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Chris Crawford of #ProtectDemocracy Addresses the Closing Plenary

Chris Crawford, a policy advocate at Protect Democracy, addressed the Closing Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

August 18, 2023 (Transcript) – “We do not all start from the same place. But we’re standing together now. And we have to stay together and march forward together.”

These are the words that Bishop William Barber said to me a number of years ago – and I will never forget them. 

You see, I started my career working in the pro-life movement in North Carolina. And I am still proud of that work. But some of the organizations I worked with later used their power to propose discriminatory legislation. 

Bishop Barber led the opposition to that effort. 

When we met in 2017, I apologized to him for the harm that was caused. With a great deal of grace, he put his hand on my shoulder and said those words, “We don’t all start in the same place. But we’re standing together now.”  

I want to talk to you today about how we can all stand together in defense of democracy. 

At my organization, Protect Democracy, we believe that to defeat an authoritarian you have to be able to bring together a broad coalition of people who might have big major disagreements on politics and policy but who are willing to come together to prioritize the defense of democracy. 

I know it’s hard to build that type of coalition, and to put aside disagreements, because I’m Catholic! Catholics are really bad at putting aside disagreements on anything. [laughter]

While I am a person of faith, Protect Democracy actually is not a religious organization. But we are here because we know the crucial role that faith communities play in building this type of coalition, and it’s a coalition not just to defeat one temporary strongman, it is one to build defenses to stop any future one as well. 

My organization was founded in response to an immediate crisis. But we came to realize that preserving democracy is not a one-year or a three-year project, it is a generational one. And it takes all of us. 

And I mean all of us. We have learned as an interfaith community that building effective coalitions is not about minimizing our differences or watering down our beliefs – it means listening, understanding, and welcoming people to bring exactly who they are to this moment and this movement; so that together we can prevail on the most pressing of issues. 

Here’s what I believe: 

I believe in democracy because I share a belief with many of you, across religious traditions, that every person has human dignity. 

I believe that we are each made in the image and likeness of God.

I believe that of all the different forms of government, democracies are the best way to protect human life, ensure human flourishing, and  prevent abuses of power. 

And I believe that we, as communities of faith, have a unique role to play here.

Religious communities have the social capital and organizing infrastructure to take action. 

Our leaders are often some of the most trusted leaders in our communities. 

Having a meaningful spiritual or religious grounding can help us to take action despite long odds or even threats. 

I’d like to talk briefly about a hero of mine, Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a sharecropper from Mississippi; a poor, Black woman. And she loved Jesus. 

During the 1960’s, Mrs. Hamer challenged the local Democratic Party in Mississippi that was run on white power; she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She challenged Jim Crow voting laws. [applause] 

For this, she was the victim of state-sanctioned violence and even assassination attempts.

Mrs. Hamer’s testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention was so moving that President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference at the White House just to try to take the cameras off of her. That move backfired. Mrs. Hamer was not going to be stopped. And a year later, that same president signed the Voting Rights Act into law. [applause]

I bring up Mrs. Hamer because her speeches featured two main elements: 

Sacred scripture and the U.S. Constitution. She was driven by faith, and she understood faith’s power to inspire. And she also believed in institutions that could recognize all of us and our dignity. 

There have been entire books written about faith-based efforts to resist authoritarianism, but what I invite us to take back home with us is this: 

The next chapter is being written right now. And it is being written by us. 

It is easy for us to wonder whether our contributions could meet this moment. 

You might be sitting there, like me, saying, “This week alone was exhausting enough” [laughter]

But I mean it when I say each of us has a role to play – because protecting democracy does take bold action at pivotal moments; but it also demands consistent, dutiful, ongoing activities by everyday people who can hold our society together. 

To support that effort, Protect Democracy is partnering with Interfaith America on a playbook on how U.S. religious organizations can take action during the 2024 election. [Holds up a palm card with a website on it] If I have seen you this week, I have given you one of these. I don’t want to take them back to the airport. So if you see me after, please take one of these and sign up for this project. Or go to interfaith america dot org, that is interfaith america dot org. 

I’d like to close where I began – with my conversation with Bishop Barber. There are still many big issues on which he and I might disagree. I have been to enough events this week to know that there are many ways that many of us continue to disagree.

In democracies, we can have those disagreements. We can fight for what we believe in, and operate within the system to compete for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. But if we lose that ability, we lose everything. [Light applause]

Every freedom that we enjoy – including our religious freedom – rests upon the foundation of free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. Our ability to advocate for issues that we care about rests on the existence of pluralism and democracy. Even our ability to practice our faith without coercion or punishment is a fundamental freedom protected by democratic values and the rule of law. 

We cannot take that for granted. No matter where we started, no matter how far apart we seem sometimes, we must find a way to come together. We must find a way to march forward together.

It’s been a blessing to be with you this week. Thank you.

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