Faith-based groups amplify their voice in policy debates

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has long advocated for healthcare reform, especially on issues relating to the poor and immigrants.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has long advocated for healthcare reform, especially on issues relating to the poor and immigrants.

But when it exerted pressure on members of the House of Representatives to include an amendment ensuring federal subsidies wouldn't fund elective abortions, it was credited for the amount of influence it wielded.

"This kind of involvement isn't unusual for the church," says media relations director Mary Ann Walsh. "It's very visible now because we haven't had this kind of social change in our country probably since the civil rights movement."

Tackling broader issues
Faith-based organizations have long had a role in policy debates on issues like abortion and gay marriage. Yet in the past year, more of them have stepped out to communicate a stance on issues as broad as healthcare reform, executive pay, and climate change.

"Faith-based organizations have realized that they must reassess their mission in the economy, in this administration, in the changes society has undergone, in order to remain relevant," says Brandon Edwards, president of Revive PR, a healthcare PR firm.

The shift to a Democratic Congress, along with economic challenges, has created an environment where many issues have become both emotional and moral for Americans.

"It's not: Vote for this because it's our faith-based organization's agenda," says Edwards. "It is translating that into the social or economic benefit that will attract the support."

Faith in Public Life, founded in 2006, has actively been involved in the healthcare reform and climate change debates, says Kristin Williams, the organization's media relations associate.

It launched two grassroots efforts in 2009, including "40 Days for Health Reform" and "Day Six," which is urging US political leaders to set aside funding for developing countries to adapt to climate change.

"This is a really strong moral priority that, as people of faith, we must push back on the table," says Williams, noting that these campaigns are not a change for the organization; rather, there is a "tightened" focus on the issues it believes it needs to address.

The group also plans to advocate for financial reform, especially looking at the housing market and executive pay.

"It represents an expansion of the reach of the faith-based organizations," says Gene Grabowski, SVP for Levick Strategic Communications. "It also represents the effectiveness they've had on other issues."

Strength in numbers
Part of why faith-based groups are so effective in policy debates is the sheer numbers they represent and their ability to mobilize.

The "40 Days" effort included a national call-in and webcast with President Barack Obama last August. Williams says more than 140,000 took part in the call, while 160,000 streamed the audio.

"When you look at the audiences that are going to whatever they call their area of faith, there are more people that go there than [watch] the Super Bowl," says Anthony Owens, senior strategic consultant for Virilion.

With climate change and jobs top of mind at present, communicators can expect faith-based organizations to increase their role in the policy debates that affect their audiences.

The change in how faith-based groups view environmental issues has also been driven by a generational shift in priorities, says Revive PR's Edwards, and many groups could lose members if they don't reevaluate their agendas.

"In 20 years," he adds, "I think we will see that the faith-based element of advocacy in the environmental issues... will be taken for granted the way it is today with the abortion issue."

Organizations to Watch

US Conference of Catholic Bishops
The assembly of bishops played a crucial role in the healthcare debate, but also has plans to affirm its stance in debates about the environment and immigration

People Improving Communities through Organizing, a national network of faith-based groups, looks to pressure banks to increase loan modifications for the Making Home Affordable Program

American Values Network
Founded last May by Burns Strider, faith leader for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, the grassroots group addresses issues relating to healthcare reform, climate change, and the stimulus

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