Mississippi native Burns Strider was, until just a few weeks ago, Senior Adviser and Director of Faith Based Outreach for Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As readers of The God Vote might recall, I thought the team he led performed quite skillfully.
Having completed his duties for the Clinton campaign, Mr. Strider has recently announced the formation of The Eleison Group (of which he is a Founding Partner). He describes it as “a full service firm focusing on faith and values in terms of communications, message development, targeting, strategic planning, clergy and faith group relations, developing relationships and advancing policy that speaks to the common good.”
I would describe it as a “Faith and Values Shop” and it’s one that is poised to further advance the Democratic Party’s surprising resurgence in the domain of religious politicking.
Whether or not you think that this resurgence is in the best interests of the Party (or the country), it’s a resurgence that Mr. Strider is uniquely equipped to bring to fruition. He has served as an adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, directed, the U.S. House Democratic Faith Working Group and Rural Working Group, worked on 15 campaigns (directing 5 of them), and spent two years in Hong Kong as a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention where he served as a youth minister. In 2007, Religion News Service named him one of the “12 most influential Democrats in the nation on faith and values politics and issues.”
We at “On Faith” thought it would be interesting for our readers to hear from an expert in a form of political outreach that is growing increasingly significant in modern American campaigning, albeit one that is perhaps not widely understood by the public at large. We hope you enjoy this interview, as well as a video of a discussion that Sally Quinn and I had with Mr. Strider (which will be posted shortly).
BERLINERBLAU: Let me start by congratulating you on your new firm. Can you tell us a little about the Eleison Group? Where does it stand in the history of the Democrat’s faith-based outreach?
STRIDER: We are really the second wave, if you will, in the faith and values work of Democratic politics. Common Good Strategies (CGS) has been a successful firm for a few years winning elections and staying true to their calling. We are absorbing CGS with one of their founders, Eric Sapp, joining me at Eleison. Mara Vanderslice, who was the other half of CGS has started the Matthew 25 Network PAC. And we will be working with and supporting that endeavor. So, our work is growing and expanding and The Eleison Group represents that growth in a big way.
Clearly, your work for Senator Clinton endows you with tremendous expertise in this area. Let’s take a step back. How did you arrive at this intersection between Democratic Party politics and faith and values outreach?
In 2004 following the Bush/Kerry race there was a lot of analysis and writing about values voters. This created a discussion in the House Democratic Caucus and, at the time, I was an adviser to Speaker Pelosi. She wanted to take action. She saw no need to remain silent.
By the way, Speaker Pelosi is a devout Catholic with a deep and profound understanding of her faith and how it informs her life and work. She started the House Democratic Faith Working Group and I led that effort for her and Congressman Jim Clyburn, who she appointed as the chair. This group became central to the nascent efforts to do a better job of sharing and finding that common ground out there. As the work grew so did I. I had been in DC for several years being a person of faith working in government and politics. It was at this point that faith became part of my work.
A lot of Americans might not be familiar with the responsibilities of a religious outreach director or a “faith and values guru” as it is often called. Can you tell us what they do in the course of the day? And for up-and-coming gurus, how did you get into this line of work?
I must say that I may be the first so-called “guru” to ever come out of Grenada County, Mississippi. I’m not sure what the proper translation to the vernacular of my home would be. Maybe teacher is close enough.
I learned about politics as a kid going door to door every four years asking voters to support my father, everyone called him “Big Daddy,” who was the Sheriff of Grenada County, Mississippi. We never missed a church homecoming and dinner on the ground be it Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, all the churches in our county. You name it and we were there having fellowship and good food. So the intersection of public life and faith come together naturally for me.
So those experiences surely helped mold your thinking about the proper place of religion in public life?
Americans are a people of faith. And the values we hold, as one American community, are greatly shaped and informed by the diverse and abiding religious and faith beliefs that are held. These values are reflected in our culture; how we view and carry out our roles in society and this includes politics and government…
My faith is central to me as it is with millions of Americans. Washington and my work in politics provide the opportunity for me to experience the diversity of a great nation. I never hide my beliefs and I hope no one chooses to hide their’s when they are around me. The American public square is strengthened and better when we all show up as who we are.
OK, but here I have to push back a bit. Doesn’t the possibility exist that the public square is imperiled precisely by politicians who make such explicit recourse to their religious beliefs in their rhetoric and policy formation? Or let’s put it this way, might not the Constitution indicate that such behaviors are hazardous to the nation’s health?
This is an ever present concern and anyone engaged in this work must realize that it’s a sacred trust that is being handled. We must allow our faith to inform us while not just allowing, but demanding that the faith of others have the same platform and voice. We are charged as Americans to not only participate but to also protect those freedoms and rights we live under. As a person of faith I am called to live out my faith through humility not arrogance and that adds value to public discourse. But we must be ever mindful of both charge and calling.
What was it like leading the national faith effort for Hillary Clinton in 2008?
It was an amazing blessing. Senator Clinton has a depth and confidence in and through her faith, and is always seeking to grow and learn more. She’s a United Methodist who knows her Wesleyan principles about service and caring for humanity. Senator Clinton’s vision of inclusion and justice, service and opportunity is as close to my evangelical roots as can be found. And I can’t tell you how great it was to come to work on a campaign and end up in a conversation with the boss about what Paul was trying to teach us in Timothy or some fine point of Wesley’s. I’m always learning from her, and I looked forward to getting to work everyday.
In terms of religious politicking in 2008 what do you think were some of the major storylines?
This is a great question and that storyline is still developing. Senator Obama is engaged right now in a dynamic and exciting outreach program with Evangelical and Catholic voters. Every minister I’ve heard from who has had a chance in recent weeks to meet with him tells me they have walked away overwhelmed at his authenticity, and religious commitment. He is launching an outreach program called the “Joshua Generation” which speaks to the fact that Moses led his people up to the Promised Land but God called up a new generation, led by Joshua, to actually lead them into the Promised Land.
The Democratic Primary was historic in many ways and this certainly includes a comfortable and sustained conversation with the nation’s faith communities. The leading candidates, Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama, have spoken of their faith with ease and confidence. They invited people of faith to join them and millions have done so. We may be seeing a realignment taking place and this Democratic Primary will be considered the moment when it coalesced.
What about the Republicans? Did you see any trends in the primaries, especially with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, that signaled something new and interesting (or old and not interesting)?
The American faith community is large and diverse. Over the past few years we have witnessed people of faith begin to embrace this diversity in the public square. New leaders have emerged and laity across the nation has started speaking to a larger set of issues instead of just two or three. One of the most overwhelming facts of the past 16 months on the campaign trail was what was not discussed when sitting down with faith leaders. Rarely did discussions trend toward social hot button issues but rather a larger plate of topics were brought up including climate change, poverty, economic issues and health care. Democrats were prepared for this while Republicans have largely been stuck in the past. Part of their problem is that by embracing the larger plate of issues means Republicans have to deal with people of faith who hold positions held by the Democratic Party (health care for all, aggressive action on climate change, a sustained attack on poverty, etc.) So, Republicans may not be as suddenly ill-prepared as they seem to address faith and values issues but rather they are being challenged to adapt and realize a new day has dawned. Of course the Republican Party maintains a large base of support in the faith community, but let’s remember that the last two Presidential elections only needed to swing a few voters per precinct in a few key states. This should be of great concern to Republicans.
At the Compassion Forum, Senator Clinton admirably pointed out that she understood the concerns of secular Americans who were rendered nervous by political candidates discussing their faith. Do you think the type of work you do poses any danger to the integrity and sturdiness of “The Wall”? If so, what are the no-nos, or things you feel a candidate should never do as regards religion?
Senator Clinton was right to raise this concern. She was certainly right and it was admirable for her to raise it as a person of faith. The late, great Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, speaking before the Baptist Joint Committee once reminded Americans that, as believers, it’s not our job to be mouthpieces for God but to rather be instruments or tools living out his call to love and serve the world around us. I think that’s a pretty good way to approach this. I’m always worried about the dangers of some form of theological doctrine to begin dominating the public square instead of teaching and informing its adherents. We have a most important job to make sure that never happens. One way to insure this is to make sure all points of view, from all corners of the faith community, have a voice and a platform in the public debate. We can’t relegate the religious views of millions to the back pews, but we can’t allow any narrow religious point of view to control that voice and platform. Its unhealthy for the community of believers when this happens and harmful to our public discourse which in turn is harmful to our political system.
Was there a constituency of religious Americans that you felt Senator Clinton really connected with in 2008?
Yes. It wasn’t necessarily a specific denomination but rather a cross section of faith voters. It was people of faith from middle class and working families. We identified faith communities and put in motion outreach programs that shared Senator Clinton’s deep, abiding faith (Her connection with people of faith is powerful because it’s authentic) and her overall campaign message. The values shared were her values about the common good; about the economy and jobs and health care. It was about building a strong economy because that empowers strong families and communities. Exit polls demonstrated, often by double digits, considerable support with Catholic and Evangelical voters because we were speaking to the broad center of the faith community.
You had good success with Catholic and Jewish voters. Was there any group that she might have done better with? I think Senator Obama’s team did a really good job with Progressive Evangelicals.
Senator Obama has a message that will resonate across the faith spectrum come November because it’s authentic and from the heart. He is a person of deep faith with a testimony as melodic as the pipe organ at National Cathedral. We call it ‘testimony’ back in Mississippi. Some people prefer ‘faith narrative.’ He and his faith team generated solid support in progressive faith circles. This support will be right there with him in the general and he will only expand the support he has with people of faith.
What are some of the things about this campaign that you will remember fondly throughout your career?
I had some wonderful experiences over the past year on the campaign trail. It was the people I met who provided the greatest memories. Senator Clinton spoke late last year at Reverend Rick and Kay Warren’s Saddleback Church. It’s such a loving church and they embraced us and showed us a wonderful time.
There were many prayer circles supporting Senator Clinton and I was honored to meet the people around the country who participated, from Methodist bishops to grandmas who’ve never left their small towns. It was a humbling experience to hear their stories and see their outpouring of love and support.
I also experienced “grace notes” out on the trail as Senator Clinton would call them. For example, I visited a children’s hospital in Charleston, S.C., one Saturday morning with President Clinton and there was a little boy with tubes everywhere. It was a heart wrenching and disturbing sight that left me silently asking “why?” President Clinton stood at his side and watched him and gently touched his forehead then hugged and consoled his parents. It was a moving moment.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
June 23, 2008; 11:28 PM ET
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