By Ruth Braunstein
In Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide, Ruth Braunstein 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—Interfaith, a progressive faith-based community organizing coalition, and the Patriots, 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.
The following essay is a slightly revised excerpt from Chapter 4, titled “Putting Faith Into Action.” The chapter as a whole compares the two groups’ visions of the proper role of religion in American democratic life, as well as the practical ways in which they put these respective visions into practice within their groups and beyond. Although most people primarily associate religiously infused activism with evangelical Christianity and the Religious Right, this essay focuses specifically on Interfaith’s efforts to cultivate a racially, socioeconomically and religiously diverse movement rooted in shared religious values and a progressive vision of a more just and inclusive society.
“A shared vision for a more just country that we all call home”
When I first met Father O’Donnell, he had been the pastor of his Catholic parish for thirteen years. A white man in his midsixties, with reddish cheeks and silver hair, he once described this urban parish, which serves thirty-two nationalities in three languages, as “international, interracial, inter-just-about-everything.” But this was apparently not enough diversity, since they were also members of Interfaith.
Sitting in Father O’Donnell’s office one day, I asked whether it was important to him that Interfaith was a multifaith group. “The best thing that this parish does,” he replied, is that, “twice a year, we have a blood drive [in partnership with a local synagogue]. And when you hold up a bag of blood, you can’t tell whether it’s Christian blood or Jewish blood. You can’t tell whether it’s black blood or white blood, rich blood or poor blood. It’s blood that’s saving a life.”
“And the same thing happens when we all gather together,” he noted. “The meetings that we have when we have Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews—everybody together—that’s not the issue. You go back to your synagogue and you believe anything you want. I’ll go back to my church and believe anything I want. We have that freedom in this country. What are we there for? Human dignity. And that rises above all of the creedal things.”
As an example of how this works in practice, he mentioned Farah, the twenty-something Muslim woman who had recently become a fixture at his Catholic church. She joined Interfaith as a staff organizer after completing a training program in interfaith organizing run by a Jewish organization. Being comfortable working with people from very different backgrounds proved essential to Farah’s new job—she was charged with meeting one-on-one with members of Father O’Donnell’s diverse congregation and facilitating regular meetings of the church’s local organizing committee.
“Farah is a Muslim woman educated by Jews to work with Catholics. Go figure,” he chuckled, clearly delighted by the unlikely idea of this woman’s newfound role in his church.
Watching the two of them approach me for an arranged meeting the following day, it was clear they had settled into an easy working relationship. We had come to a local university so they could talk to a class of graduate journalism students about their work together as part of Interfaith, as an example of the role faith could play in public life.
They agreed he would speak first. After he spoke for around twenty minutes about the importance of religion in the lives of the diverse immigrant communities that comprise his congregation, Farah lamented, “It’s always hard to follow Father O’Donnell.” She knew this firsthand; she sat in the back of the large ornate sanctuary of his church each Sunday morning, knowing that as soon as mass was over her job would begin. While she waited, she often wondered what people thought as they entered the century-old church and saw “some girl in a hijab.” She and Father O’Donnell smiled at one another as she revealed this thought process to the classroom full of journalists.
Now it was Farah’s turn to explain how Interfaith endeavored to empower ordinary people to solve problems facing their communities (although, as she noted, she does not consider them “ordinary”). As she introduced the values that guided their work together, Father O’Donnell pushed himself to a standing position and paced to the white dry-erase board so he could take notes while she spoke. As she listed their shared values, he wrote, “1. Justice. 2. Human dignity. 3. Hope. 4. Respect. 5. Concern for the vulnerable. 6. Care for the youth.”
Watching their presentation, it occurred to me that without context, the scene would likely confuse an onlooker. The petite Muslim woman seated at the front of the classroom held everyone’s attention, though she looked younger than most of the students. She was dressed in a stylish black-and-white patterned silk dress over slim black pants and taupe flats, her small, round face framed by the draped black silk of her headscarf. She spoke from typed notes with scribbles along the margins, her large eyes scanning the room for comprehension after each point.
Twice her size and nearly thrice her age, the white priest in suspenders and a starched, white collar played the role of her teaching assistant, jotting notes while she spoke. He cut in occasionally, asking her if he could add one point or another. They traded compliments and smiles. They were an unlikely duo but had forged a partnership that was clearly rooted in mutual respect.
Like the friendship between them, neither individual conformed to expectations. Father O’Donnell had an old-fashioned manner (he once responded to an email confirming a meeting with me with the single word “Be-you-dee-full”). But he also had a radical spirit that was rarely associated with the Catholic Church anymore.
“I don’t care what church you go to or what God you worship.” he told the class, adding, “I want to see how you put [your faith] into action. Because the credibility of what you believe is in the action that you take. It’s not in how many knees on your jeans you wear out praying. It’s: ‘Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you . . .’ That whole list.”
Farah’s pious dress, like Father O’Donnell’s starched, white collar, may have given the impression of traditionalist rigidity; but as she told the journalism class, she had struggled with her faith. “My faith journey—my spiritual journey—is something that ebbs and flows all the time,” she explained. “My hijab reminds me . . . of who I am. But it is something that is constantly fluctuating in my own life.”
At the end of the day, Farah explained, their work with Interfaith was about a “shared vision for a more just country that we all call home.”
This was why they called their work faith-based organizing. “It’s not religion-based organizing,” Father O’Donnell explained. “There is a difference . . . We both have faith. We base our activism in faith, not in the religion. I’m not a Muslim. She’s not a Catholic. Okay.” He threw his hands up, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
To learn how Interfaith works to enact this vision, as well as how the Patriots, a local Tea Party group, approached questions about the role of faith in American democratic life, check out Prophets and Patriots.
Reproduced here with permission of the University of California Press, (C) 2017.
 All names of individuals and groups are pseudonyms.