With elections one year away, Office of Government Relations prepares to launch civic engagement initiatives

By Egan Millard
Posted Nov 7, 2019
U.S. Capitol exterior

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations is preparing for a contentious election season. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Nov. 3 marked the one-year countdown to the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, and The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations is gearing up for a year that’s expected to see even more vitriol in public discourse than the rancorous 2016 election brought. And as debates over the church’s role in politics have intensified, so have OGR’s efforts to facilitate civil, respectful discussions about political issues across partisan boundaries.

The Office of Government Relations, based in Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the Capitol and the Supreme Court, exists to advocate for policy positions based on General Convention and Executive Council resolutions. It also educates and engages Episcopalians on those policy positions through the Episcopal Public Policy Network, which sends out action alerts for those looking for opportunities to get involved.

Over the past few years, OGR has been busy in the halls of Congress representing the church’s positions on a wide variety of specific issues, from refugee resettlement to drilling in the Arctic to gerrymandering to gun control and many more. As the election approaches, it’s focusing on ways that people can engage with these issues in a productive way, cast informed votes and ensure fair representation in Congress.

In addition to its usual advocacy work, OGR is “kicking off a civic engagement initiative that we’re breaking down into three parts,” said Alan Yarborough, OGR’s church relations officer.

The first part focuses on the 2020 Census, which will take place in the spring. The Episcopal Church is an official partner of the Census, which means OGR is working directly with the U.S. Census Bureau “to encourage people to take the census because we want the count to be as accurate as possible,” Yarborough told Episcopal News Service.

Census data is used to determine how government funds and services are distributed, so an accurate census count is necessary to ensure fair representation in government.

“The U.S. Census has profound impacts on not just our electoral system, but also how over 100 federal programs, and many other state and local initiatives, allocate funding and other resources to best serve the population,” Yarborough explained. And frequently, the groups needing those resources most are the hardest to count.

“Evidence shows that faith-based communities often have some of the closest connections to communities that are hard to count,” Yarborough said, which is why the Census Bureau is working with The Episcopal Church and other religious groups to spread the word. Within the next few weeks, OGR will start releasing an educational series on the census, explaining why it’s important and how it will work.

The second part is election engagement, which has long been a component of OGR’s work. This includes resources like the Vote Faithfully Toolkit, a guide for congregations that covers registering voters, getting voters to the polls and advocating for voting rights. It’s not a primer on specific issues or candidates, and OGR emphasizes that it is an entirely nonpartisan endeavor. The IRS prohibits churches and other nonprofit organizations from campaigning for or against particular candidates. However, churches are allowed to involve their members in advocating for policies they support, and to help them get registered to vote.

“The U.S. election is a chance to participate in our democratic process to elect officials that reflect the values we want our society to hold,” Yarborough told ENS.

The toolkit also offers liturgical resources that can be incorporated into a service to remind people of the moral importance of voting and allow for prayerful consideration of the topics at hand. The 2020 version of the Vote Faithfully Toolkit will also be released within the next few weeks, Yarborough said.

The third part is a new and expanded multi-week curriculum on civil discourse. Last year, recognizing how difficult it has become to have a political discussion in good faith with someone who holds different views, OGR developed a five-week group workshop that creates a framework for productive dialogue. Grounded in prayer and Scripture, the curriculum establishes an environment of mutual respect and guides participants through political discussions in ways that foster learning and understanding, rather than the kind of divisive, emotional arguments that have become more common.

“Civil discourse is a key component of our engagement in 2020. We want to equip Episcopalians, and all people, to be able to engage across political differences, especially with our fellow parishioners and community members,” Yarborough said. “We hope that the civil discourse curriculum can help Episcopalians to listen, to be aware of how their own messages are heard, and to allow us all to enrich our own thinking about different political perspectives and policy proposals.”

In OGR’s dealings with politicians, the response to its civil discourse efforts has been encouraging.

“The Office of Government Relations is well placed in the church to help us to speak across political difference,” the Rev. C.K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, told ENS. “In our meetings with legislators and policymakers in Washington, we have heard and seen the need for civil discourse. And we know that need extends across the country where many of our parishes and communities are already engaged in this crucial work.”

The new civil discourse curriculum will be an expanded version of last year’s, plus a few advanced sections, such as a training for facilitators. There will also be a video version and an online platform that allows individuals to take the course on their own, rather than as part of a parish group.

Although part of the idea behind the civil discourse curriculum is that it’s a framework that people of all political persuasions can unite behind, there has been some pushback on the concept of “civility” itself. On social media, some Episcopalians have reacted negatively, arguing that calls for civility are not an effective way to respond to an administration and political movement that embrace lies and white supremacist ideology and make threats of civil war.

Yarborough says he understands that view but draws a distinction between civil discourse and the mere idea of civility.

“We focus on civil discourse because it is useful when we are already in – or want to be in – conversation with our neighbors. It doesn’t apply in all circumstances, and it doesn’t mean we stop advocating for justice in all the ways we can. Civil discourse is a tool, and like any tool, it’s appropriate for certain applications. It’s not a prescription for solving any and every disagreement or injustice, but it is useful for leveraging our diversity in thought, perspective and identity to give us the best shot at solving problems in our society.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.