HOUSTON—If “all politics is local” why do so few citizens participate in the arena with one of the greatest influences over their daily lives? That quote by U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, a democrat from Massachusetts, still holds true more than 20 years after his death.
A few years ago a disparate band of pastors, reverends, priests and their congregants in San Antonio put aside their cultural and political differences to express dissatisfaction with the mayor and city council. Two mayoral elections later, their unity effected a historic election and sparked a recommitment to Christian civic engagement.
And they are not resting on their laurels. Although voter participation for the May 9 general election rose 5 percent over the 2013 turnout, it only bumped turnout percentages into the double digits. Of the 692,349 registered voters in San Antonio, only 12.43 percent cast a ballot.
“It is not only their civic duty, it is their biblical duty,” said Charles Flowers, pastor of Faith Outreach in San Antonio. “It is just part of what you do as a citizen of the kingdom of God.”
The Cost of Ambivalence
San Antonio is not alone. In the 2012 presidential election, 58.58 percent of registered voters statewide cast a ballot. And a review of voter participation for the last three mayoral elections in major Texas cities reveals abysmally low voter participation. Mayoral elections got little more than a nod with turnout ranging from 6.73 to 19.12 percent in San Antonio, Houston, Lubbock and Dallas. The only anomaly was in the state’s capital where 10.6 to 33.8 percent voted. (See chart for details.)
These facts frustrate Cindy Asmussen, advisor to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee (TERLC). She was quick to remind that local and state governments produce the most laws and regulations impacting people’s lives. Without significant Christian influence those laws will be drafted, approved and enforced with little to no regard for biblical truth. Ultimately, Christians will increasingly find themselves in disagreement with the statutes,
Steve Branson, pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio, admitted that until recently he rarely engaged in local politics beyond the voting booth. But as church members began experiencing personal and workplace conflicts because of their Christian faith, the pastor was compelled to act on their behalf.
About that same time, Flowers was disturbed by the mayor and council’s liberal push. In violation of Texas law, they introduced a measure in 2011 providing health benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. Despite opposition, the measure passed.
In 2013, Julian Castro was re-elected as mayor with only 7.25 percent of the city’s registered voters casting a ballot. In a city of 1.4 million people, 29,454 secured Castro’s third term.
The repercussions of voter apathy, particularly among Christians, took a toll.
Castro introduced San Antonio’s version of a Non-Discrimination Ordinance (NDO), which established civil rights status for individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Failure to comply will result in fines for individuals and loss of city contracts for businesses.
Church leaders recognized the threat it posed to their members and the churches themselves. This was a battle they could not avoid. To do so, Flowers said, would inevitably impact the spread of the gospel.
“Christians and churches ought to have a view of stewardship when it comes to our communities, state and nation,” said Asmussen. “It seems that so many want to run away from it, but God wants us to speak life and light into the darkness and be that prophetic voice.”
Loosely knit faith-based organizations had struggled to be that voice in the Alamo City. But, with the introduction of the NDO, it was obvious most city leaders were not listening. Contributing to the lack of influence, churches rarely cooperated to exert political influence.
Joe Caddell, a semi-retired businessman and Christian political activist, was exasperated. He observed that political liberals often unite around a common cause in spite of unrelated differences, yet Christian churches had not become a force to be reckoned with.
Recent battles with City Hall are shifting that paradigm, Caddell said, at least in San Antonio. Church leaders roused overwhelming public opposition to the Non-Discrimination Ordinance, but it passed by an 8-3 vote. A referendum effort failed due to the burdensome signatory requirements of the city charter.
Castro’s re-election made passage of the ordinance a foregone conclusion, “We needed to regroup and press forward to see that we had a godly candidate in office,” Flowers said, citing Prov. 29:2.
Branson saw the silver lining. “I thank Castro. He united the church in San Antonio in ways that it had never been.”
Getting Past the ‘D’ Word
Effecting change at City Hall required church leaders set aside preconceived notions of what it means to be Democrat, Republican, Protestant, Catholic, Charismatic, black, white or Hispanic.
Prayer meetings, strategy sessions and discussions with the candidates brought to the forefront their common faith and concerns. Ultimately, those voters sought a mayoral candidate who shared their biblical worldview.
Candidate Ivy Taylor, one of three council members to vote against the NDO, made the grade. Her experience in city government combined with her Christian faith made her a candidate the coalition could support.
Although city officials do not campaign under the flag of a political party, their affiliation is no secret. And Taylor was a Democrat, a fact some Republican evangelicals had to look past before seeing the common faith and ideology they shared, Branson said.
Church unity turned the tide in the 2015 mayoral race as a well-funded political machine was defeated with the election of Taylor, San Antonio’s first African-American mayor. And, especially unusual, more people voted in the June run-off than the in general election.
Having the Mayor’s Ear
Church leaders communicated to all 2,160 churches within San Antonio that there was a candidate they could back. The faith-based Black Robe Regiment created a voters’ guide for distribution in the churches. Pastors invited Taylor to attend Sunday services and hosted candidate forums. Meanwhile, pastors and leaders of several faith-based organizations met regularly to discuss strategy and to pray.
Taylor began participating in prayer meetings at churches around the city.
“There was no politicking,” Flowers said. “She led the city in prayer. She was genuinely wanting to seek God for the city.”
Branson said evidence that the cultural and political divide between Christians was crumbling came when Taylor, an east side black Democrat, was asked to speak and pray at a south side evangelical Hispanic church. That, Branson said, would have been unheard of only a few years ago.
Taylor was outspent 7 to 1 and thrashed in the media by run-off opponent Leticia Van De Putte, a veteran San Antonio politician, but Taylor prevailed in the run-off, doubling her vote count in all but two precincts.
“It was because the church showed up,” said Flowers. “They lifted the Democrat template off of her and saw her as a Christian. It created a surge that the political machine could not overcome.”
Branson warned that if Christians put off by the Democrat affiliation had not voted they would have ensured the election of another pro-choice, pro-LGBT, same-sex marriage advocate mayor. And although he may not agree with everything the Taylor administration does, he knows he has her ear and the church has a seat at the mayor’s table.
Going forward, the coalition is eyeing the 2016 elections ensuring candidates vying for local and statewide office pass the same litmus test as Taylor, identifying their stands on matters of life, marriage, and the poor. And in some races that will require a more in-depth analysis of the candidates’ positions. As the mayor’s race revealed, party affiliation is not an ideological rubber stamp.
“It’s not enough anymore to assume that someone who runs as a conservative, and even claims to be a Christian, is going to govern in a right manner regarding these issues,” warned Asmussen.
To be direct, Caddell said the coalition will seek to oust Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, whom conservatives accuse of using his powerful position as Texas Speaker of the House to stymie socially conservative legislation.
Caddell said San Antonio’s bitter experience created a ground swell of like-minded people wanting to work together. Faith-based, civic-minded organizations are stronger, and new ones have emerged. And other Texas cities are asking San Antonio’s Christian leadership for advice.
Branson saw God use leaders of many denominations advance a common good for his glory and the good of San Antonio. He admonishes church leadership across the state to act on behalf of their congregations and their cities.
Flowers, citing the apostle Paul, admonished church leaders to preach the whole counsel of God which calls people to salvation and moral duty. Avoiding conflict inside and outside the church is not an option.
“Politics, entertainment, money, charity…We need to speak to all of it,” he said. “There is a growing hunger for the things of God in our country.”