Speech: Religion and the Art of Persuading Legislators by Dan Avila

Subject: Text of Recent Remarks on “Religion and the Art of Persuading Legislators” Given to Gathering of Young People at the Massachusetts Capitol

Religion and the Art of Persuading Legislators

Daniel Avila

Remarks given to an audience of young persons attending the “Day on the Hill” event sponsored by MassFuture, held in the Great Hall of the Massachusetts Capitol, in Boston MA on July 14, 2009.

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Among all of the constitutions in operation today around the world, the Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest, older than even our national Constitution and predating every other current constitution of any other country. It was drafted by John Adams and adopted over two centuries ago in 1780. The degree to which government and God are intertwined in this document’s original form is remarkable.

The State Constitution’s initial three paragraphs, called the preamble, give a summary. The first paragraph states that good government provides the means for a people to enjoy “their natural rights and the blessings of life.” The second paragraph explains that a constitution should ensure that the people are governed “by certain laws for the common good.” The third paragraph acknowledges “the goodness of the great Legislator of the Universe” and asks for “His direction” in creating and operating a new form of government in Massachusetts.

So right at the very beginning of our State Constitution, just after the purpose of government is summarized, God is acknowledged, thanked, and sent a prayer for more help.

The next several provisions in our State Constitution, called the Declaration of Rights, spell out the rights of the citizens and the duties of their government. Article I affirms that all people have “certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights,” including “the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.”

Then John Adams refers again to God and government.

In Article II of the Declaration of Rights, Adams asserts that it is everyone’s duty “to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe,” and, that it is thus the government’s duty to protect religious liberty. Article III emphasizes that the preservation of civil society requires good morals, and observes that “the knowledge and belief of the being of God, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment, [are] the only true foundation of morality.”

This wonderful profession of faith remains in our State Constitution but sadly has become forgotten.

Over the two hundred and twenty nine years since these words were written, ratified and put to work, much has changed in the relation between God and government in the Commonwealth. For example, as a result of bad constitutional alterations and court misinterpretations, nowadays not one dollar of your parents’ tax bill can be used to support religious schools, while millions of tax dollars are used to pay for abortion.

You are being trained today in the fine art of citizen action in the public policy arena, learning to be maestros of persuasion and creative agents of the common good. You are young, and you are faithful. In the face of a very skeptical political culture, where religion and morality are often viewed as diseases, how do you respond in a way that is effective? Let me offer three suggestions.  

First, don’t apologize for having faith.  It is not an illness.  Faith helps you see the deeper realities, one of which is that, based on the belief that we are all one people under God, we are convinced that we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our party, our home address or our conception date.  This religious ability to see beyond the clouds helps people of faith to grasp the kinds of reality that build strong societies.

So faith tells us that every human being is loved by God and thus deserves our respect.  No society can survive without this capacity of religion to transcend divisions, an ability that is based on the God-given conviction that somewhere underneath all the appearances of another person’s differences, there is a child of God equal in dignity.

The word religion comes from a Latin term that means “binding back together again.”  Thus religion offers the best resources for strengthening the community.  Don’t take on the guilt that really belongs to those who misuse religion as an excuse to disrupt the community through violence and injury.

So be proud in your faith, not out of some warped sense of superiority, but out of humble gratitude for all with which God has blessed you.

Second, be ready to suffer in a way that does not inflict suffering on your part. That is, practice patience when you come into the halls of government in a way that heals, and that brings people closer together. This doesn’t mean to hide your differences with people who disagree, Truth requires honesty. One cannot come to know the truth if those who already know it don’t share it.

Nor does this mean that you have to put aside the tools that are available to influence public policy. Grassroots pressure is not a bad thing. But it must be applied in a way that shows you respect officeholders, at the same time you rightly expect them to live up to their oath of office and their special calling as public servants.

 

Thus you have to be ready to explain to officeholders the position you have staked out on an issue, such as abortion or same-sex marriage, but you must do so in a calm way that makes the listener aware of your respect for his or her freedom. That is, speak the truth in love. For in the end, God has reserved rooms in everyone’s heart for truth, and truth only will stay in the heart if it is invited in, and not forced in.

Sometimes this attitude of not forcing the truth to enter into the heart of another will mean suffering on your part because the person you are trying to persuade will not play by the same rules.

Third, know that God’s truths, because they are true, can be transmitted in many different languages beyond the biblical. For instance, we can tell others that killing is wrong because God gave us a commandment not to kill. But the same truth can be communicated in other ways that do not require the listener to agree that the Bible is divinely inspired and therefore must be obeyed.

I’m not saying here that you should be ashamed of biblical teaching or that you should never cite the Bible out of fear. Just realize that all too often some people in the public policy arena think that they know the Bible better than you do, or that others may care little about what the Bible says. The Holy Spirit will guide you in choosing the language that your audience will most appreciate.

So truth has the capacity to be appreciated even if expressed in secular terms.

To take advantage of this facility of truth requires an attitude on your part of inquisitiveness. Be really nosy about what makes other people think the way they do. Ask questions, do research, and become familiar with the kinds of reasoning and the types of reasons that move other people to take the positions they do.  

To be an effective advocate, you must prepare yourself to know even more completely than your opponents the position that your opponents take on an issue. Only then will you be able to discern the best way to respond.

To sum up so far, three attitudes that will help you when you attempt to influence public policy are, first, be proud but humble about your faith, second, be patient, and third, get really good at translating truths into language that your listeners can understand and appreciate in order to communicate more effectively and persuasively.

Now let me finish with two arguments you will often hear in the State House.

First, many argue that as lawmakers they cannot adopt particular moral positions because not all of their constituents agree with those positions. “I have to represent all of my constituents,” a legislator will say. The reality is, public policy is not crafted in the absence of conflict. Policymakers have to choose all the time between competing views. They rarely if ever deal with legislation that all of their constituents support. So don’t let them get away with the excuse about a lack of consensus on abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, as if these issues are any different.

Second, in a variation of the first argument, legislators will often assert that their official stance on issues cannot be influenced by their personal religious or moral beliefs. This too is a dodge that is not based in reality. Do some research of your legislator’s other positions. I am confident that this investigation will reveal that he or she has strong moral beliefs about another issue that influence his or her official position on that issue.

No public official can live a totally and consistently divided political life devoid of all personal belief. You are going to find the inevitable inconsistency between his or her approach to other issues and the “personally opposed” approach on your issue, and when you do, point out the inconsistency. And be patient, persuasively persistent to be sure, but always patient.

In the end, religion, morality and the law can and must coexist. That was the conviction of John Adams and those who ratified the Massachusetts Constitution. Yours will be the task to bring that understanding back to politics.

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