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Inspired by nuns, evangelicals hop on the bus

Attendees sign the Values Bus in support of the conservative voter turnout campaign during a tour stop. Both conservative and progressive teams are on bus tours ahead of the midterm elections. Photo courtesy of FRC Action

(RNS) — It all started with some nuns on a bus.

Now, with midterm elections coming up next month, more faith-based organizations are hitting the road to energize religious voters.

They include Vote Common Good, which is reaching out to progressive evangelicals, and the Family Research Council’s Values Bus, reaching out to conservative evangelicals.

Both are after a key voting bloc — the evangelical Christians who have been among President Trump’s most reliable supporters.

For Vote Common Good co-chair and executive director Doug Pagitt, a bus tour is as much inspired by modern political campaigns as it is by the tent revivals made popular by evangelists such as Billy Graham and, before him, Billy Sunday.

“We’re not doing this like a revival — it literally is a revival,” Pagitt said.

Bus tours like the ones leading up to midterms this year combine political activism with moral convictions, said Quardricos Driskell, who teaches religion and politics at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

The Vote Common Good bus is touring to rally progressive support ahead of midterm elections. Photo courtesy of Vote Common Good

“Bus tours lend themselves to grassroots advocacy and grassroots efforts in getting out the vote,” said Driskell. “I think, if anything, religious groups have now taken the model that campaigns traditionally have used on these bus tours.”

Driskell also pointed back to the civil rights movement, when the religious left organized Freedom Rides into the South to challenge segregation. That religious left is seeing a resurgence today, he said.

For evangelicals on both the right and the left, Driskell said, “What really hangs in balance is the moral character of the country.”

Nuns on the Bus

The Nuns on the Bus got their start during the 2012 presidential campaign.

“We started a trend. Isn’t it cool?” said Sister Simone Campbell of the Sisters of Social Service.

Campbell helped the progressive Catholic group Network launch that first Nuns on the Bus tour to challenge U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget and to highlight faith-based charities that could be harmed by the cuts it proposed.

All told, the Nuns on the Bus have gone out on six tours, advocating for issues including immigration reform, voter turnout and closing the wealth gap.

Sister Simone Campbell, left, and Sister Diane Donoghue, right, lead the way as the “Nuns on the Bus” arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 2012. Campbell is executive director of Network, a progressive Catholic social justice lobby in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This week, about 30 Catholic nuns hit the road for the Nuns on the Bus Tax Justice Truth Tour, which started Monday (Oct. 8) in Santa Monica, Calif., and will end Nov. 2 with a “Fiesta for the Common Good” outside Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida golf resort.

“The power of a bus trip is we get into local communities and hear the stories of local people and find out what their struggles are,” said Campbell.

The nuns’ appeal and message reach beyond Catholics. And their activism has made a difference.

Even before they boarded the bus, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, Network nuns’ support “made all the difference in the world” to passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Vote Common Good

People attend a stop on the Vote Common Good bus tour. Photo courtesy of Vote Common Good

Last week, Vote Common Good also set out on the highway.

The group of progressive evangelical Christians, headed by Pagitt, describes itself as nonpartisan but opposed to Trump’s agenda.

It aims to encourage evangelical Christians — who traditionally have been associated with the Republican Party, and perhaps never more so than now, given white evangelical support for Trump — to “vote their values rather than their longtime party.”

Social media posts from Vote Common Good. Image via Instagram

Pagitt argued that Republican candidates support Trump administration policies on taxes, immigration and the environment that are “contrary to the teaching of Jesus.” Flipping Congress for the Democratic Party in November would be more in line with Christian values, he said.

The tour grew out of discussions over the past few years by Pagitt, John Pavlovitz, Frank Schaeffer and others who came out of the evangelical tradition about what the religious response to Trump should be, according to Pagitt.

“Sometimes you just have to get out on the road and meet people where they are and go to their place,” he said. “You just can’t hashtag your way into social change.”

This year’s midterms are so important because the Trump administration is so different from past administrations, Padgitt said

Vote Common Good left Oct. 2 from Bethlehem, Pa., and plans to visit more than 30 congressional districts where a Democratic challenger hopes to unseat a Republican incumbent. The group planned its route with help from Rep. Ted Lieu of the 33rd District of California, vice chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. James Carville also is advising the group.

Along the way, the tour will feature progressive Christian speakers, including the Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. It also will reach out to Democratic candidates to help them better understand evangelicals and their concerns.

Values Bus

People listen during a Values Bus tour stop. Photo courtesy of FRC Action

The conservative Christian Family Research Council Action rolled out its Values Bus late last month at its Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. The bus is scheduled to stop in a dozen states before Election Day on Nov. 6. FRC Action Director Brent Keilen said the organization has had the bus at least four years and tours every two years ahead of elections.

This tour will culminate in The Event on Nov. 4 at Charis Bible College in Woodland Park, Co., with conservative Christian voters called on to pledge to “pray, to vote, to stand” during a simulcast on its website.

“There’s just so much at stake, and our hope is to really draw attention to that and to point out the importance of those races,” Keilen said.

Social media posts from FRC Action. Image via Instagram

The tour is aimed at reaching “SAGE Cons” — “Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservatives” — a demographic identified by evangelical researcher George Barna, said Keilen. There are 20 million to 30 million of them in the U.S., said Keilen, and he said more than 90 percent voted in the 2016 election.

“With groups like that, if we can get the message out and they hear what’s going on, what’s at stake, they will turn out,” he said.

A YouTube video promoting The Event encourages those conservative evangelicals to be hopeful.

“Hey,” it says, “look on the bright side: Things are moving in the right direction.”

The video points to issues and actions taken by the Trump administration that are important to Family Research Council’s conservative evangelical supporters: tax cuts, religious freedom, abortion, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

“Values voters can determine whether this country stays on the path of greatness,” said a written statement from FRC President Tony Perkins, who has been a vocal Trump supporter.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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