When one side of an argument speaks louder than the other side, local governments and develop skewed policies that are not based on the wishes of the majority of their electorate. It's no mystery that elements of hate and intolerance in our society have advanced their agenda through grassroots organizing. Progressive people can do the same, said Allan Kauffman, mayor of Goshen, Indiana and father of a Bethany Seminary student at this week’s Peace Forum lunch held at ESR.
Nine votes or fewer can decide who is elected to a town or city council, and one council member can change the whole political balance of a town, Kauffman said, encouraging listeners to become civically engaged at the most local level of government. “Local issues count,” he said.
In Goshen, said Kauffman, a member of the Church of the Brethren, most of the city council now comes from historic peace churches, primarily the Mennonites, changing the tenor of government business practices. Now, the council puts more emphasis on consensus, and is less likely to support an item that passes on a divided vote, such as 4 to 3, knowing that such narrow margins lead to divisiveness, not unity. The desire for consensus also leads to more creative problem-solving, he said.
Even when their ideas are defeated, having progressives on the council has brought good to the city, Kauffman said. The council was able to create a Human Relations Commission (HRC) in response to an influx of Latino immigrants into Goshen, who came seeking some of the many blue collar jobs there. When the Ku Klux Klan, which has historic ties to Goshen, marched in the city, the commission organized a fundraising drive for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization loathed by the Klan. As long as the Klan stayed in town, the fundraiser continued, which encouraged the Klan to leave. Later, the city passed an ordinance that supported free speech but required that the speaker be unmasked. Although the ACLU contested this law in court and won—the Constitution protects anonymous speech—Kauffman felt the project was success because it brought ordinary citizens into local government action. Similarly, when the HRC proposed the city adopt language to protect gays and lesbians, outside pressure defeated the measure—but civic engagement increased.
Since the 18th century, Quakers have had an ambivalent relationship with governments, both withdrawing from and engaging in political action. Clearly, from a religious viewpoint, political engagement must be Spirit-led, raising the question of what exactly a Spirit-led politics look like? Yet with the U.S. economy shaky and politics growing more extreme, Kauffman makes a strong case for progressive people of faith to engage in the process of discerning where and when to get involved, even at the most local level.
Questions that cross my mind are these: Are Quakers hampered by “old wineskins,” sometimes hanging on to cherished notions from the 1960s that have become outdated? What are some new ways that Quakers could get more creatively involved local politics? What impedes our civic engagement?