all four states.
Second, people of faith organized.
Supportive faith communities were part of the marriage equality campaign’s “boots on the ground” strategy from the start. Each state’s campaign had a faith director and faith organizers and, in the case of Minnesota, the faith director served as part of the senior policy team. In addition, sophisticated multi faith coalitions and denominational groups stepped up their organizing efforts. Although coordination among campaigns and faith groups is always delicate (faith groups lean toward multi-issue, committee-based organizing while campaigns have a laser beam focus on winning) this time we saw a new willingness to collaborate. This meant that the stuff of campaigns — persuasion efforts, one-on-one conversations, phone banking, and canvassing — was all done in concert with faith communities.
In Minnesota, for instance, nearly 3,000 faith leaders made 10 to 30 one-on-one calls to people of faith. This intimate conversation model, used in all four states, was incredibly helpful for undecided voters caught between the messages they may have heard in their congregations and their personal sense of fairness.
Third, we engaged the unusual suspects.
In Maryland, even before President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy cultivated new relationships with prominent African American leaders such as the Rev. Delman Coates, an African American Baptist pastor who became a key spokesman for marriage equality. Through this work with Coates and a robust African American faith team made up of straight and LGBT clergy, the Maryland campaign undermined the familiar narrative in African American and white communities—one which is regularly exploited by anti-LGBT organizations—that marriage equality is a white issue, as if there were no LGBT people within the African American community!
In all four states, we also saw an increase in pro-equality Roman Catholic organizing. Following a model established in Maine, a loose federation of Catholics for Marriage Equality emerged in all four states and in bold, yet theologically sound ways gave permission to Catholics to follow their conscience even if it meant going against the bishops. In Minnesota, a priest in favor of marriage equality cited Pope Benedict on the limitations of ecclesiastical authority, “Over the pope . . . . stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” Using conscience as their touchstone, Washington State mobilized thousand of Catholics and raised money to run a powerful ad in major newspapers across the state showcasing Catholic support. Similar impressive efforts occurred in all three other states.
Fourth, religious spokespeople were promoted.
Knowing we had a media deficit with the religious right, the Human Rights Campaign and the campaigns worked closely with Auburn Theological Seminary to combine the messages of the campaign with the compelling stories of religious leaders. Hundreds of top level religious leaders were trained to provide a pro-faith, pro-equality message. By empowering and amplifying these faith leaders, we chipped away at the religious right’s singular claim to the religious response to this issue.
Where do we go from here?
Incorporating faith into equality campaigns is still, at a nascent stage. We need to learn how to better collaborate with the richly diverse religious communities that are part of the fabric of faith in America but that often get left out when campaigns focus on the moveable middle. We need a better understanding of geographical differences that affect communities of faith. We learned, for instance, that Roman Catholics in the West Coast often have more freedom, even to organize in Catholic parishes, than Roman Catholics in other parts of the country. We need a clearer understanding of what faith voices resonate best in different communities, knowing that denominational affiliation at times isn’t the common bond. Finally, we need to find ways to take advantage of religious media. Television and religious radio still remain relatively untapped resources for our work.
The tremendous success of faith communities’ organizing in the four states this election showcase the promise of faith organizing which, like the proverbial mustard seed, just needs watering to thrive. The gifts of people of faith in this work are only beginning to emerge, the fruits of our labors will be even more plentiful as the roots of our commitment deepen and expand. The best is yet to come.
Sharon Groves is director of the Human Rights Campaign’s religion and faith program.