Organizing Against Individualism

Jerry Falwell, Jr. is the President of Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. is the President of Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Yesterday, Joe Heim from the The Washington Post published an interview with the Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Falwell is arguably one of the most influential religious voices on the far right in the U.S. The interview begins with a question that leads Falwell to outline his view of the relationship between faith and politics.

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

There is a lot to unpack here. Falwell has no real understanding of the teachings of Jesus. He misunderstands the role of scripture. His atonement theology lacks any real salvific substance. His self-serving, misguided misunderstanding of what it means to “Give to God what is God’s” allows him to give so much to Caesar that it would make any of the ancient Hebrew prophets nauseous. Imagine reading Amos from this perspective: “Let [your personal] justice roll down like waters…[but don’t expect to hold your political leaders accountable to it.]” As Dorothy Day is famous for having said, if we give to God what is God’s, there will be nothing left for Caesar. Beyond all these, one important underlying thread that strikes me as important for our moment is the individualistic frame with which Falwell interprets the world. Falwell believes it is a distortion of the teaching of Jesus to confuse “what he taught us to do personally” with what we can and should expect from our political leaders and our nation. This narrative framework runs right in with the dominant narrative in American society, that faith is an individualistic endeavor, and that those who are poor deserve it.

I firmly believe that the only way to undo that individualistic narrative that is so dominant in American thinking is through deep organizing. In preparation for some of the organizing projects I have coming up in the next few months, I’ve been really digging in to Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. In the introduction, she gives a great overview of her theoretical framework and the importance of deep organizing to build the kind of people power that can bring lasting change. After a few chapters that provide examples of what works and doesn’t work, she concludes with a summary chapter outlining the difference between pretend power and actual power. It’s here that she talks about the power of the individualistic frame and the role of deep organizing in responding to it.

To underline the individualistic frame, McAlevey begins her “Conclusion” chapter with the following quote from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements.

[A]t most times and in most places, and especially in the United States, the poor are led to believe that their destitution is deserved, and that the riches and power that others command are also deserved.

McAlevey’s argument is mainly focused on labor organizing. It’s not hard, she says, to understand why people might be confused about who is to blame for the lack of good paying jobs, especially when you realize there has been a highly successful, fifty-year strategy to shape society’s understanding of how the economy works.

When movement strategists think that frames alone will work for progressive causes, they don’t quite get that most progressive messaging and framing run counter to the dominant narrative. Frames work for the corporate right, as does smoke-and-mirror, and grasstops mobilizing, because the right is running with—not againstAmerica’s deeply ingrained individualist creed.

Examining the biggest successes covered in this book, you could make a strong case that before the working class can shake the stranglehold of self-blame—the sense that they are individually inadequate, and so doomed to an inadequate compensation for their labor and a generally inadequate life—they have to experience collective struggle… No number of pollster-perfected frames will undo the 100 years of social conditioning that have taught Americans to accept their economic and political roles, and to think “collectivism bad” and “individualism good,” because the world’s most sophisticated marketers—Madison Avenue and its clients—can and do outframe and outspend liberal messaging.

Yet there is a mountain of evidence that people in this country possess a deep sense of human solidarity. We see it with every disaster, in critical situations such as the aftermaths of September 11 and Hurricane Sandy. People display soul-affirming levels of instant and intense solidarity and sympathy, and the images preserved of people helping one another in these dire situations can make the toughest cynic cry. But the solidarity that follows disasters, natural and otherwise, is created in a moment of fierce emotional heat that flares up and quickly smolders. Real organizing, the kind done by the Chicago teachers, the nursing-home workers in Connecticut, and the meat-production workers of North Carolina, creates a critical situation, too: the employer’s war against its workers. The craft of organizing helps people connect the dots between the critical, solidarity moment and the larger system it challenges, giving the workers in crisis a new way of seeing themselves and a newly formed sense of the society’s political economy. The process of deep organizing constructs a kind of solidarity that persists long after the employer’s war and when done well, workers also carry their new understanding of how things work with them into the voting booth (pp. 200-201)

When I think about the role of prophetic, faith-based community organizing, this is what I think about. We must ask ourselves how to faithfully counter the false religion of the chaplains of America’s violent empire—people like Jerry Falwell, Jr. I think Jane McAlevey’s work on deep organizing and her focus on building people power as a way of really countering the false frame of individualism gives us incredible insight into what prophetic community engagement can look like. Prophetic, faith-based, deep organizing gives people in crisis a new way of seeing themselves and a more profound understanding how the world works. This helps construct a kind of solidarity that can last long beyond the current moment and create the kind of people-power that brings real systemic change.