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Michael Byrd
Religion, Ethics, and Society Program
Department of Religion
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee 37240

Copyright (c) 1996 by Michael Byrd, all rights reserved. This work may be copied in whole or in part, with proper attribution, as long as the copying is not-for-profit "fair use" for research, commentary, study, or teaching. For other permission, please contact the author.


The purpose of this paper is to bring resources from religious studies and moral theory to bear upon recent organizing efforts in Metro Nashville so as to formulate a critical and, as yet, unconsidered analysis of the goals of organizers connected with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The procedure to be followed is: [A] documenting a brief history of IAF organizing in Nashville; [B] defining issues for research of these efforts; [C] providing working definitions of religion in light of methodologies employed in religious studies; [D] armed with these working definitions, interpreting the role of religion in IAF efforts; [E] drawing some provisional conclusions.

However, before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some brief prefatory remarks on the history of the Industrial Areas Foundation. IAF was founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940, growing out of the work he had done with The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago. Throughout its early history, IAF existed (and almost ceased to exist) on the basis of wealthy philanthropists (e. g., Marshall Field III, Adele Rosenwald Levy, Valentine and Harriet Macy, Agnes Meyer) and Catholic institutions (especially though the efforts of Bishop Bernard J. Sheil and Cardinal Samuel Stritch). Alinsky saw the goal of IAF as

to break down the feeling on the part of our people that they are social automatons with no stake in the future, rather than human beings in possession of all the responsibility, strength, and human dignity which constitute the heritage of free citizens."[1]

While Alinsky was interested in the political role that churches could play in meeting this goal, he was largely apathetic and sometimes hostile to religious ritual and expression. In the 1950s, Alinsky began using IAF as a means of providing "training in community analysis," and thus, other leaders like Jack Egan and Ed Chambers began to play prominent roles in the organization. By the 1960s and 1970s, IAF provided a training institute in Chicago for leaders around the country who were emerging as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Since Alinsky's death in 1972, Chambers has administered IAF, making significant changes by professionalizing IAF organizers, having them take more sympathetic stances toward religious ritual and expression, and developing on-going relations with the local organizations that IAF helps to establish. Besides Chicago, IAF affiliated organizations can now be found in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Buffalo. There is an extensive statewide IAF network in Texas. More recently, IAF has implemented a "southern strategy" including organizing efforts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Atlanta. With this background in mind, attention may now be turned to the particular efforts in Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County.


The genesis of IAF organizing in Nashville occurred in 1989, when Forrest Harris -- a National Baptist pastor and Vanderbilt faculty -- heard about the organizing efforts of Shelby County Interfaith (SCI) in Memphis, Tennessee. This IAF-supported organization impressed Harris with its ability to link church members across racial and denominational lines. After initial talks with the IAF, Harris invited Gerald Taylor (an IAF organizer who had worked in Memphis, Baltimore, and Brooklyn) to begin preliminary discussions with Nashville clergy.

After several months of clergy meetings with Taylor and SCI leaders, three Nashville ministerial associations co-sponsored a gathering of 80 people to form the Nashville Sponsoring Committee (NSC), in keeping with the IAF's standard process for launching local efforts. This committee was constituted by priests, pastors, and rabbis who were encouraged to tap denominational sources for money and their congregations for potential lay leaders for the movement. NSC signed a contract with IAF to assist local leaders in building a

broad-based, multi-racial, locally self-determining interfaith organization dedicated to involving the poor, working class, and middle class people dealing with the persistent urban problems of Nashville."2

At its inception, NSC represented eight denominations and twenty-two different congregations and neighborhood associations.

The requirements for NSC membership included [A] the decision of an area pastor, rabbi, or presiding officer of a local organization to join, [B] the commitments by lay leaders to participate, [C] a congregational vote in favor of participating including working in NSC's "issue campaigns"[3] and paying requisite dues. There were no individuals members in NSC; membership was only open to congregations and associations, because these institutions were said to provide the "basis for community building." The NSC espoused the "Iron Rule" formulated by Saul Alinsky and carried on by IAF: "never do for people what they can do for themselves." In the spirit of this rule, the NSC emphasized that it had to be organizationally self-sufficient through an established dues base. The rationale: no organization could negotiate with political and economic powers-that-be from a position of strength apart from its own capacity to mobilize resources.

NSC defined itself as strictly non-partisan, meaning that it could not publicly endorse specific political candidates or allow elected leaders to hold organizational leadership roles.[4] It specified its prime objective: to train local leaders to improve their community. And it envisioned a locally lead organization which would,

respond to the biblical imperative to create a just society . . . . empower the poor and powerless to negotiate with corporate and elected powers . . . . enable congregations to serve as places where democratic values are promoted and training for public life is provided . . . . and afford continued training of skills of active leadership.[5]

In explaining its reasons for developing a "broad-based citizens' organization," NSC recognized that congregations are "power-units" which bring together "people, money, values, and vision." Moreover, it viewed a racially and economically diverse leadership, composed of "moderate" voices" as the "most effective kind of citizen organization." Broad-based organizations, NSC argued, are simultaneously engaged in multiple issues rather than narrowly focused on single issues -- this accords the possibility of developing power rather than dissipating after an issue is resolved. Accordingly, issues get defined by face-to-face networks which work according to "principles of informed consent," involving a process of negotiation, compromise, and ongoing reflection.

Leaders began mobilizing their organizations' human resources. A vast number of "one-on-one" meetings -- the purpose of which was to continue to identify potential leaders within congregations and determine their interests -- were held. Moreover, leaders began assembling "Organizing Teams" in each congregation to conduct one-on-ones on their own so that a network of common interest would emerge. NSC held its first Worship Service in the summer of 1991. The service was punctuated by readings from the ancient Hebrew prophets concerning a god who breaks the fetters of the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and clothes the naked so that they can "rebuild their ancient ruins" and be called "restorers." It was also marked by civil rights movement songs and a liturgy that emphasized that the "restorers" would not simply rebuild the city's actual stone foundations, but also its systems of justice.

But organizers also mobilized financial resources. Over its first two years, NSC received substantial sums from denominational sources and foundations. The groups included the Catholic church's Campaign for Human Development (which historically supported IAF endeavors around the country), the Catholic Archdiocese of Nashville, the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Community Development, the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, First Unitarian-Universalist Church, the Jewish Fund for Justice, the Needmor Foundation, and the Dandridge Trust. From 1992 to 1993, NSC collected as much as $15,000 (CHD) and $17,500 (Needmor) from single organizations, and $69,000 from all denominational sources and $20,000 from foundations. Taylor -- who moved to Nashville as the lead organizer for NSC (at a salary of $50,000) -- was instrumental in securing grants and other financial support using his institutional experience with fund raising.

The organizing effort built momentum towards NSC's first "Delegates Assembly" at First Baptist (National) Church, Capitol Hill (a major Civil Rights Movement center during the 1960s) on February 11, 1993. 200 delegates and 25 member congregations were expected; 300 delegates and 35 member congregations actually attended. The setting was that of a political convention: each delegation was sectioned off with placards erected on poles; microphones were placed at various stations in the sanctuary; a chair maintained parliamentary order and everything flowed according to the well-rehearsed agenda and procedure. But the language used was that of a religious convention or worship service. The "action"[6] being taken was to replace the NSC with the proposed "broad-based citizens organization." The new organizing effort was christened and commissioned as Tying Nashville Together (TNT).

Congregants, who received their charge at the first Delegates Assembly, "reacted" by holding 312 house meetings attended by 4,400 individuals. The goal of the "house meeting campaign" was to mobilize a congregation's talents and to further identify people's interests concerning problems in the community. After all the house meeting reports were turned in, Taylor encouraged leaders to simplify and merge all of the identified interests into five areas for research: education, the economy, families, neighborhoods, and public safety.

When the process of voting on TNT membership began in May 1993, dues for membership were set at $8.00 per contributing adult congregation member (as determined by the church or synagogue).[7] Members were also introduced to the proposed leadership structure of TNT, at the foundation of which were the Organizing Teams. The next level of this structure was the Delegates Assembly which -- meeting four times a year -- ratified all TNT actions and the creation of the "Issue Action Teams" or "Research Teams" in each of the five interest areas which actually formulated the actions to be ratified. The Assembly's membership was based on the size of each congregation. Finally, at the top of the structure, the Strategy Team met once a month with the IAF organizer to work on day-to-day responsibilities, long-range strategizing, and staff accountability.

Over the next three years, TNT's political activity reached its stride. In June 1993, TNT held its first public action to organize around the five issues determined by the house meetings. 900 delegates from over 40 congregations gathered in a Catholic Cathedral to receive a charge to conduct neighborhood audits and school visitations in their areas. They also heard Mayor Bredesen compliment TNT, warn them to come up with "clear, realistic goals," and agree to work with TNT to solve problems discovered in the neighborhood audits and school visitations. In keeping with IAF's policy of first attempting small, easily-winnable projects, congregants fanned out across Nashville on their audits and visitations. By the Fall TNT turned its results from neighborhood audits over to Metro officials documenting over 950 problems (e. g., pot holes, streetlights, drug houses, etc.). On November 1, Metro officials reported that they had solved at least two-thirds of these problems, and that they had re-organized the part of the Mayor's staff into a more efficient "Community Response Team."

On November 14, TNT held its "Founding Convention"; the convention theme was "Tying the Generations Together" to emphasize new actions in Nursing Home evaluations that TNT was initiating. This gathering also coincided with IAF's Ten Day Training in Nashville. 1,500 delegates were in attendance to publicly sign a covenant which formally gave birth to TNT. The groups seemed generally diverse; as one commentary put it:

African Americans, Hispanics, whites; Roman Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, Jews and others; persons with disabilities; all ages; rich, poor and middle class. Thirteen religious traditions participated. IAF leaders attending [Ten Day Training] . . . . reported that this was the most diverse meeting in the South of all the groups in the IAF network.[8]

Taylor also stated that, according to IAF leaders, TNT seemed to be the most middle class of all groups in the network. TNT leaders estimated at that time that 52% of all members were white, 46% were black, and 2% were hispanic.

In the months after the Founding Convention, TNT continued school visitations, conducted public hearings on Nursing Homes, held "School Board Candidates Accountability Night" and "Metro Council Candidates Accountability Night," formulated an after school program for K-8 and a "strategy for labor force development and economic development" (both of which were based on IAF initiatives in other communities), and influenced the Mayor's office to open a Neighborhood Justice Center for mediating disputes without the help of Police. All of these activities continued to be punctuated by religious discourse and ritual.


Little effort is made by researchers in the field of community organizing to analyze and critique IAF efforts from religious studies perspectives. Therefore, the purpose of the following sections is to fill the breach by offering a critical commentary on the historical relationship of IAF to religion, especially in light of the organizing efforts in Metropolitan Nashville. While my reflection is critical, I consider myself a "friendly critic," generally sympathetic to the motivations of Alinskyite organizers who are sincerely trying to help make communities better. I am offering these comments in an attempt to dovetail such goals. I have not only been a researcher of community organizing, but a long time participant as well. So, my comments are intended in the spirit of the welcome that IAF organizers extend when they evaluate their actions. They claim to invite vigorous and contentious debate, because it refines organizing efforts. This is exactly what I intend with my comments that follow.

Neo-Alinskyite organizing seems to approach religion in two ways: one is a departure from Alinsky's ambivalence about religion towards more open and sympathetic attempts to incorporate religious values into organizing efforts; the second is characterized by a framework which treats religion instrumentally and at times trivially (though not necessarily intentionally so). This claim can be clarified by first understanding the ways that religion is interpreted and represented in contemporary social and political theory. I will then show how organizers as social and political theorists engage these interpretations.[9]


The major contribution of twentieth century social theorists to the study of religion is the view that no single definition of religious phenomena is adequate for all purposes.[10] Understanding religion depends upon the assumptions with which one approaches the religions. While there is no interpretive unanimity when analyzing religions, theories of religion roughly fall into two major camps. First, there are theorists who define religion in terms of the functions or purposes its plays for religious adherents (and non-adherents) as human beings. Second, there are those who attempt to define religion in substantive terms of belief or knowledge of specific spirits, symbols, divinities, or transcendental forces.

Functionalist approaches are better for multicultural analysis because they abstract the socializing goals of religion (e. g., building a moral order) from the parochial idiosyncracies of the religions themselves (e. g., the Eucharist or the Passover Feast). By the same token, however, functionalism reduces religious intensity to broader social aims and consequences; in turn, functionalism resorts to question-begging, i. e., presuming that all religious phenomena must -- by reason of their very existence -- fulfill some normal social and societal function.[11] Also, since functionalism views religion instrumentally, as a means of maintaining a social order, it finds that virtually everything could qualify under the heading of "religion," in spite of adherents claims to the contrary.[12] Finally, functionalism narrowly accentuates the conservative, integrative functions of religion in society at the expense of imaginative and revolutionary propensities within religion -- seeing the conflictual results of the latter as disintegrative, dysfunctional, simplistic, and even primitive.[13]

While substantive interpretations attempt to closely or faithfully adhere to what religious participants report about their religions, they also tend to reduce religions to abstract belief, value, and symbol systems, while establishing overly rigid boundaries between "the religious" and the "secular," making comparative views difficult.[14] Such abstractions trivialize the more practical, ritualistic, or strategic actions which also distinguish religious bodies; thus, religious devotion is approached as ancillary, perhaps even subordinate. This trivialization [15] of religion often occurs in the construal of religious devotion as in ways too idealistic to be relevant to the "more real," secular world of politics. The ideal/real dichotomy, then, demands that religious "zeal" be tempered and compromised by the realities of actual power relations, but also hides ideologies which themselves drive what Ernie Cortes called "the world as it is." I will underscore the way this conceptual process works itself out in IAF organizing.


These categories lend themselves to comprehension of the two ways in which neo-Alinskyite organizing approaches religion. IAF organizers, as educated social theorists, manifest these approaches to religion. In the first case, religious value and meanings are reorganized under a functionalist cultural framework that sees religion as possessing an interest in the public arena which is at least similar to and at times undifferentiated from other political power bases. This seems to be a legacy from Alinsky's method of requiring that IAF organizers observe first hand Mayor Richard J. Daley's "machine" in Chicago. [16] Alinsky's ideals of assimilating and emulating status quo power structures seem to continue to inform the IAF's philosophy toward religion and politics.

Consequently, organizers survey and mobilize the resources to address citizens' interests. IAF tends to gravitate towards the most organizationally effective building blocks with which to pursue their agenda of creating local leadership: denominations, religious agencies, congregations, money, and other established institutions. At this level, religion is conceptualized to operate in moderate ways to build lasting networks of socialization and solidarity, backing up these networks with resources to be mobilized when necessary. Organizers' primary interests are to maximize political resources and interests and to avert undue risks.

Hence, this functionalist approach seems also to be based on a political form of rational choice theory. Rational choice theory, a contemporary development in the history of political and social philosophy, tends to assume that social life is characterized by individuals who rationally act to maximize the satisfaction of their interests and to avert risks.[17] Rational actors are those whose choices and outcomes can be predicted given their basic interests, the choices they face, and the rules of political games.

And so, religion functions as a power base -- distinct probably only in that it depends as much on human as monetary resources -- which, when tapped, has the potential to create the sort of democratic, egalitarian vision of what Gerald Taylor refers to as a "commonwealth."[18] This is precisely where organizers' rational choice assumptions re-merge into the American Populist tradition passed on through Alinsky.[19] However, in rational choice theory, since the "ought implies an is," achieving the commonwealth requires a sober, "realistic" analysis and account of religious associations' quantifiable power and political will.

Consistent with functionalist views of religion, therefore, IAF organizers tend to emphasize the more integrative, relatively mainstream, and less revolutionary forces of religion. Granted, these organizers have a history of demonstrative, controversial, and even outrageous tactics to accomplish their goals; but, as Robert Fisher argues, recent shifts in the national political economy have encouraged organizers toward moderation.[20] And in Nashville, the IAF pursued a deliberate early campaign to raise substantial funds from established denominational institutions, and has tended to avoid the "in your face" tactics of IAF organizations in traditionally "union-belt" communities like Chicago.

Taylor stated on one occasion that union radicalism would probably not work in the South or in these times and more moderate tactics were required. Participating congregants were encouraged to educate themselves on the ins and outs of political dynamics and to locate fellow-parishioners who had connections with power-brokers in both metropolitan government and the Chamber of Commerce. In line with functionalism and rational choice theory, each of these dynamics reinforces the idea that religion is a kind of organizational and social glue which may not provide radical transformation, but does -- when parishioners are open to accommodation to predominant power structures -- afford legitimate, and therefore, less risky avenues into the political arena.

However, rational choice assumptions also complement more substantive views of religion in IAF organizing. In the first case, its consistency with culturally substantive approaches reflects its own normative commitments to utilitarian and economic logic. In the second case, the priority that organizers give to "broader, more basic" interests over "subjective, more narrow" ones also fits with substantive mainstream Christian distinctions between "secular" and "religious" realms.

Rational choice lends to organizers efforts to plumb the interests of congregants, but it does so on the basis of utilitarian and economic commitments. Utilitarianism provides organizers with the ultimate concern of how to achieve overall social welfare[21] (one such concern is expressed in the idea of "standing for the whole" [22] -- an ethical frame which assumes people rationally maximize utility. Economic logic assumes a dynamic balance or equilibrium in political relations, like those which naturally drive the marketplace. This equilibrium depends upon and fluctuates with the distribution of organizational and human resources. Thus, the balance is changeable by tapping into the impersonal systems of power at its base.

IAF does seem to make honest and good faith attempts at "fusing" self-interest and moral claims.[23] Their shortfall is a failure to analyze and critique their rational choice frameworks which -- though consistent with ideas of self-interest -- may or may not be consistent with moral claims made by specific religious communities. Hence, they seem more concerned with fusing self-interest with normative questions of maximizing utility than they are with considering various moral claims.[24] They are at least driven by the rational goal of "broader" norms that people in relationships achieve when they articulate their interests to one another. Texas IAF organizer Ernie Cortes illumines this:

We teach people that the relationship is more important than the issue . . . . If people's conception of self-interest is narrow, then it's okay to screw you if we're on different sides of the issue because we're enemies. But if we see the relationship as important, there is another dimension to it. Being right is not always as important as being reasonable. And being reasonable means that you review, look at your interests in a different way because of your relationship. [25]

The priority placed here on relationally-defined interests is commendable and important for addressing religious issues. However, the juxtaposition of rightness to reasonableness primarily serves organizing goals because it justifies a specific ethical framework (i. e., utilitarianism) without acknowledging that this is a normative system with its own substantive, sometimes narrow principles of right and wrong, good and evil.

On the one hand, the strategic reasonableness of winning goals is clear and unquestionable. Power is not a moral question at this level. On the other hand, to move beyond strategy to claim that these victories serve to improve people's lives [26] is to move to the ethical realm, a realm of rights, goods, and tradition-bound proper aims. Here movements of power assume moral or normative concepts which carry with them substantive assumptions of the way the world ought to be. As a result, organizers open themselves to moral questioning, analysis, and criticism. So, organizers are partially correct in claiming that their methods are based more on reason than on being right but, in claiming this, they also fail to acknowledge and critique their own normative views which supply their reasonability with legitimacy.

This failure seems entirely consistent with a certain naivete in utilitarian thought: the assumption that the interaction of individuals pursuing their interests would somehow naturally produce a socially beneficial result.[27] Classic social theory (i. e., that passed on by Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx), however, does not assume some natural utility produced by such interaction, but sees interests as socially structured and as subject to abuse in social interchange -- even in broad interchange -- as they are to maximization. Interests are not merely driven by some "invisible hand" but are defined by the diverse values of traditions within the political arena. Thus, insofar as organizers fail to critique their own utilitarian idealism, they also hazard co-opting or trivializing certain religious discourses as well as moral discontent in the name of effectively building movements to tap into local power systems.

Trivialization seemed to occur in TNT when objections were raised by certain congregants about the ways initiatives were shepherded through the organizational machinery without more debate. For example, some Baptist delegates -- who were used to traditional principles of local church autonomy and free debate of issues -- expressed their concern about quelling such principles in the name of unity, effectiveness, and efficiency. It also occurred as some white leaders expressed frustration with the lack of African American participation, given their own religious visions of a reconciled racial community. Black leaders, on the other hand, expressed some distrust of whites' "paternalism" and the possibility that the latter might not be around when times got tough. For blacks, a sense of power and justice in the distribution of power seemed just as central to their religious identity as a vision of a reconciled community was to whites'. In both cases, the organizer's deflecting response was, "They just need to trust the process," which in effect meant that all delegates should accept the IAF's organizing norms and tactics as more primary than those parochial views which seem to be sewing discord. This also seems to have occurred in other places such as Texas, where Ernie Cortes "smothered" the protests of a priest speaking in favor of school vouchers at one training, and confronted him later about raising a point which would supposedly destroy their "multidenominational coalition." [28]

This is not to suggest that organizers ought not be focused on broader strategic issues, but to say that if the organization is going to seek moral trade-offs from congregants in return for greater organizational power, then they need to be aware of the conflicts their own moral positions create and to seriously entertain discontent before it gets to a level where it could break apart coalitions. The house meetings, trainings, and research team meetings can serve these purposes. Hence, self-awareness of the values of "organizing cultures" like those of IAF is necessary even when attempting to keep the "bigger picture" of power systems in mind.

Aside from the problems of normative views of reason, others arise from the developmental views of relationships. Mary Beth Rogers clearly details the connection between Cortes' position on self-interest and a normative developmental view of the individual self.[29] This view first requires that physical and psychological needs for universal human survival and growth be met, and then that individuals forego more "narrow" interests to collectivize when the basic needs are at stake. In turn, organizers tend to see non-utilitarian questions of moral or cultural integrity as less collective, more subjective, and representative of a higher stage of cognitive development, which assumes that broader survival needs are already met. The developmental view nicely fits with substantive approaches to religion which abstract and bracket specific moral commitments in the name of broader, "secular" power agendas.

This is exactly where the organizational genius of IAF emerges. The stated purpose of one-on-one meetings is to establish personal relations with a potential leader, to find out what he or she really cares about (including the peculiar facets of his or her religious lifeworld) and to uncover more effective ways to navigate the political arena.[30] When they train members of the Organizing Teams for one-on-ones, organizers also utilize the technique of role plays to try and reveal the interests that people share with one another. These tools allow for both the identification of "higher," more incommensurable cognitive interests (like religious and moral values) which potentially divide communities, as well as the "opening" of the self to "more basic" feelings (like anger or hunger) which are believed to be the genesis of relational solidarity because they become the lowest developmental common denominators. However, organizers seem to believe that the most successful means of building a strong organization is to forge beyond the "highest" down to the "lowest" denominators.

The technique of delving beneath seemingly divisive and variable religious expressions to seemingly original and abiding passionate expressions are a stroke of genius precisely because they provide a means for helping people across relatively broad structural and identity spectrums bond with each other at a single, common level of interest: that of emotions, needs, and desires. Furthermore, peoples' more immutable passions are then recast into broad, inclusive religious discourse and rituals, which are ostensibly plastic enough to portray the sacred legitimacy of secular interests. Thus, the ancient Hebrew oracle of a god who "rebuilds ancient ruins" is transposed in late twentieth century Metro Nashville into a mouthpiece of citizens who are angry, anxious, and disaffected with metropolitan systems of justice, which become the metaphorical ruins in need of restoration.

On the one hand, these exercises in self-disclosure are a departure from Alinsky's sometimes contemptuous and often cavalier attitudes toward religious devotion.[31] The premium which organizers place on self-disclosure provides more room for addressing religious interests. Organizers like Cortes and Chambers seem admirably interested in incorporating religious values and symbolism into the everyday machinery of IAF. And current IAF emphases on religious values and family[32] can probably be attributed to the fact that IAF leaders have spent half of a century working closely with and being influenced by Catholic institutions.

On the other hand, organizers still may run the risk of trivializing the moral integrity of specific religious traditions by elevating their status to a developmentally less basic level. By distinguishing survival needs or basic emotions from religion, organizers may unnecessarily abstract values, which some religious traditions see as more basic. Thus, they ironically run the risk they are trying to avoid in mobilizing religious organizations in the public -- rather than merely private -- realm: they seem to be legitimating a "broad" civic realm where certain matters (e. g., hunger, resentment, depression) count more than other more "narrow" religious interests (e. g., salvation, enlightenment, communal integrity, character development). This also risks trivializing some faiths which do not have the same legitimacy as the mainstream denominations.

For instance, while the Jewish faith currently enjoys a more legitimate status in the public square, it has historically suffered trivialization, abuse, and holocaust. While it may be argued that this tradition survived because it was willing to be assimilated into various and sundry societies, a stronger position seems to be that the tenacity of the Jewish identity rests on the Jewish tradition's own definition of a communal and ritual fabric punctuated by a specific (some would call it "narrow") moral universe. Hence, the integrity of the Jewish faith lies neither merely in its ideological relics of an ancient past nor in abstract sociological definitions of interest group boundaries, but in the integrity of a unique social and religious identity. Moreover, this integrity is often placed ahead of broader human subsistence living. For many Jews, to unravel the fabric of Judaism is to literally lay waste to, occupy, and enslave community of faith even though empirical group boundaries might remain in place. [33] In such a universe, morality precedes existence, and thus to ask some Jews to set aside their "narrow" interests would be similar to discouraging religious devotion in the public square. One is left to wonder whether IAF's cultural commitments to developmental views of the self (e. g., survival precedes morality) are in danger of unwittingly discouraging other, lesser mainstream religions--without such broad and secular priorities--from participating in the public sphere.

These less mainstream groups also carry less legitimacy and are often pejoratively labeled with terms like "sect" and "cult." Despite their status in society, though, they present a challenge to self-described "broad-based" organizers to seriously consider their claims, even though these groups may not share the IAF's cultural views about basic needs versus religious exercise. For instance, it would seem that to be truly broad-based, organizers might have to attend to the claims of Christian Scientists, who view conventional health care as incompatible with their religious life. Could organizers accommodate such unconventional claims about eternal salvation or would they simply be passed off as part of, what one sympathetic commentator calls "the confinements of purity"[34] Or what about the Sikh initiation practices of boys wearing ceremonial daggers ("kirpans")? Could organizers reconcile Sikh religious interest with their interests of creating safer school environments? In order to consider the "interests" of these types of groups, IAF organizers need to critically analyze the cultural assumptions of their otherwise successful history. Cornel West's criticism of populism's assumptions also seems entirely appropriate at this point: depending on grassroots mobilization does not always insure the maintenance of minority civil rights like elite, concentrated power can.[35] Given organizers' penchant for moderate policies in line with more compelling interests, religious minorities may not be able to look to the IAF for assistance with their interests.

Organizers' rational choice interpretations no doubt match with substantive Christian distinctions between "the sacred" and "the secular"; this fact seems to explain the high levels of participation by mainstream Christian institutions. What remains to be seen is whether IAF is able to attract the participation of increasing numbers Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims (many of whom refuse to accept "sacred/secular" dichotomies) in metropolitan areas. Many religious movements, as Jose Casanova argues, are streaming out of the "private" and "subjective" spheres and into the public arena[36], and mainstream Christians in broad-based organizations seem to be part of this movement. But other parts of this movement include Christian fundamentalists and evangelical communitarians to the right of moderates and neo-Marxian and feminist liberationists to the left. In a public arena where many of these groups are building powerful, far-reaching organizations each IAF association is in danger of becoming "just another" interest group, more mainstream than broad-based, unless they critique these substantive distinctions between religion and secular worlds.

In fact, recent research in religious studies suggests that late twentieth century religious organizations are marked by a shift away from traditional denominationalism and towards alliances based more on political divisions and flexible, issue oriented relations.[37] Thus, IAF's success in organizing religious groups may be a matter of the more widespread re-organization of the "big three" Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups into immense "paradenominational" organizations of like-minded "orthodox," "moderates," and "progressives."[38] Unless IAF organizers remain judicious and deliberate in their relation to religion, they might possibly further extend this trend by fashioning a paradenomination for moderates of mainstream faiths. Whether or not this prospect is repugnant, it could still undermine attempts to create a truly representative broad-based network of citizens organizations.

Finally, organizers also risk reducing religious commitment to the mere veneer of an ideology which -- while perpetually modifying according to different traditions -- remains detached from the broad, fundamental survival needs which everyone is assumed to possess. When religion is represented as a quantity adaptable to more unchanging, universal interests in this manner, religious symbolism is in danger of becoming a legitimating ideology of IAF's cultural commitments apart from different communal emphases -- e. g., Moses and Paul get represented as the greatest organizers.[39] This imagery is rhetorically very effective for mobilizing Christians, and perhaps even sheds light on religious material leading to profound insight, but it can mask the more utilitarian ideals contained in the concept of the modern "organizer." This does not preclude organizers from using non-utilitarian imagery to justify utilitarian ideals, but only that they be self-critical enough to admit that they are doing so and to be open to critique from the diverse communities which may or may not accept the primacy of utilitarian ideals.


The strength of the IAF methodology for religious organizations is that it carries values which challenge notions of religion as somehow divorced from the public sphere. The IAF does not buy Alinsky's iconoclasm and anti-ritualism, nor does it totally or blindly follow his disinterest in the uniqueness of religions. Instead, IAF expresses an unwillingness to separate religion from the public sphere, and invites adherents to build broad-based coalitions where religious faith remains a significant qualifier. It also integrates ecumenical religious rituals into its public actions and policy initiatives which would make strict church/state separatists and Internal Revenue officials uncomfortable. In general, I believe that organizers should be commended for the progress they have made in demolishing the barriers to religious adherents entering the public sphere and exercising their citizenship. In the meantime, they have also had to struggle against mainstream denominational forces that seek to sanctify religious devotion as somehow rising above the political arena.

However, I believe that organizers also need to understand that their work -- not simply to help people improve their own lives, but also to entertain people's religious interest in defining what such improvement looks like -- is one in progress. Much headway has been made since Saul Alinsky first formed IAF. Organizers like Ed Chambers, Ernie Cortes, and Gerald Taylor have brought organizing to new levels of conscientiousness and respect for the various traditions and, at least for TNT, religious expression plays a prominent organizational role. However, organizers need not only to facilitate "free spaces"[40] in the political arena for their clients, but also intraorganizational free spaces where the interests of religious devotion--which might publicly communicate dissension--can be expressed and moral trade-offs can be fairly made for the sake of truly broad-based organization. Structures already exist in TNT for such free space to be encouraged. The purpose of this paper is to provide resources from religious studies and moral theory which can both encourage reflection in the scholarly community and indicate factors which organizers need to consider in light of their own history and the those of the religious traditions.


[1] Sanford D. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 109.

[2] "What Is the Nashville Sponsoring Committee?" A flyer produced by the Nashville Sponsoring Committee, 1991.

[3] In a future training session, Taylor defined a "campaign" as an overall strategy to achieve some objective. He would also call the IAF-supported efforts in Nashville "a campaign for democratic/faith development and a faith/citizenship school."

[4] While the Nashville organization cannot "publicly" endorse specific candidates without endangering its nonprofit status, it does "privately" identify those elected officials which it considers its allies and some of these allies are usually in attendance at organizational meetings and are frequently recognized and given a few seconds to express their support for the organization. On one occasion one of the more progressive Metro Council members stood at a church function (a church where he had his membership) to vote on membership and declared his support for the organization, saying that he believed it was one of the most important things that had ever happened in Nashville politics. In a recent election, the Nashville organization did not endorse particular candidates, but publicly announced that it was running its own "candidate," the platform of reform issues it was seeking, while calling upon all of the other candidates to support it. Incidently, I spoke recently to a lawyer who has worked in the Nashville organization since its inception, and he told me that--because of new changes in the tax laws and the organization's political activities (in spite of its unwillingness to publicly endorse a candidate)--he was worried that the organization's nonprofit status might be in jeopardy.

[5] "What is the Nashville Sponsoring Committee?"

[6] Taylor defined "action" as "some goal-oriented act designed to get a reaction from someone." In this case, the "reaction" was internal: members were charged with beginning the process of defining a political and economic agenda for Nashville. Taylor also called actions the "oxygen" of organized movements. Tom Murphy, who eventually replaced Taylor referred to action in connection to power: power is the ability to act or be acted upon. So, action--like power--is a morally neutral term, which can be used for either good or ill.

[7] Although no institution would be allowed to pay more than $10,000 per year in dues.

[8] Verna M. Fausey and Gene TeSelle, "Two Organizing Approaches," in Southern Communities, published by the Southern Neighborhoods Network, January/February 1994, Vol. XVIII, No. 1.

[9] I am not at all comfortable with reified distinctions between theory and practice or theorists and practitioners. On the one hand, I believe that theory is itself a practice and not easily abstractable from the everyday structures in which theorists operate. On the other hand, I have observed that IAF organizers spend a good amount of time theorizing and that their theory is not often abstractable from "more pragmatic" concerns. Thus, I do not shy away from calling organizers social and political theorists, precisely because their theory is just as politically significant as their practice. They tend to communicate this as well by referring to their educational campaigns as "universities." As to the current debate in this seminar regarding whether theoretical analysis is accessible to community organizers: I tend to view the world of academician and the world of organizers as two different but not incommensurable language worlds. Thus, I believe that when we attempt to speak to one another, much of what we are required to do is translate our own technical and specialized jargon to each other. But I do not think that either one is more responsible for translation than the other. Organizers have their own stocks of jargonized knowledges that researchers have to work very hard to decipher (and honest researchers whom I have met admit that there are often stocks which are not completely decipherable), because field research is like learning another language. I would think that if organizers are going to enter into public debates with researchers that they are just as responsible for deciphering the language of scholars. This does not mean reading volumes of technical material (although most organizers whom I have met are very well read). It does mean asking scholars to clarify their terms for someone who does not share their linguistic world (and most honest researchers whom I have met will happily make attempts to translate).

[10] James A. Beckford, "Religion," The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Social Thought, William Outhwaite & Tom Bottomore, eds. (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 555-557.

[11] Ibid., p. 556.

[12] Benson Saler, Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories (New York: E. J. Brill, 1993), p. 157.

[13] Malcolm B. Hamilton, The Sociology of Religion: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 120--121.

[14] Saler, p. 156--157.

[15] While my concept of "trivilization of religion" is dependent upon Stephen L. Carter's The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), I have a more mitaged, nuanced definition of it in this paper. He defines trivialization as making religion "an unimportant facet of human personality, one easily discarded, and one with which public- spirited citizens would not bother" (p. xv). I am not applying his definition in this critique, but instead arguing that, while organizers place a priority on religious devotion in their efforts, their value commitments can lead them to bracket specific tenents and rituals as secondary to more primary moral aims. Thus, perhaps unintentionally and unwittingly, IAF organizers trivialize religious devotion.

[16] Horwitt, p. 531.

[17] Jon Elster, "Introduction," Rational Choice (New York: New York University Press, 1986), pp. 1-- 33.

[18] Harry C. Boyte, CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 121--122.

[19] See Boyte for a genealogy of American Populism and Alinsky's appropriation of that tradition.

[20] Robert Fisher, "Neighborhood Organizing: The Importance of Historical Context," presented during the H-Urban Seminar on the History of Community Organizing and Community-Based Development. I agree with Fisher's thesis, but would add the caveat that Alinsky's predisposition to mimic the predominant power structures--particularly in Chicago municipal politics--also lead to the "mainstreaming" that has occurred with the professionalization and institutionalization of IAF organizing. Despite the significant changes that IAF organizing has made since Alinsky, this is a legacy which has seemed to persist--from the reading of Thucydides' account of Athenian brutalities against Melos at the National Ten Day Training, to the ways that field organizers encourage local leaders to identify and tap power networks.

[21] Margaret Levi, Karen S. Cook, Jodi A. O'Brien, and Howard Faye, "Introduction: The Limits of Rationality," The Limits of Rationality, Karen S. Cook and Margaret Levi, eds. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 1--16.

[22] See Fisher. I have found Fisher's critique of this concern to be true in Nashville: the organizer-- both in TNT's structure and in its day-to-day operation--acts as a "point man," keeping meetings "on track" by answering some questions and letting other questions lie. Also, Gerald Taylor took a prominent place with regard to one-on-ones and small group meetings with leaders in power. He tended toward a "no nonsense" approach by emphasizing the importance of "the process" (i. e., IAF's organizing methods). I also agree that this form of moderate leadership can be problematic when it comes to whether the poor and less powerful can operate around such hegemony.

[23] William Greider, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 226.

[24] By moral, I mean the various and sundry claims about the rightness and wrongness of actions, or the goodness and badness of character, or the best and worst human aims; moral claims in historical context (e. g., the Natural Law tradition, the Aristotelian tradition, Kantianism, Utilitarianism, etc.) tend to be characterized by an "ought" rather than an "is." By normative, I mean those moral questions which characterize hegemonic cultures of different societies (e. g., Natural Law has predominated medieval society and modern Catholicism; utilitarianism has predominated contemporary North American society, etc.). These hegemonic values have a "normalizing" effect in society, i. e., they legitimate themselves as "common sense," "reality," or "convention," and marginalize other moral frameworks. They tend to be characterized by both an "ought" and an "is." One of the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on one's outlook) results of accepting normalizing moral frameworks is that they push organizers toward moderation and assimilation of diverse traditions.

[25] Mary Beth Rogers, Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1990), p. 63.

[26] A claim made most recently during this seminar by Peter Dreier.

[Ed: In a discussion of the paper "Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment" presented earlier in the seminar, Peter Dreier said:

3. We overemphasize the differences between "schools" and "styles" of community organizing -- or labor organizing or electoral organizing, for that matter. Organizing is basically about winning victories that improve people's lives. You can do it well or you can to it poorly. It requires mobliizing constituencies, developing strong organizations, building leadership, forging coalitions, engaging in strategic and tactical choices. Most of the differences between "schools" and "styles" of organizing are like family feuds that lose sight of the underlying commonalities. Or they are about "turf" -- competition for money, influence, constitutencies, etc. Sure, there are differences, as Stoecker/Stall and others suggest, but let's not lose sight of the forest through the trees.

For the paper and comments, aim your WWW browser at

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-- W. Plotkin]

[27] Benton Johnson, Response At the Loyola University Chicago Colloquium on Rational Choice Theory and Religion, April 17, 1996; an unpublished manuscript.

[28] Greider, pp. 231--232.

[29] Rogers, p. 62.

[30] Ibid., p. 51.

[31] Horwitt, pp. 196--199.

[32] For Ed Chambers' comments on the family and biblical teachings see Greider, p. 225.

[33] This example also militates against what seems unquestionably self-evident to organizers who use Thucydides' account of the destruction of Melos as a prod towards "realism." The Melians, like many Jews, may have understood that their perpetuity did not merely rest on sheer human survival, but on moral frameworks. Both the Melians and the Jews may have understood the words of an American Indian tribal aphorism in ways that utilitarians may not: "it would be better to die free than to live enslaved." One other fascinating point in this comparison is the problem we run into when applying the IAF's interpretation of the Athenian sack of Melos to the Jewish Holocaust. Nazi atrocities reflect a "final solution" similar to that of the Athenians: if a culture remains resistant to assimilation then the only solution left is to eradicate it and collect the spoils. And yet, if we are to accept IAF's moral-to-the-story of the Peloponnesian War -- that to resist instead of accepting the "world-as-it-is" is romantic, rather than realistic -- all we could have commended to the Jews would have been to give up their culture for the sake of each organism's survival. However, as Zygmunt Bauman points out in Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), each organism's survival became the premium during Jewish ghettoization, and resulted not in the perpetuation of the Jewish community, but in its destruction as a number of Jews betrayed larger numbers of their fellows on the Nazi's promise that they themselves would be spared from death. Thus, appeals to broader, more basic interests do not necessarily serve to promote the good of everyone.

[34] Greider, p. 226.

[35] Cornel West, "Populism: A Black Socialist Critique," in The New Populism: The Politics of Empowerment, ed. by Harry C. Boyte and Frank Riessman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), pp. 207--212.

[36] Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[37] James Davison Hunter and John Steadman Rice, "Unlikely Alliances: The Changing Contours of American Religious Faith," in America at Century's End, ed. by Alan Wolfe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 318--339, and Nancy Tatom Ammerman and Wade Clark Roof, "Introductions: Old Patterns, New Trends, Fragile Experiments," in Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society, ed. by Nancy Tatom Ammerman and Wade Clark Roof (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[38] Examples of this "new form of ecumenism" include the Christian Coalition, the Catholic League, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, to name a few.

[39] Rogers, pp. 13--17.

[40] I borrow the concept of "free spaces" from Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte's Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).