Lobbyists for God
By Niv Elis
Businesses looking to have an impact on policy issues like health care and energy are teaming up with groups claiming to represent a powerful, well-known, but surprising figure: God. Faith-based lobbying groups, the likes of which played an important role in the civil rights movements, are resurgent in Washington, and savvy businesses are taking notice.
It's common knowledge that business is a powerful force in politics. K Street is brimming with industry groups and lobbyists for hire, each vying to influence policies by setting up PACs to make campaign contributions and building relationships with officials to make their case directly. Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby representing some 3,000,000 American businesses, can be essential allies or stumbling blocks to a given piece of legislation. But even with heaps of cash, PR shops, and political connections, they lack one thing that religious organizations have in abundance: grass roots support.
By organizing through church or synagogue networks, faith-based lobbying organizations have access to the 61% of all Americans who, according to Gallup polls, are members of a house of worship and the 57% who attend services at least once a month.
In August an organization called Faith in Public Life demonstrated the political clout religious leaders can muster by enticing President Obama to speak on a conference call about health care reform. As part of the effort, 31 allied religious groups gathered 140,000 individuals to participate in the call.
Earlier in the summer, a health care summit for religious leaders attracted political personalities such as Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Seeing an opportunity to tap into ready-made grassroots networks and simultaneously obtain an air of moral legitimacy, businesses and industry groups alike are teaming up with faith-based groups to get their policies passed on the important political issues of the day.
Corporations like Verizon and Exelon are members of the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), a coalition that lobbies for affordable and universal healthcare alongside religious groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian group devoted to service.
Ralph Neas, the CEO of NCHC sees faith groups as a key pillar of its strategy. "They are the best spokespersons for the need to improve our health system," he says, and when compared to businesses, "they're more effective outside of Washington, in their communities where they carry tremendous respect."
With the aid of their business, industry, and faith-based grassroots, NCHC has become an influential voice for reform, serving as the lead witness in the first Congressional joint subcommittee hearing on health reform plans this past June.
The religious groups have similarly pragmatic reasons for entering into a marriage of convenience with businesses. A faith-based lobbyist has the "vast moral passion of the members of our congregations and our members. What it doesn't have is many resources - financial resources," says Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Committee, the lobbying arm of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Although members of a particular coalition may not see eye to eye on many issues, the politics of the moment allow for strange bedfellows. "Right now, with health care and the climate issue, you're seeing issues where partnership is easier and more appropriate" says Eric Sapp a Founding Partner of the Eleison Group, a Washington-based political consultancy that specializes in outreach to faith communities.
The Health and Energy debates are also pulling in right leaning religious lobbying groups, typically associated with hot button social issues like gay marriage and abortion. The Christian Coalition, a conservative advocacy group that boasts an e-mail list of 3,000,000 and has strong ties to the Republican Party is eager to promote energy reform, believing that preventing climate change is a religious imperative. "That's something we should have been looking at 20 years ago," says the group's President, Roberta Combs. On health care, the group is making the moral case for the Republican position.
Despite the moral dimension that religious groups try to inject into political debates, at the end of the day Washington still responds to the usual incentives. "You can influence with money, and you can influence with votes," says Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of Network, a progressive Catholic lobbying group. Without vast financial resources, religious groups try to use moral suasion to get policies passed. But, Sister Campbell concedes, "in the end it's probably the votes that make the difference."
Niv Elis is a policy analyst and writer in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and focuses on Middle East affairs and emerging markets. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by: ccnl1 | November 12, 2009 5:04 PM
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