There was a time in my life when I wondered if I would have to choose between being spiritual or political. I couldn’t reconcile what felt like the harshness of politics with the tenderness of my relationship with God. Understanding that my spiritual life could actually feed my political life is something I have learned from being a Friend.
Twenty years ago, I ran for and was elected to public office in a local race for a seat on the board of education. The town was divided about school redistricting, fueling an angry public debate driven by a sense of entitlement and fear. Civil dialogue is an important value to me, and my instinct to practice the Golden Rule in public office would be an exercise of my convictions.
I was an unlikely candidate. I had only lived in town four years; I wasn’t politically active; and I was pregnant. But I also had personal motivation—three children going through the school system. So I took on the task of walking door-to-door to introduce myself and began to raise money for yard signs and mailings. As I stood outside a grocery store one afternoon handing out cards and meeting voters, a woman told me, “I never take material from politicians.” I looked around to see who she was talking about; I didn’t see myself as a politician. But by putting myself out as a candidate to be scrutinized by my community, I became a politician.
I was able to bring the practices of careful listening and respect of other viewpoints that I learned as a Friend to my service on the board of education. I became more politically active: in this volunteer capacity but also as a lobbyist for an organization that promoted affordable and supportive housing.
When I first visited a Quaker meeting 30 years ago, I was drawn by the peace testimony. But what convinced me to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends was the power of our community to call one another to lives of integrity, our inner lives aligning with our outer lives. We do this not by creed or judgment but by our actions, by our practices of shared testimonies. This integrated life challenges us in every aspect of who we are—as parents, as students, as co-workers, as neighbors, as citizens. This awareness of how God calls us to be in the world extends to our political lives.
Political life needs the love and imagination of people of goodwill and people who believe in the common good. Participating in the political process is much more than choosing a candidate and voting. It is more than running for office or working for candidates. These are important aspects of good citizenship. While being politically active in political campaigns as a candidate or a volunteer doesn’t appeal to everyone, we can all consistently and persistently engage with those who represent us in government.
If we can look beyond the rhetoric and see the people who hold public office as human beings who are committed to public service, we will find something to like about them, even if we don’t like the way they vote or everything they say. When we approach political candidates or elected officials and first see that of God in them, we may see a new opening for dialogue.
This is not an easy time to be in politics, particularly if acrimony and conflict make you cringe. And, that is exactly why Friends are needed: not to inflame partisan rhetoric and not to overreact to extreme behavior but to speak and act on the truth that we know. Our elected officials need constituents who will encourage, teach, appreciate, and hold them accountable to work for the common good. They are human and like all of us, they listen to people around them: people they have relationships with. Developing relationships with those with whom we disagree, or those we would expect more of, can be a spiritual exercise.
Almost five years ago, I took my hope for spiritual practice in the public sphere and my passion for greater citizen engagement in the political process to Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). As a Quaker lobbying organization, FCNL communicates with policymakers in Washington, D.C., asking elected and government officials to support specific legislation that advances the world we seek. I get to see Friends involvement in the political process every day through the thousands of people who contact their members of Congress. When FCNL asks Friends to respond to calls for action on legislation to promote peace or create a more sustainable planet, they respond with enthusiasm. There are scores of people in FCNL’s network who are willing to go even deeper in the political process of civic engagement, by building years-long relationships with their elected officials.
FCNL welcomes Friends and others to participate in the Quaker Public Policy Institute and Lobby Day every November or in the Young Adult Spring Lobby Weekend every March. Hundreds of people show up for these events and visit the offices of U.S. senators and representatives. When participants return to their local communities, they stay active by continuing to talk to their members of Congress through the local offices or in town meetings or by writing letters to the editor of their local newspaper. This political engagement is one of the ways we practice our faith, and every Friend can participate. Friends witness and testimonies can and do influence changes in federal policy. Congressional offices tell us that they like having Quakers lobby them because we are well-prepared, we’re kind, and we care deeply about the life and death issues that affect every person on the planet.
Our practice in the Religious Society of Friends is to reject violence, to counter injustice, to stand for religious liberty, to protect human rights, and to walk gently on the earth. These practices are not only part of our collective history as a faith community but ones that are alive today. We engage in public life not because activism is part of our rich Quaker tradition but because we practice our faith outwardly. Friends and people of faith have the patience, the vision, the hope, the strength to stay the course that bends the arc of history toward justice.
Should Friends engage in the political process? Yes! YES! The political world needs Friends. We should engage in the political process with the joy and love we know from our lives in the Spirit. The deep sense of community and peace that we experience in worship can motivate our actions in every aspect of life.
At FCNL, we hold a big vision of the world Friends hope for:
- We seek a world free of war and the threat of war.
- We seek a society with equity and justice for all.
- We seek a community where each person’s potential may be fulfilled.
- We seek an earth restored.
Not everyone who is part of FCNL is a Friend, but those who support our work and become active with us do so not only because of the issues we work on, but because of how we engage in the political process. We don’t do it perfectly, but as William Penn said, we “try what love can do to mend a broken world.” One of the reasons I relish my life as a Friend is because I’ve learned that the spiritual life is one of discipline and practice. I want to be engaged in political change that gives me the opportunity to practice my spirituality. Friends have so much to offer the world. The more we put ourselves forward to change public policies toward peace and toward justice, the closer we come to living our testimonies into the world.