The Need for an Evangelical Left

If you want to build power, you’ve got to win converts. Why socialists should take organizing lessons from Christians.

When I lived in Massachusetts, I used to see the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the subway station all the time, with their rack of magazines, ready to talk to you about their faith. Here in New Orleans, I see them outside the grocery store when I go to pick up my Sunday paper. Wherever I go, there they are. And every time I see them, neatly dressed, trained to talk, and with the literature at the ready, I wonder: Why doesn’t the left do this?

The left in the United States is not doing amazingly right now. Donald Trump is currently poised to return to the presidency. The Bernie Sanders campaigns ended in failure, and no successful left challenger to Joe Biden has emerged in this election cycle. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America is declining, its financial situation is troubling, and its push to reach 100,000 members did not succeed. Protests against the war on Gaza have brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, but have also made clear how little power we have to affect actual policy. Meanwhile, grand progressive ideas like Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, free college, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement barely enter the national discourse these days. 

I am not saying that the situation is hopeless for progressives. In fact, there have been some striking victories. And it’s important to put things in context: from 1982 to 2015, DSA’s membership numbers remained stagnant at about 6,000 members, while today it still has well over 50,000 members and DSA-adjacent elected officials in various offices around the country. Still, it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do. And I don’t see how we can ever achieve power unless we first commit to evangelizing for our political beliefs.

We need an evangelical left. I don’t mean a Christian left, although I admire many Christian socialists from throughout history. I mean a left that is constantly trying to grow, to convert new people to leftist ideas and to get them to participate in the project of trying to bring about a vastly more fair and equal world. I mean a left that sees every passerby as a potential socialist, and works to convince them to join something. 

I once spoke to a DSA chapter’s “political education” director, who was in charge of putting together classes for members. I asked him what the purpose of political education within the chapter was. He told me that it was to deepen the members’ understandings of socialist theory, history, and practice. I thought that that was a reasonable thing for the organization to do, but I was disappointed when I asked him how much of the education consisted of training people to persuade others to be socialists. The answer was none. But if you only deepen your own understandings, how are you going to grow your movement?

A socialist organization shouldn’t just offer classes on the history of socialism. It should offer public speaking classes, writing classes, and classes on video production and graphic design. Don’t just enrich people’s ideas, but give them the skills to communicate those ideas effectively to others. 

This is the distinction that Jane McAlevey refers to as being between “mobilizing” and “organizing,” where “mobilizing” consists of activating the people who already agree with you, while organizing consists of going out and trying to get more people to agree with you, then activating those people. For a movement to succeed, it has to constantly be pulling in new members, especially since there is inevitably attrition among existing members. Union organizers understand this. They begin an organizing campaign with a big list of all the workers, and they go and meet with them all and listen to their problems and try to convince them that a union would be a way of addressing some of those problems. Meanwhile, the bosses are trying their best to convince the workers that they don’t need a union or it would hurt them.

It’s a battle for hearts and minds out there, and if you don’t take part in it, you’ll lose it. The right knows this, which is why they are absolutely phenomenal at propaganda. Right-wing books are written simply and non-academically and present their arguments compellingly. Across 8 years of reviewing right-wing books, I’ve been consistently impressed with how accessible and well-written they are. PragerU propaganda is slick. Right-wing radio is highly listenable. They’re trying to take people who don’t hold right-wing political beliefs and turn them right wing. It can work. People can turn right-wing from exposure to this stuff. 

When you go up to a Jehovah’s Witness, they’re friendly and open. They don’t try to push the faith on you immediately, they ask you questions. We need some of that, too. People need to not associate leftists with stridency, but with openness and empathy. But a lot of people will never run into a leftist the way they run into a Jehovah’s witness. The closest they’ll get is meeting those street canvassers for liberal organizations, many of whom work for a private company rather than for the organization itself. 

In fact, the way liberal organizations reach people is a model of what not to do. They’re hugely focused on asking you for money, rather than actually organizing. I get texts constantly from the Democratic party and various “progressive” organizations (some of which appear to be scams). All of them want me to chip in money and give them my email so that others can beg me for money. But none of them ever ask me to do anything, to come to a meeting. They never try to organize me, and they only approach me because they think I already agree with them. Those street canvassers for Planned Parenthood are targeting people who like Planned Parenthood; they’re not there to try to convince people that abortion should be legal.

Anti-abortion activists, on the other hand, do put up stations where they try to engage the public in conversations about the morality of abortion, often with pictures of fetuses. I’m not sure how effective that is. But I do know that without winning converts, there is no hope of growing any kind of movement, and I don’t think this is widely enough understood.

I recently reviewed a book, for instance, that blamed rural white people for most of America’s most serious problems. The book admitted that the political attitudes of rural white people have arisen in part in response to dire circumstances and legitimate grievances, but its authors didn’t seem interested in the question of how those people could be persuaded to join a movement for social democracy instead of a MAGA cult. But this is precisely the question we should be thinking about. How do you get someone on board? How do you persuade them to ditch toxic beliefs? 

I’ve argued some version of this over and over in this magazine. I think climate scientists should do a public listening tour across the country in deep “red” areas, responding to people’s queries and skepticism. I think progressive books should be written in non-academic language and targeted at people who don’t already share progressive beliefs. (I wrote a book myself called Why You Should Be A Socialist that was specifically for people who didn’t agree with socialism, and another called Responding to the Right that helped prepare people to have dinner table conversations about politics.) DSA chapters should run drills on how to talk to your family about socialism. I recently read back through old issues of the New Masses magazine from the ’30s and ’40s. Leftist groups back then used to have night classes, Sunday schools, theater nights, travel packages, and dance recitals. It was a vibrant culture and its attractions were clear. Our literature should be compelling, well-designed, and persuasive. We don’t need a propaganda apparatus like the right has, but we do need a damn good communications machine, because we are not winning.

It starts with the right attitude, and I think a key to the right attitude is to look at, say, the spectacular growth of Pentecostal Christianity around the world, and think: How did they do it? I think their doctrine is bananas, so it’s not that they just had really good ideas. I think they have been passionate and smart about organizing, and they provide people with something they are looking for. The left can do the same. We can involve people in the project to build a better world, to eliminate exploitation and injustice, to solve the problems of climate catastrophe, war, and economic misery. But we have to start thinking creatively about how to convey our message effectively, if we are to grow rather than shrink. 

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