Faith in Politics

There has been scant commentary in recent months about the bright side, the upside, of the impeachment saga that absorbed Washington and the national media for well more than a year. In the spirit of correcting that, here’s a small silver lining: We have been reminded of who Andrew Johnson was. More to the point, we have learned, or re-learned, what the battle to impeach Johnson was like. Since the Johnson impeachment gave us the only precedent for the impeachment of President Clinton, the newspapers have been full of accounts of what happened 131 years ago in Congress. If you believe that Americans pay too little attention to our own political history, it may be of some satisfaction that current events have at least made certain important historical arguments seem relevant again. What a welcome opportunity it must be for the alert high school history teacher who is trying to get students interested in the era of Reconstruction and the Presidency of Andrew Johnson!

And for the rest of us, too. It seems to me there are windfalls of historical wisdom swirling around. Has American politics turned mean and sour? It was mean and sour when radical Republicans pushed impeachment in 1868, calling the President a scoundrel, an oppressor, “worse than lice,” as one put it. Has our political discourse become harsh and uncivil? It was positively hateful during Reconstruction, a time historian Eric Foner calls “the darkest page in the saga of American history.”

When we delve into our political past, we find arguments from the earliest days about whether partisanship, or “faction,” would be a corrupting influence. Thomas Jefferson famously disliked the idea of political parties. But events cast him as a leader of the anti-Federalist faction. A Federalist broadsheet in 1802 hit Jefferson with the accusation (now accepted as credible) that he fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemings. A few years earlier, Alexander Hamilton’s reputation was tarnished when it became known that he was unfaithful to his wife. He owned up to the affair, but not to accusations he was involved in securities speculations with a convicted swindler–who happened to be the husband of his lady-love. Personal scandal has quite often gotten mixed up in the power struggles of opposing parties.

Such reminders are uplifting! It may be true that most Americans turn away from the spectacle of partisan warfare in disgust. Politics! is sometimes uttered as a one-word epithet. We know that the heat of political passion can bring out the worst in people. Former senator Dale Bumpers told the Senate in January that James G. Blaine, the Maine Republican, came to publicly regret his vote to impeach President Johnson. Bumpers warned today’s Republicans about “wanting to win too badly.” There is real wisdom to that. But I also find it delicious to know, just for the sake of knowing it, that when Blaine ran for president in 1884, his party attempted to brand the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” (A century earlier, Samuel Adams was not beyond accusing certain Tories as being secret favorers of the “Romish” faith. Why did my high school history teachers always leave such tasty morsels out?)

Religious bigotry, mudslinging, excessive partisanship–they are all part of our political heritage. So too are campaigns for tolerance, civility, and reform. A political culture is unhealthy when there is too much of the former and too little of the latter.

Is our political culture today unhealthy? It’s not enough to look out at the squalid pond that is Washington politics and say yes. Nor is it enough to cite historical parallels in scandal, ugliness, and abuse of power and mutter, in the words of the Talking Heads, “same as it ever was.” Yes, it’s true that national politics has always had its sordid side. On the other hand, the audience for it today is vastly larger because of the modern mass media. It would take a book to properly address what has changed and what has not. (And a fine one on the subject has recently been published: The Good Citizen, by Michael Schudson, argues that reports of the decline of American civic life are greatly exaggerated. Later this year, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam is expected to be out with a book arguing the opposite.)

Our mission here, in these pages, is not to answer the question; only to put it in focus. Imagine, then, we were to roll back the news reel on a few selected events in Massachusetts politics over the last year. The election season would be noteworthy. Campaigns always show how difficult it is for politicians to gauge the intelligence of, and level of interest among, the citizens. The three televised debates between Paul Cellucci and Scott Harshbarger in the governor’s race last fall didn’t do much credit to the candidates–or to the practice of holding televised debates. Hit the pause button: There’s Harshbarger railing, “Tell the truth, Paul!” and Cellucci shouting, “Scott, you can’t handle the truth!” Fast forward to Cellucci’s inaugural address, and you see his better angel: “We are confident of our governing principles,” Cellucci says, “but our advocacy should not be confused with selfish and narrow-minded ideology. We will shun the unyielding partisanship that has engulfed our nation’s capital.”

You could learn a lot about how Massachusetts politics works by following the news coverage of House Speaker Tom Finneran’s stand-off with the owner of the New England Patriots. Here is Finneran sounding off about “fat-ass millionaires” and spoiled, overpaid athletes. And here is Patriots owner Bob Kraft striking a deal with political leaders in Connecticut to move his football team to Hartford. Interesting snippet in the aftermath: Finneran confesses to reporters that he will try to take his wife’s advice to drop the “street vernacular” and speak his mind with a more civil tongue.

Rewind to a Boston story from last spring. It’s hardly worth notice on its merits, but it told us something about the political culture of the capital city. There is the Rev. Eugene Rivers standing by the editor of Boston magazine, defending a headline that labeled Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates “Head Negro in Charge.” Some of the city’s black community is outraged–but Rivers derides critics as the “ebonics police.” The arguments rage for weeks and generate a startling amount of ill will. Fast forward to summer and here is a penitent Rivers apologizing for his role in the matter, telling the local media he wanted to “undo the damage I’ve done” and was “retiring from local controversies.”

In each of these events we see a struggle. Partisanship pulls one way and good will pulls another. A few years ago, Dan Ackroyd appeared on “Saturday Night Live” with an acid spoof of a cranky Bob Dole. There was a little Bob Dole angel on one shoulder and a Bob Dole devil on his other. As the candidate faced annoying questions from George Will and Sam Donaldson–“What about your famous dark side?”–the angel advised Dole, “Stay calm. Don’t let’m provoke you.” The devil jumps in and says, “We don’t have to take that. We’re 71 years old. We deserve to be President. Get him!” (Dole takes his cue from the devil and threatens to punch George Will’s lights out.)

Angels and devils, and the unending battle for a nobler political discourse.

No one who has any experience in politics (or political journalism, for that matter) can be unaware of the ways our angels and devils are constantly giving conflicting advice. Politics would be pretty dull if the angels were always winning. But when too many devils get into the act, competition turns into combat, partisanship turns toward extremism, hostility becomes hatred. Or, as former Sen. Bumpers said, wanting to win turns into “wanting to win too badly.”

Politics and partisanship are like anything else, then. They can be played with skill and finesse, which means balancing competitiveness with civility, or they can stink up the joint. I’d like to say I have a story to offer here of politics at its best–an example of angels coming out on top. But I don’t have that. I offer, instead, a story of a “potential politics,” an important development that is, at the moment, only a development.

On a Sunday night last November, I drove out to Boston College High School in Dorchester. There were hundreds of people streaming into the auditorium, greeted by priests and nuns and activists and a six-piece ragtag band. By 7 p.m., there were about 4,000 people–almost all of them from area churches–in the building. Eight months earlier, I had attended a similar gathering that had pulled more than 1,100 people into the same auditorium. The first meeting drew people from the immediate area–Dorchester, South Boston, Quincy–who were interested in being part of a group to be called the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The November meeting drew people from all over Boston and nearby towns and cities and was called to mark the public launch of the GBIO.

Other groups of this nature, organized out of churches and across denominational lines, have been on the Massachusetts scene for several years–in Brockton, New Bedford, Worcester, Lynn, and in the Merrimack Valley. The Brockton Interfaith Community, founded in 1990, brought together 16 churches and synagogues to press for community policing and home ownership initiatives (see “The Battle for Brockton,” CW, Spring 1996). The Essex County Community Organization in Lynn two years ago set up an innovative job-training program that trains machinists for businesses on the North Shore (see “Faith, Hope, and Jobs,” CW, Fall 1997). Most of the activity is traceable to the Dorchester office of organizer Lewis Finfer, who runs the Organizing & Leadership Training Center. But the GBIO is a large step forward – first of all because it involves the challenging terrain of Boston and second because it involves a working partnership between Finfer’s network and that of the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation. The IAF, founded more than 50 years ago by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky, built a number of strong networks in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and in Baltimore and New York. They did it by organizing working-class and middle-class people where they were most easily reachable–in their churches.

As I stood toward the back of the auditorium that evening in November, I noticed IAF national director Ed Chambers briefly chat with Finfer and then take a chair anonymously in the backmost row, not far from a bloc of about 75 people who were in town for IAF training seminars. Presently the six-piece band struck up “When the Saints go marching in,” and slowly a procession made its way up the center aisle. There was Cardinal Bernard Law, clapping in time, following a few steps behind state AFL-CIO President Bobby Haynes. They joined Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw and dozens of other church leaders at the front.

“Look around you, brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. John Heinemeier, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Roxbury, “and see the people who are going to make Greater Boston truly a greater place.” There were more than 70 congregations represented, and the audience had the kind of multi-racial, multi-ethnic makeup that is rarely seen in Boston. When Cardinal Law spoke, he pronounced the founding of the GBIO “one of the most exciting things that I have known to happen since I’ve been here as archbishop.”

What might this style of faith-based political organizing mean for Boston? In most respects it’s too soon to say. The issues agenda has yet to be chosen–organizers talk about letting concerns bubble up from the members. But a hint of the good that could come out of this work was demonstrated in a simple way at the GBIO warm-up meeting last March. The Rev. Daniel Finn, pastor of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Dorchester told of getting to know for the first time other church leaders in his own neighborhood. “I ask myself why it’s taken me 18 years to meet Frank Kelley,” he said. The Rev. Kelley, pastor of Way of the Cross Pentecostal Church in Dorchester, then spoke, and then the Irish Catholic priest and the black Pentecostal minister embraced, while the crowd stood and cheered.

Ah, but of course it’s never that easy! GBIO organizers are well aware that there is suspicion throughout the city about what they are up to. I got a flavor of it when I asked the Rev. Eugene Rivers how he, as a leader in the Ten Point Coalition, regards the new organizing effort. The Ten Point Coalition has a track record in Boston of uniting church leaders in serious, day-to-day work to prevent youth violence in the city. As well, the Black Ministerial Alliance (originally the Interfaith Ministerial Alliance) has been a part of the Boston landscape for more than 40 years. Is this town big enough for all these organizers?

Rivers referred to the GBIO gathering in November as “an Amway convention.” He directed my attention to problems IAF groups have had in recent years in Los Angeles and Chicago (rivalries have developed between competing community organizations). He predicted the GBIO will not work in Boston “because the organizing model is wrong.”

The Rev. Wesley Roberts, chairman of the Black Ministerial Alliance, which claims about 50 member churches representing 20,000 congregants, has been more favorably inclined toward GBIO. Roberts and about two dozen others from his People’s Baptist Church attended the GBIO assembly in November. Roberts later told organizers he has every intention of joining the effort.

In January I paid a visit to the second-floor room in the former convent next to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Dorchester that houses the GBIO staff. I asked lead organizer Jim Drake about tensions in Boston. Drake, 61, is an Oklahoman with a folksy manner and a droopy white mustache. (He looks like Wilford Brimley, the grandfatherly actor formerly seen on Quaker Oats ads.) He worked for IAF in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1980s and then went on to organize churches in the South Bronx in New York with Rev. Heinemeier. Several years ago, Heinemeier moved to Roxbury and about three years ago, Drake started making visits to Boston.

With encouragement from the Discount Foundation and the Hyams Foundation, IAF and Finfer’s group began to set up a partnership and to work out a strategy to organize Boston churches. In the usual IAF style, Drake began having one-to-one conversations with as many people as he could meet. What struck him, he said, is that people in Boston didn’t seem to like each other–or didn’t think they did. “The other thing I found,” he admitted candidly and with a touch of puzzlement, “was people didn’t like me.”

But Drake and Finfer and their organizers are settling in for the long haul. Their faith is not just in getting people to talk to each other–“it’s how people listen to each other,” Drake said. “Yeah, there’s going to be big fights,” he said. “But the only people we’re going to fight with are people who want to have things only their way.” He was aware of Rivers’s skepticism and answered it with a turn of the cheek: “I think he knows we love him,” he said.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
It will help GBIO’s efforts, of course, that it has the blessing of the Catholic Archdiocese, which has brought significant financial support in these early stages. It will take more than approval from higher-ups, though, to make GBIO work. It will also depend on whether Drake is right in saying that “people long for the ability to act.” And on whether they believe in a potential politics–a partisanship that cares about winning but finds ways to bring out people’s better angels. And it will depend on whether the particular political culture of Boston can be transformed by hundreds of respectful, civil conversations, most of them between people who have never imagined themselves to be allies.

I asked Drake if skeptics might be correct in saying the organizing model is not well suited for a place like Boston. They could be right, he allowed. But he promises no early verdict. “We may not know for 10 years,” he said.