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Religious left? Faith groups get involved in politics

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Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good speakson Oct. 10
Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, and pastor at Solomon's Porch, a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis, formerly a church and now a registered nonprofit, speaks at a rally at Veterans Park in Richfield on Wednesday.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Churches turned Minneapolis minister Doug Pagitt away, so on Wednesday, he delivered a sermon of sorts outside in the frigid rain.

He didn't quote heavily from scripture or hold up the Bible. Instead, he asked the more than 100 people gathered in a park in Richfield to get out and vote this fall — and vote for Democrats.

"We are here to raise people's voices," Pagitt told the crowd. "Even if you have to come out on a blistering, cold, Christmas-feeling day like this."

Many voters of faith, particularly white evangelical voters, have been considered an inevitable and reliable voting bloc for Republicans, motivated by issues like abortion. But a small and motivated group of Democratic faith voters is trying to take advantage of fissures in that alliance this election year, caused in large part by polarizing feelings over President Trump.

DFL Candidates Angie Craig and Dean Phillips share a moment on stage
DFL candidates Angie Craig and Dean Phillips stand on stage at a rally for Vote Common Good.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Trump is not on the ballot in 2018, but Pagitt and about a dozen other people are traveling by bus across the country to battleground districts as part of an effort they call Vote Common Good, encouraging people of faith to elect Democrats to Congress to act as a check on his administration. Democratic congressional candidates Angie Craig and Dean Phillips attended the Richfield event, mingling with voters.

Minnesota is a battleground state this fall, with four competitive congressional races on the ballot, two U.S. Senate seats up for election and an open governor's race.

"I've never voted party line, but I do feel like in the last few weeks, what the Republicans have been saying and their sound bites do not represent my Christian values at all," said Mimi Schirber, 43, who lives in Minneapolis but grew up in a suburban, conservative household.  "One of the core values is to love one another, and the sound bites are hateful and full of disrespect."

She voted in her first primary election this August, supporting Democratic candidates.

The event felt more like a tent revival show than a mass, with a food truck stationed nearby, a potluck-style spread of food and free hand warmers and hot cocoa. Attendees cited things Trump has done that they consider un-Christian: the travel banseparating families at the border, and payments his attorney made to keep adult star Stormy Daniels quiet about an affair.

Signs for Vote Common Good sit outside at Veterans Park in Richfield.
Vote Common Good held a rally at Veteran's Park in Richfield.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

"I think women who are well-educated in particular are not at all happy about the way things turned out," said Jane Cook, who is part of the traveling bus tour.

"It has been really an interesting battle for the soul of Minnesota," said JaNaé Bates, a minister and a spokesperson for ISAIAH, a faith group that organizes in Minnesota on race and economic justice issues. "What we are finding in this election is the very insidious rhetoric that is dividing people across race, religion, language and ethnicity."

ISAIAH, which is nonpartisan, has been around since the 1970s, but last year, members created a spinoff political organization called Faith in MN to get involved in the election.

"We would find that clearly this horrible rhetoric that is happening is happening on one side," she said. "With Faith in MN, we are actually able to say, this is Republicans that have put together this system and put together this structure."

Trying to rally evangelical voters is a daunting task. In 2016, 8 in 10 self-identified white, evangelical voters said they supported Trump. That group includes self-described Protestants, as well as Catholics, Mormons and others. That matched or exceeded support for Republican presidential candidates in the previous three election cycles. 

Rachel Elsen, Dean Phillips, Lois Norrgard, and Sophia Gilleand pose.
DFL candidate Dean Philips poses for a picture wearing a polar bear head with (left to right) Rachel Elsen, a student at the University of Minnesota, Lois Norrgard, who works for the Alaska Wilderness Action, which Phillips has supported, and Sophia Gilleland, also a student at the University of Minnesota.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

And many conservative evangelical voters are fired up over the battle to appoint Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the potential for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established a legal right to abortion.

"I do think that they view it as very important, especially coming off of the Kavanaugh hearings and how the attacks were against him personally," said Gary Borgendale, who works at a local faith-based radio show and helps with prayer events at the state Capitol. "It will be an important issue for the faith, Christian community."

He said abortion is a big motivator for evangelical voters, but so are other issues, including "religious freedom," or certain businesses having the ability to turn away same-sex customers on the basis of religious beliefs. But he understands that Trump can cut both ways for voters of faith. 

"Donald Trump is Donald Trump, some people like him and some people don't." 

John Helmberger, CEO of the conservative Christian group the Minnesota Family Council, said his members have been traveling to churches across the state to tell people that the Bible asks them to exercise their "Christian citizenship." As the election nears, they've transitioned to speaking directly about campaigns, including the open race for attorney general, where Republican candidate Doug Wardlow speaks often about his Christian faith.

Vote Common Good apparel and buttons sit on a table on Oct. 10, 2018
Vote Common Good is an evangelical organization traveling the country and trying to convince evangelicals to "vote for the common good."
Tony Saunders | MPR News

"The people that we are talking to see that we have some extraordinary, unprecedented opportunities to make gains for life, family and freedom in this election," he said. "We see opportunities to make gains in several of those areas, and that has us and the voters that we are working with fired up."

"Voters are not monolithic with respect to Donald Trump," he added. "I think that there is wide appreciation for a number of things that he's done."

One faith group — the Jewish community — has been clear in its opposition to Trump. In 2016, 71 percent of self-identified Jewish voters supported Hillary Clinton. Carin Mrotz, who works with Jewish Community Action, said the community has always organized and been active in elections.

This year, her group set up training for people who wanted to attend precinct caucuses for the first time and they are out regularly canvassing in the community. Mrotz senses more urgency in the community this year.

Part of that has to do with Trump.

"What we've seen is through the Trump administration and people who are directly connected to him is really big uptick in anti-Semitism," she said, noting Trump's refusal to condemn white nationalists who caused violence at protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"His refusal to declare that anti-Semitism is a problem is turning some more moderate Jewish community members to vote Democrat," she said.

Vince Anderson pumps up the crowd at the Vote Common Good rally
Vince Anderson amps up the crowd at a rally for Vote Common Good at Veteran's Park in Richfield on Wednesday.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Pagitt wants pastors, priests and ministers to be more deliberate about building relationships with voters. He thinks anywhere between 5 and 15 percent of self-described faith voters who supported Trump could turn and support Democrats in this election. In some close races, that margin is more than enough.

But he's not naive to the criticisms and challenges of building the so-called religious left. They have far fewer supporters and resources than the long-established religious right.

"Donald Trump was not made in a year," he said. "The conservative and fundamentalist Christian right built the conditions to elect Donald Trump over 40 years, and we need to do that same kind of work."