Faith communities aiming to change the world ought to pay attention to how streetwise people are doing it. For instance, look at three reasons the Democrats did so well in the recent 2008 elections. Then consider how they apply to us.
After the Democrats’ debacles in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, party leadership became more streetwise by listening to Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff. He told Democrats that no matter how much they presented the facts about having values and believing in God, most of the electorate imagined them as anti-both. Lakoff said Democrats were “under the illusion that if only people understood the facts, we’d be fine. Wrong. The facts alone will not set us free. People make decisions about politics and candidates based on their value system, and the language and frames that invoke those values.”1 The Dems’ first streetwise move was to reframe their message.
You might have noticed that Barack Obama published two books framed in the language of faith and family values. This played a part in the number of “values voters” who switched parties. A frame is a way of “changing the way the public sees the world,” writes Lakoff. “It is changing what counts as common sense.”2 Faith communities ought to pay attention, since the gospel no longer counts as “common sense” for many Americans. The solution is reframing the message with new language and images, rather than continuing to rely on our typical fact-based approach to faith. We’re too often guilty of believing that if only people understand the facts about our faith, we’ll be fine. Wrong.
The second streetwise move came right out of the Republican’s playbook. After the Republican debacle in the 1964 election, party leaders developed an overlapping network of academics, translators, and practitioners. Academics such as William F. Buckley Jr. provided the intellectual horsepower. Institutions like the Heritage Foundation translated research for practitioners like Ronald Reagan, who changed the game for the Republicans in the 1980 election.
The Democrats have been playing catch up, launching academic institutes such as the Democratic Leadership Council in the mid-1980s. They’ve become savvier at translating than the Republicans, disseminating their ideas through institutes and the Internet. The Wall Street Journal reported how, in September 2008, left-leaning political web sites finally overtook traffic at right-leaning competitors. Of course, there were other issues in the 2008 election including the war, the economy, and the fact that McCain was inextricably linked to President Bush. But polls indicated that the Democrats’ new networks of academics, translators, and practitioners won more “values” and evangelical voters. Faith communities ought to pay attention to this model, since it provides practitioners (think people of faith who are in business, education, the arts, etc.) with a muscular network (think academics and translators) to change the world. Too often, we imagine faith will flourish in the public square without these networks. Wrong.
The third streetwise move was to adequately fund academic and translator institutes. For years, Republican think tanks had been beating the Dems by getting large block grants and endowments. “Millions at a time,” writes Lakoff. “They are very well funded. The smallest effective think tanks have budgets of four to seven million dollars a year. Those are the small operations. The large ones have up to thirty million dollars a year. Furthermore, they know that they are going to get the money the next year, and the year after that.”3 The Democrats have finally caught up, pouring serious money into institutions, endowing professorships, and capitalizing think tanks.
Faith communities ought to pay attention, since we tend to fund “pins on the map” – missionaries represented as pins in places on the planet – in the belief that overwhelming numbers will change the world. Wrong. Changing the world is not measured by the number of pins on a map, but by the extent to which our definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the wider world. This isn’t happening today in most places, and making it happen would require serious money to fund serious academic and translator institutes. If you want to see how funding this kind of network changes the world, look no further than Friedrich Nietzsche.
Friedrich Nietzsche was an academic who announced the death of God in 1882. But his profound influence came posthumously. It began with a network of translators, including Ernest Theil, who translated many of Nietzsche’s books so that they gained political capital among practitioners, including the Nazis. Theil was also a wealthy Swiss banker who provided financial capital to the network along with the German Count Kessler. In 1908, Theil granted a huge endowment to the Nietzsche archives that allowed Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth to further translate and disseminate his writings on a massive scale. The rest is, as they say, history. Just ask six million Jews. Or ask Jesus.
Jesus lamented that “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way” (Luke 16:8).4 If streetwise politicians recognize the wisdom of reframing, networks, and funding, why aren’t faith communities as astute? Maybe we’ve forgotten that Jesus urged us to be street smart.
1 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004), Page xiii.
2 Lakoff, Elephant, xv.
3 Lakoff, Elephant, p. 27.
4 Adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.