[Editor’s Note: Chris Crawford is a senior associate at Democracy Fund, a private foundation that champions organizations and advocates working toward an open and just democracy in the United States. He leads their Faith in Democracy portfolio that empowers faith leaders and their communities to promote pluralism and ensure more inclusive policy making processes. He previously worked at Susan B. Anthony List and their affiliated Super PAC, Women Speak Out PAC. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Catholics, voting rights, and the 2020 elections.]
Camosy: You now work at Democracy Fund, a private secular foundation that is not religious, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But you spent the first part of your career working on pro-life politics. What has the change been like going from a pro-life political organization to working at a foundation that is focused on democracy more broadly?
Crawford: I joined Democracy Fund back in 2015 because I believed that polarization and partisanship were preventing us from solving many of the challenges that we face. If we do not have functioning political institutions, we cannot make progress on any of the major issues facing our country.
The current focus of my work is promoting pluralism: The notion that everyone belongs, that differences make us stronger, and that public policy should serve the country as a whole.
My experience in the pro-life movement has helped me empower people to work across differences while also respecting each other’s deeply held beliefs. If we want to support a robust vision of pluralism, we cannot try to minimize our differences of opinion or downplay issues that are polarizing. We need to figure out how to learn about these differences, to engage across them, and find ways to work together toward the common good. We can’t ask people to check their values at the door in order to engage in our policymaking processes.
Again, Democracy Fund is not a religious foundation. But you managed to create a “Faith in Democracy” portfolio with them. On what is that focused? Why did you want to go in this direction?
The creation of the Faith in Democracy portfolio is an example of my favorite part about working in philanthropy: I am required to constantly be in a learning posture, and to frequently learn ways that I am wrong in order to improve our funding strategies.
In 2017, we did a listening tour of diverse faith leaders about how we could effectively engage faith communities in our work. My inclination was that we would need to work on a level that was very removed from some of the most challenging areas of faith-based engagement in politics; that we would only be able to operate as an interfaith convener. We quickly learned that in addition to important interfaith efforts, funders need to support leaders within their own denominations to champion pluralism and combat polarization in a credible way. This was the area where we could have the most impact.
We heard that faith communities wanted an opportunity to engage beyond “rent a collar” activism in which nonreligious organizations use faith leaders as a means to an end. They were often concerned about the instrumentalization of faith for partisan, political ends. We try to support faith leaders, promote pluralism, build bridges across differences, and create more inclusive policymaking processes.
We have been proud of the work that we have conducted alongside our partners at The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, which Crux has covered extensively. They are one of the best examples of an initiative that features authentic faith voices from their tradition with a focus on serving our democracy and the common good.
As Catholics think about the 2020 elections, we often focus on issues: abortion, religious freedom, immigration, climate change, education, etc. This year, the administration of the election itself is getting much more attention. How should Catholics be thinking about the election itself? How do our normal discernment processes inform the way we think about things like mail-in voting, early voting, and safe polling locations?
One of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching is participation: “We believe people have a right and duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” In our constitutional republic, voting is a foundational component of participation. To ensure participation in this election, we need voting systems that protect each individual’s right to vote while also protecting their health and safety.
There are five ways that I think Catholics from across the political spectrum can support our democracy this November:
Because 58 percent of poll workers are over the age of 60, we are facing a shortage of election workers. Catholic young adult ministries can play a crucial role in encouraging young, healthy Catholics to sign up to work at their polling location on Election Day.
Catholics can protect vulnerable people from having to vote in person by advocating for including COVID-19 as an “excuse” for absentee voting — or not requiring excuses at all.
Churches can “feed the hungry” in a new way by supporting organizations like Pizza to the Polls who provide food to people who are waiting in long lines at polling locations.
Churches can be a source of truth in their community, providing nonpartisan resources to their flock to find out how, where, and when to vote.
Our parish leaders can contact election officials to offer our churches as additional polling locations to help with social distancing.
The USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship mentions voting rights just one time in the Faithful Citizenship document. Should this issue be a priority for Catholics?
It should absolutely be a priority for Catholics. The USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship says that our society should take “vigorous action” to “[protect] voting rights.”
The document repeatedly calls on Catholics to oppose racism. It states that the wound of racism “continues to fester,” and that racism of any form is an assault on human dignity.
Racism is not just a problem of sin; it is a systemic problem. We must certainly “open wide our hearts,” and we must also open up our political processes to include every eligible American.
As Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner wrote in Sojourners earlier this year: “any strategy that would negate people’s votes because of the color of their skin is not just a partisan tactic, but rather a denial of their Imago Dei.”
In this pandemic, we will face even more challenges than intentional voter suppression; we may have brothers and sisters who feel as though they have to choose between their health and their vote. I think back to processing donations as an intern at Susan B. Anthony List. I would see the unsteady handwriting that looked similar to my grandmother’s, on checks for three or four dollars – and they would apologize that they could not give more. These women so believed in their ability to make changes through our political system that they would send us whatever was left at the end of each month. These are the people most at risk of dying from COVID-19. They shouldn’t have to put their health at risk to vote. In this same spirit of community, we must now push our political leaders to preserve voting options so each person can choose the method that is best suited to the safety of the individual and their community.
Last week you shared a new report from the National Task Force on Election Crises. This report outlined the lessons learned from the 2020 primaries, and how safer, smoother elections can take place this fall. There are a number of potential crises outlined in that report. What keeps you up at night as we get closer to Election Day?
I have no doubt in the ability of election officials across America to put together a smooth, safe, accessible election. What keeps me up at night is the prospect of candidates or other leaders trying to spread disinformation about the process of voting or sowing doubt about the final results.
This will be a unique election. It will require clear, consistent, accurate communication from our leaders before the election and after it. We likely will not know the results of the election on Election Night; the pandemic will require more time to count the votes. There will be opportunities for leaders to use that time period to push conspiracy theories and create dysfunction.
Religious leaders play an important role in promoting truth and the common good in their communities, and they will play a crucial role in this crisis scenario. I think Bishops, priests, religious sisters, and lay leaders should take their roles as community leaders seriously if a crisis arises. In addition to speaking out on the policy issues that matter to us, they need to speak out in support of voting access and against attempts to undermine the election. Preserving the integrity of our elections is not “political”, it is the bare minimum required to protect the freedoms – including religious freedom – our political system provides.