Whatever discouraging things are happening on the national political scene, pro-family groups have taken heart from their vast and ongoing gains at the state level. You read the stories in practically every issue of Citizen: Family policy councils (FPCs) allied with Focus on the Family have helped enact dozens of pro-life, pro-family, pro-freedom measures into law.
But in some states, they have a tougher time than others. Specifically, states where Democrats have long dominated the legislature—and where Republicans
either tend to steer clear of “the social issues” or are effectively hamstrung when they try to engage them.
“Things are so one-sided here that even the solid pro-family representatives we do have get very little intel to work with,” says Massachusetts Family Institute President Andrew Beckwith. “Hearings are scheduled with very little notice for our side. The other side has been given time to charter buses, print up T-shirts, the whole thing. We might get 24 hours notice.
“I got a phone call the other day from a Boston Globe reporter that the bathroom bill had been amended and is coming out of committee. We have a member who’s very committed to the fight (against the bill) and sits on the committee, and that was news to him. There’s no professional courtesy here: It’s one-party rule.”
And what happens in blue states doesn’t stay in those states.
“Our state is a laboratory—a petri dish for the cultural Left to try radical social experiments,” explains Family Institute of Connecticut Executive Director Peter Wolfgang. “If they succeed here, it’s easier to spread it to the rest of the country. If we stop them here, then they’ll think twice about spending their money elsewhere.
“We’re the front line of defense. If we stop the crazy stuff here, it may never get to your red state.”
But how does an FPC stop “the crazy stuff”—much less promote the good stuff—when the partisan playing field is so slanted?
“I like to sum up our dilemma this way: ‘What do you do when your state is blue?’ ” says Delaware Family Policy Council President Nicole Theis (pronounced Tice). “That’s the challenge we face every day.”
Here’s how FPCs meeting those challenges.
Finding Common Ground
Back in 1961, Elvis Presley starred in a movie called Blue Hawaii. Today, that title takes on a whole new meaning in the Aloha State: Democrats outnumber Republicans 44-7 in the House and 24-1 in the Senate.
“We’re always on the defensive; we’re constantly swimming upstream,” says Hawaii Family Forum Executive Director Eva Andrade. “So we strive to find common ground with people we don’t agree with on many issues: We work together on things like promoting adoption, parental involvement in education, fighting domestic violence, protecting children from sexual exploitation. We’ve been very successful in those areas.”
Hawaii’s biggest pro-family success story, however, has been blocking physician-assisted suicide, year in and year out, for more than a decade. It’s the result of an alliance between the medical community, disability-rights activists, churches and pro-life groups, who in 1998 formed a coalition called the Hawaii Partnership for Appropriate and Compassionate Care. It’s also, Andrade says, the result of taking the time to listen to people with different views.
“This February, we sat down with some legislators who supported assisted suicide to find out where they were coming from,” she says. “They talk about people in their family or constituency who were suffering needless pain. They couldn’t understand why they were having such horrible experiences at the end of their lives.”
So Andrade and co. asked a simple question: Why weren’t these people getting the pain medication and care they needed? Would the legislators support an approach that sought not to end lives, but to control pain?
“They said, ‘Absolutely. If you could get us language that would promote better end-of-life care, then we would introduce that bill and put our names on it.’ So we did.”
That bill didn’t make it through the legislature due to time considerations in the closing days of the session: It required input from a large number of the organizations it would affect, many of them medical. But an assisted- suicide bill was stopped, and the groundwork laid for a more constructive approach next year—as well as for
a more constructive relationship with elected officials going forward.
“We heard that many legislators who’d watched loved ones suffer in the hospital really appreciated that we could have this discussion on a heart-wrenching issue,” Andrade says. “They felt it was more positive to have this discussion than to take the ‘quick and easy’ approach of just handing someone pills at the end of their life.”
Although finding common ground on one issue doesn’t automatically lead to a meeting of minds across the board, Andrade believes it’s important to build relationships with a wide range of people.
“When I’m at the Capitol, I make a point of going up to people who don’t agree with us on many issues and just talking about life,” she says. “I try to get to know them by name, find out where they’re from, where they graduated from high school—here in Hawaii, that last one’s a big thing. You make that connection, and after that, even if it’s just a smile and a nod in the hall, it’s very difficult for them to paint you as one of those crazy right-wing fanatics.”
Other FPC leaders will testify to that. Assisted-
suicide bills have been introduced but stalled in several blue states recently, passing only in California. And as in Hawaii, they were stopped by coalitions that included pro-family groups, but weren’t limited to them.
“In Connecticut, we formed a very unusual alliance with left-leaning disability- rights activists”—many of whom favor abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Wolfgang says. “I’ve been up at the state Capitol testifying side-by-side with disability-rights activists with gay-rights rainbow flags attached to their wheelchairs.
“We made for some odd couples. But we formed a good partnership with mutual respect for each other, based on the understanding that assisted suicide is bad policy that puts vulnerable populations at risk. You have to go to the Capitol with allies that they’d never expect. That’s how you get things done in a blue state.”
Also as in Hawaii, some FPCs find that broadening the range of issues they address can help them make progress with some of their core issues.
“We’ve expanded our agenda beyond life and religious liberty, creating occasion to work with lawmakers who aren’t normally with us,” says Carroll Conley, executive director of Christian Civic League of Maine. Two years ago, that included support for a bill authorizing dental therapists—the equivalent of physicians’ assistants—to provide certain routine types of care. The measure was opposed by dental lobbies and some Republicans.
“We went against some of our strongest allies, but it gave us great credibility with the other side of the aisle,” Conley says. “They could see I’m not a rubber stamp or an arm of the Republican Party.”
Although Conley knows the risks of “mission creep”—expanding his group’s range too far, at the expense of its main priorities—the respect he’s earned across the aisle has helped with those priorities. For example, he cites his relationship with a Democratic legislator as the key to passing a law in April that aided Safe Families, a faith-based alternative to the foster-care system, by providing certain legal protections to participating parents.
“This legislator tweaked and steered the bill through obstacles in committee and sent it on to overwhelming floor passage in both chambers,” Conley says. “That’s the type of relationship we see that can eventually break down partisan walls on other common-sense, common-ground issues, like parental consent or safety and licensing of abortion (facilities).”
‘We Discovered One Another’
As important as it is for FPCs work with lawmakers across the usual ideological lines, it’s at least as important for them to work with churches across ethnic and denominational lines.
“We build alliances wherever we can,” Wolfgang says. “On the marriage issue, we built an alliance not just with Catholics and evangelicals, but with African-
American and Latino inner-city churches, many of whose members lean Democrat in their votes, but are conservative on values questions. They all stood strong with us on the traditional definition of marriage.”
That alliance fended off legislative efforts to recognize same-sex marriage for eight years, from 2001 to 2008, until the definition of marriage was overthrown in 2008 by a 4-3 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling. And though the battle was lost, an army had been built to fight others in the future.
“We gathered 100,000 signatures for the defense of marriage, and got 6,000 people to rally for it on a freezing day in 2004—the second-biggest rally in state history,” Wolfgang says. “We discovered one another. There are lots of people in Connecticut who didn’t know anyone else shared their beliefs until we all came together in a coordinated fashion. Now we know we’re not alone.”
To any evangelicals who might find multi-ethnic church alliances out of their comfort zone, FPC leaders have an encouraging message: You don’t know what you’re missing.
“In Massachusetts, I’ve had some Latino churches that were just on fire call me and say, ‘We’re going to the statehouse to lobby against the bathroom bill. Will you come and help us?’ ” Beckwith says. “I just about fell out of my chair. Often we have to beg pastors just to send an email to public officials and speak up on an issue. But these people were already going in person, on their own initiative.”
That’s a spirit Beckwith would love to spread to more churches in his state.
“The Catholic Church fought very hard and effectively on assisted suicide, which we stopped in a referendum in 2012,” he says. “But many churches have bought into the idea that talking about abortion or same-sex marriage or transgenderism is ‘political,’ so they shouldn’t do it.”
Beckwith and his team are working to change that attitude. They’ve developed a 10-week Sunday School curriculum called Engage the Bay State, consisting of videos and a Bible study focused on public-policy involvement, tailored to issues in Massachusetts.
“Our intention is to preach to the choir, because many of them aren’t getting it from the pulpit,” Beckwith says. “This gives people a safe place at church to talk about these issues, learn about them, and give them the tools to make a difference in the public arena—calling their representatives, writing to the governor, writing letters to the paper, all of that.”
The Missionary Mindset
Nicole Theis is all on board with training the church. In Delaware, she says, that’s job one.
“As an FPC leader in a state like this, you have to accept that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “People who are (political) campaign-minded tend to be really good in sprints, but for real change to happen, it takes a different mindset—the mindset of missionaries. Our situation could take generations to change.”
So she’s getting down to business. Delaware Family Policy Council hosts an annual Pastors and Leaders Summit to equip, encourage, support and build networks among the state’s spiritual leaders. “We consistently have 700 pastors and leaders every year,” Theis says. “If we can do that in a state the size of Delaware, then we’re onto something. It’s an invitation-only event where leaders identify other leaders. We tell them, ‘Don’t bring seat warmers. Bring influencers.’ ”
And Theis wants to build up influencers in the next generation. Her FPC partners with the Texas-based Torch of Freedom Foundation to put on Patriot Academy, an annual three-day bootcamp in leadership for students ages 16-25 held in state capitals across the country. The FPC also is forging relationships with Christian schools in the state as well as with Christian students and educators in public schools.
“We haven’t been preparing the next generation for the kind of hostile climate that we’re releasing them into,” Theis says. “We want to change that. Christian education is an area where FPCs can make a significant impact. We can teach young people how to make a difference in their generation. We know the issues, we know the battlefront, and we know the kind of courage it will take to stand. We’re offering solutions and seeing explosive growth.
“Throughout history, God has always used a remnant of obedient people. We’re looking to find that remnant in Delaware and bring them together. It’s happening, and in time it will make all the difference.”
Beckwith sees signs that the missionary mindset is making its way into Christians in the Northeast. “There’s a lot of church-planting going on under the radar in Massachusetts and in New England as a whole,” he says. “That’s encouraging: People are coming to look at it as a mission field.”
Conley tries to maintain that attitude in his work, even when he’s in sometimes-intense conflict with lobbyists on the other side of an issue. “Every one of those people has a soul that’s going to spend eternity somewhere,” he says. “If I forget that, then I’ve lost sight of what counts the most.”
And Wolfgang says this long-term thinking—very long-term thinking—sustains him in the face of any political or cultural setbacks.
“Our hope is in Him,” he says. “As long as we stay grounded in that, nothing that happens in the legislature will ever permanently harm our morale.
“We know there are no permanent victories or defeats here in the temporal world. What matters is our eternal destination.”
Originally published in the August 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.