Saul Alinsky is all over the presidential election this year. This despite the fact that he’s not running or consulting with any campaign—he died forty years ago, after all.
But Alinsky’s name has a particular symbolic meaning in American politics. The power of Alinsky’s reputation, decried by some Catholics, is only possible because of Alinsky’s outsize success sponsored by—you guessed it—Catholics. His early organizing work was made possible through financial and vocal support of Catholics in Chicago and his followers helped train Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
The Alinsky that critics object to is a stereotyped image in which power-at-any-costs disregards a concern for humans at the root of social structures, sacrificing a concern for a robust common good for a tactical win in the arena of politics. (This is the not-so-subtle message that is meant to be attached to Barack Obama, given his background in community organizing.) This version of Alinsky might exist in some organizations and movements, but then again these same organizations might not last or be effective for long with this style. Alinsky, his legacy, and his importance to the Catholic Church is a bit (actually a lot) more complicated.
For the classic statement of his tactics, one could look to Rules for Radicals. For a definitive view of Alinksy, his strategies, and his personal life, checkout Let Them Call Me Rebel. Alone, these works only present a partial image of Alinksy. For a deeper understanding of Alinsky I suggest looking at two sources.
First, track down a copy of the highly readable book by Bernard Doering, The Philosopher and the Provocateur. Alinsky is the referent of the latter part of the title; Jacques Maritain the referent for the former. Jacques Maritain was an intellectual luminary leading up to Vatican II, bringing Thomism into the era of democracy and religious pluralism.
A million throws of the dice from the hand of fate could not have produced a more unlikely friendship. The book not only provides human depth to Alinsky’s person, but shows how his experiments with organizing democracy were expressions of deep respect for human dignity and the common good, which Maritain in turn pursued with his mind. Their collaboration—secular Jew and Catholic, American and French—exemplifies how pursuing social justice in pluralistic democracies requires engagement across large differences. The two friends have a fascinating discussion of the relations of means and ends in social change, challenging any facile interpretation that Alinsky (and his tactical legacy) are simply Trojan horses for atheistic statism.
The second place to look is at some terrific research on faith-based (or congregation-based) community organizing. Most faith-based organizing groups trace their intellectual and/or organizational lineage to Alinsky. I’ll save you the trip to the next meeting of the American Sociological Association…..
This recent research shows how successful such organizing can be for the voices of people outside calcified political parties and how these organizations have influenced the national agenda for social justice. One of best things about this wave of research is its careful analysis of how religious faith matters. It is true that, early on, Alinsky and his followers may have looked at a church and thought: “a local organization of people to empower.” One research topic is whether this attitude today could harm churches by redirecting resources or facilitating members going to new churches. On the whole, community organizing today takes religious faith much more seriously, being successful in a way that Alinsky himself laid the seeds for but probably could not imagine. Community-based organizing as a tactic is clearly powerful when it connects to the unique aspects of faith communities, such as biblical images of community, personalized connections of care, inspiring songs, and a sense of transcendent purpose. Contra the critics, this “uses” faith about as much as the Ten Habits of Highly Successful People “uses” your local pastor.
When next you hear of Saul Alinksy and his presence in the presidential race recall how his legacy has helped local churches live their visions of social justice for the common good. And recall how the Catholic Church has been a part.