Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide

Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide

by Ruth Braunstein

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Prophets and Patriots takes readers inside two of the most active populist movements of the Obama era and highlights cultural convergences and contradictions at the heart of American political life. In the wake of the Great Recession and amid rising discontent with government responsiveness to ordinary citizens, the book follows participants in two very different groups—a progressive faith-based community organization and a conservative Tea Party group—as they set out to become active and informed citizens, put their faith into action, and hold government accountable. Both groups viewed themselves as the latest in a long line of prophetic voices and patriotic heroes who were carrying forward the promise of the American democratic project. Yet the ways in which each group put this common vision into practice reflected very different understandings of American democracy and citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293649
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/23/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Ruth Braunstein is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. 

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Prophets and Patriots

Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide

By Ruth Braunstein


Copyright © 2017 Ruth Braunstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96688-8




"I went to college," said Javier, who sat to my right, his arms wrapped around his squirmy one-year-old son. "But I am still having trouble finding a good job, one where I can buy a house and take care of my family." He was especially frustrated by the "myth," as he called it, that if you followed a certain "linear path" that included college, then you would succeed. He repeated the word linear, as if this were the most frustrating part. He, like many other people in that room, had found that path to be anything but straight or predictable. And in recent years, it had felt more like a trap — leading them in circles and tightening around them all the time.

Javier was one of approximately one hundred men and women who had gathered that afternoon in the auditorium of a Lutheran church in the northeastern city where they lived. This Lutheran congregation was a core member of Interfaith, a progressive, faith-based community-organizing coalition that I had been studying for over a year. Interfaith was affiliated with the PICO National Network — short for "People Improving Communities through Organizing" — one of a handful of faith-based community-organizing (FBCO) networks operating throughout the United States. Like other FBCO coalitions nationwide, Interfaith was a coalition of multiple member organizations — in their case a diverse set of religious congregations — that came together to address local quality-of-life issues like public safety, health care, education, and housing in their communities. In so doing, they aspired to develop leaders capable of exerting power at all levels of public life.

Interfaith drew its members primarily from two neighborhoods located on opposite sides of the city where it operated. One neighborhood was predominantly white and middle class; the other was racially and ethnically diverse and lower income, having welcomed successive waves of immigrants over the past several decades. By organizing in a diverse set of religious congregations across these neighborhoods, the group sought to build a coalition that reflected the diversity of their city as a whole. This, they believed, provided them with the political legitimacy they needed to fight for programs and policies that promoted social justice, economic inclusion, human dignity, and the common good.

As I looked around the room that afternoon, the diversity of the coalition was on display. The men and women crowded around round tables and standing along the edges of the room were black, white, Latino, and Arab; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim; middle-class and low-income. It was a Sunday afternoon, but most of the people present were not members of this Lutheran congregation; they worshipped in churches, synagogues, and mosques all over the city. They had traveled here not to worship together but rather to discuss how they could work together to confront the economic challenges that Americans around the country still faced in the wake of the Great Recession. Or as the pastor of the church put it before leading an opening prayer: "How do we live together as a nation under these circumstances?"

Before we broke off into the small group where Javier shared his story, Gabriel, one of the organizers running the event, polled the group. "How many of you — raise your hand — know somebody that has lost their job in the last couple of years?" Despite the fact that people came from a wide range of backgrounds, nearly every hand in the room went up. "Look around the room, everybody. Turn around, those of you in front." People nodded knowingly as they saw the sea of hands.

"All right, put your hands down," he told them. "How many of you know somebody who is underwater in their mortgage or is having trouble paying their bills?" Again, almost everybody raised a hand. "All right," Gabriel responded, on a roll now. "How many of you know somebody-raise your hand again — that doesn't have health insurance or lacks adequate resources for health care? Almost everybody." He paused for effect. "Folks, it didn't always used to be this way in our country."

Looking around the room that day, I could not help but think of another group of men and women I had met during the previous year. I had concurrently been conducting fieldwork with the Patriots, a group of Tea Party activists who had mobilized in the suburban and rural communities that lay approximately one to two hours north of this urban church. The Patriots' membership was primarily white and middle class, with an active base of small business owners, veterans, religious conservatives, and libertarian-leaning independents. As a group, they sought to empower ordinary citizens to hold government accountable and advance what they viewed as the core principles of the United States Constitution-limited federal government, personal responsibility, and individual liberty. They had mobilized in the wake of President Barack Obama's election and debates about "Obamacare," a policy that they felt represented everything wrong with American politics today.

On the surface, the groups could not have been more different. But during my first year of fieldwork, as I shuttled back and forth between them, I became increasingly struck by their similarities. It would take another year of intensive fieldwork and several more years of analysis and observation from afar to understand more precisely what these similarities meant and how they could be reconciled with the ways in which the groups' cultures and practices also diverged significantly. But on that Sunday afternoon with Interfaith, as I heard Javier's distressed admission, as I saw the crowd's hands go up in a signal of shared anxiety, as I heard Gabriel's sober commentary about the current state of the country, I felt a flutter of familiarity. I flashed back to an event I had attended with the Patriots about a year earlier.

I had arrived late at a Comfort Inn in a rural hamlet north of the city and was directed down a back stairwell to a basement conference room. It was early in my fieldwork, and I was not sure what to expect from this "candidate meet and greet" that local Tea Party groups had organized. The room was packed with between seventy-five and one hundred people, and the hotel staff was setting up additional chairs as I arrived. Someone motioned for me to sit in one of the new chairs, and I tried to quietly settle in as one of the candidates addressed the lively crowd.

After a few minutes, he handed the microphone to the main attraction, a feisty candidate for governor who had parlayed a successful career in business into a freewheeling campaign on behalf of overburdened "taxpayers." He had also become a lightning rod for controversy, even among Tea Partiers.

He had been stuck in traffic and looked exhausted after a long day of campaigning. But his weariness lent authenticity to his remarks that night. Before speaking, he paused and looked around the room. "Everywhere I go, the faces are different," he told them, quietly. "But the look is the same. It's the look of hope. Hope and frustration at the same time. People want to believe they can believe in their government."

"Everyone here has played by the rules," he said to the group, gaining a bit of steam. "And the people in D.C. are trying to change the rules." This has left us "ungrounded," he explained. "We don't feel the government is serving us, and we can't move forward."

"What do we teach our kids?" he asked, as the audience nodded. "We have taught them family values, respect, to go out there and earn it. But when our kids follow those rules, and then they find they can't find a job in their community, and they have to move to another state to find work, that is not what we prepared for."

Again there were nods; murmurs of agreement rippled through the room as if people had been privately struggling with this dilemma and now were reminded they were not the only ones. Hammering this point home, he offered a hopeful rallying cry. "They hear our rumblings coming down the road. I've seen you all over the state. You are not alone!"

During the question-and-answer period that followed, a woman shared her personal experience with this issue. Her voice quivered as she explained that her sons went to excellent colleges but could not find jobs. "They followed all the rules and made plans," she said angrily, leaning forward and clenching her fists, "and now nothing is as they planned." She was close to tears as she sat back down. A moment later, someone mentioned that people they knew were leaving the state to find jobs, to which someone else added, "We all want to move!" Another voice piled on: "But we can't sell our houses!" A few people shouted, "Yeah!"

I began my fieldwork with both Interfaith and the Patriots in 2010, two years after the financial crisis hit Wall Street like a tidal wave. Although the immediate danger had receded and the financial markets were slowly showing signs of recovery, the painful aftereffects of the ensuing Great Recession were still being felt on "Main Street." Unemployment remained high, especially for new college graduates who were starting their adult lives with record high levels of debt. Families struggled to pay their mortgages. Health-care bills mounted. Between 2010 and 2012, as I crisscrossed the state attending town hall meetings, public hearings, events with public officials and political candidates, protests, rallies, and smaller, less public gatherings of these groups, I watched as people came to terms with a changed world.

In suburban community centers and urban church auditoriums — those specific locales that comprise "Main Street" — I heard a similar refrain: "I worked hard and followed the rules my whole life, and now I have nothing to show for it. What do I do now?" If there was ever a time when working- and middle-class Americans could come together in shared grief, I thought, it seemed that this was the time. And indeed, a wide swath of Americans had mobilized, their fear and frustration solidifying into an increasingly sharp critique of how the government was handling the fallout from the crisis.

Of course, much of this frustration had been simmering just below the surface since before 2008, reflecting mounting perceptions of government unresponsiveness to ordinary citizens, and unease that the increasing complexity of public policies made it impossible for ordinary people to participate in debates about issues that affected their lives. For decades, the key mechanisms underlying representative democracy — trust, responsiveness, and accountability — had been showing signs of strain. The crisis stretched these already tenuous bonds to their limits. For many Americans, this not only threatened the political legitimacy of the system but also cast its moral legitimacy into question.

Local Tea Party groups like the Patriots were among the first to respond, to great media fanfare. The Occupy movement soon followed, billed by many as the Left's answer to the Tea Party. Meanwhile, faith-based community-organizing coalitions like Interfaith had been operating below the media's radar all along, voicing many of the same concerns about disparities between elites and ordinary Americans that were suddenly the focus of mainstream debates.

All of these groups shared similar populist concerns: the economy seemed to serve a few at the expense of the many; it was increasingly difficult for ordinary Americans to live the productive, healthy, and comfortable lives they had once enjoyed (or dreamed of); and ordinary people were not being included in decisions about how to chart a course back to the world they had been promised. Amid debates about how to stabilize and regulate the economy, these groups' impassioned reactions refocused attention on programs and policies intended to serve ordinary Americans.


To be sure, there are myriad differences between the people who joined Tea Party groups like the Patriots, and the people who joined faith-based community-organizing coalitions like Interfaith. In addition to having demographic differences, the two groups lined up on opposite sides of nearly every national policy issue they confronted: while the Patriots vehemently opposed Obamacare, Interfaith members worked to support its passage and implementation; while Interfaith members took measures to improve conditions for their undocumented neighbors and called for a path to citizenship, the Patriots worried about the negative impacts of "illegals" on their communities and opposed most immigration reform proposals; the list goes on and on. Moreover, although both groups were formally nonpartisan, most members of the Patriots identified as and supported Republicans, and most members of Interfaith identified as and supported Democrats.

On this level, these groups could easily be situated in the context of rising partisan polarization, and their moral and political disagreements interpreted as evidence of a new front in the "culture war." This kind of analysis would not be entirely wrong, but it would not tell the whole story. Moreover, this is the part of the story that everyone already knows — that when it comes to policy preferences, conservative and progressive activists hold starkly different positions on most issues. But focusing only on differences in their policy goals obscures more basic similarities between them that should not be overlooked.

These similarities are the untold story of these groups. Seeing these similarities requires that we shift our focus from the ends these groups seek — the policy demands that are often the most visible aspect of their efforts — to the means through which they make these demands. It also requires that we shift our focus from their specific policy preferences to their concerns about the political process itself. When we focus on these aspects of their work, we can see that the groups share a surprising number of common features.

Most of the men and women who participated in these groups did not consider themselves activists; but in the face of rising anxiety and frustration, they had decided to act. They stopped feeling ashamed and started sharing their pain with others. They stopped worrying alone, yelling at the TV set, or setting aside the newspaper with a feeling of dread. They did not know how to solve the vast problems facing the country, but they shared a growing suspicion that they could not simply defer to political elites or trust that either political party would automatically serve their interests. Rather, they suspected that any durable solution to the country's problems would require higher levels of active participation by ordinary people like them, whose lives were most affected. If they wished to have a government "of the people, by the people," they would need to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in these complex debates.

They flocked to these local citizens groups, where they worked alongside their neighbors to become better informed, more vigilant, and well organized — to become, in short, what I came to call active citizens. Once they were there, they learned as they went along. The woman who stood to speak about her unemployed sons at the candidate meet and greet told me later that she had been volunteering for a candidate for the state senate who was rising in popularity among local Tea Partiers. She also planned to attend the upcoming Restoring Honor Rally in Washington, D.C., hosted by the popular Fox News host Glenn Beck. While volunteering for a political candidate is a somewhat conventional way to get involved in politics, Beck's rally promoted an alternative vision of active citizenship. America, he said that day in Washington, D.C., needed to turn back to God. For Beck and for many of the Patriots, active citizenship fused political vigilance with personal virtue.

At the same candidate meet and greet, I also ran into Gilbert, a core leader of the Patriots, who told me that he was heading to Washington, D.C., that weekend for an activist training class run by the national organization FreedomWorks. "I know how to run my business during the day," he explained, and then, motioning to the crowd of people milling around after the event, added, "but I'm excited to learn how to turn things like this into lasting electoral and legislative gains." Knowing my politics were to the left of his, he smiled as he noted that groups on the left have been much better at organizing and activism than groups on the right. "But I'm excited to learn more!"

Meanwhile, Interfaith members were also learning how to become better organizers and activists. Early members of the group had gravitated toward a model of "community organizing" that was "faith-based" — meaning they organized people through religious congregations and then worked together on the basis of their shared values as people of faith, such as their commitment to justice and human dignity. These values were not viewed simply as powerful sources of shared motivation to act: by linking them to American values, Interfaith also sought to project them outward into public debates about how to achieve the common good.


Excerpted from Prophets and Patriots by Ruth Braunstein. Copyright © 2017 Ruth Braunstein. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Table

1. Introduction
2. Becoming Active Citizens
3. Narratives of Active Citizenship
4. Putting Faith into Action
5. Holding Government Accountable
6. Styles of Active Citizenship
7. Conclusion

Appendix: Methodological Notes

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