It’s been said that it’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness — and that’s what the progressive Christian group Vote Common Good aims to do at this weekend’s Values Voter Summit.
“We want to just be a small candle in the corner of what tends to be a pretty dark narrative,” Doug Pagitt, cochair and executive director of Vote Common Good, told The Advocate in an interview ahead of the event.
The VVS is a notoriously far-right annual gathering whose lead sponsor is FRC Action, the political action arm of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, with cosponsorship from many other right-wing groups. Donald Trump in 2017 became the first sitting president to speak at the event, and he’s scheduled to return this year. He had also appeared at the conference in 2016 as a presidential candidate.
The list of speakers at this year’s VVS, which opened Friday at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., reads like a who’s who of homophobes, including FRC President Tony Perkins, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, current Congressman Louie Gohmert, International Religious Freedom Ambassador Sam Brownback (set to appear Saturday night with Trump), and many more. Anti-LGBTQ sentiment is, of course, not the only thing the conference is about — there are sessions devoted to anti-abortion activism, opposing gun restrictions, resisting “socialism,” and other causes close to the religious right’s heart.
But Vote Common Good will be represented at the VVS to show there’s an alternative path for religious believers, including evangelical Christians — they don’t have to be part of the Christian right, Pagitt said.
The word evangelical is often associated with conservative Christianity. One of its definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.” Another is “marked by militant or crusading zeal.” And evangelicalism is sometimes connected with Christian fundamentalism, a belief that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally.
But Pagitt, who describes himself as an evangelical pastor of a nondenominational church in Minneapolis, said there’s not a single agreed-upon definition of evangelicalism, although there are some general guidelines as to what it means. People who identify as evangelical, he said, tend to have a deeply personal sense of faith, organized around the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and use the Bible as a guide to living. What his faith has guided him to is a belief in inclusion, of love for all people, including LGBTQ people.
“For many of the people who are in this movement, it has been the fight to include gay and lesbian people in their churches that has pushed them,” he said.
He and Vote Common Good also break with the Christian right on a variety of other issues. The group opposes the criminalization of abortion and limitations on contraception. It supports political action to reduce environmental destruction, poverty, gun violence, and international conflicts. These are all part of the priorities Pagitt calls the “four P’s” — people, poverty, peace, and the planet.
Vote Common Good was founded in 2018 to let people of faith know they don’t have to align themselves with the religious right. But it’s not a theocratic movement, saying that its brand of Christianity should run the country, as the religious right often seems to. “We regularly say that our agenda is the opposite of that,” Pagitt said. “We’re trying to advocate for the common good.”
He also said the group doesn’t try to tell people what the common good is, believing instead that most of them recognize it but maybe just need to see that it’s OK to act politically along those lines. “If they see the Trump administration’s policies, they can see they’re no good,” he said. “There was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”
In 2018, the group did a cross-country bus tour in collaboration with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, advocating for Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents in 31 congressional districts. There were several LGBTQ candidates among them, including Minnesota’s Angie Craig and California’s Katie Hill, both of whom won, and Texas’s Gina Ortiz Jones, who narrowly lost but intends to run again in 2020.
At the Values Voter Summit, Pagitt is promoting his organization’s “Love-in-Politics Pledge,” which urges leaders to act with the kind of love described in the New Testament’s First Corinthians, which says in part, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
“It seems the opposite of what Donald Trump does in his life and his political positions,” Pagitt said.
The group doesn’t have a spot on the conference stage — to obtain that, it would have to agree to a set of beliefs that Vote Common Good doesn’t endorse. So Pagitt and his colleagues will be spreading the word about the pledge in public spaces at the Omni. “We’ll do it with a wink and a smile,” he added, not by being disruptive.
Other progressive Christian leaders are joining Pagitt at the VVS, including Rob Schenk, an evangelical minister who was once a conservative activist. “I was a part of this world for most of my life, so I wanted to be here … to let people know that there’s an alternative approach to practicing your faith in politics,” Schenck said in a prepared statement. “To my fellow evangelicals, I ask one simple question: Would what would Jesus think about President Trump’s divisive rhetoric? Our faith calls on us to act with love, but we don’t see that coming from our leaders in Washington right now.”
Vote Common Good is also looking ahead to the 2020 election. The group will expand on its 2018 work by doing a bus tour of all 50 states, and it will kick off in the early caucus state of Iowa, with a Summit on Faith, Politics, and the Common Good January 9-11 in Des Moines. And it will definitely be active in the presidential race, supporting whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be — as Pagitt said, “anyone whose last name’s not Trump.”