“This idea of what it means to be religious as a very conservative thing has upheld the power of the Christian Right for the last 40 years and is really deeply embedded in how we think about religion.”
In January, Rev. Raphael Warnock was elected as the first Black Senator from Georgia. Sen. Warnock’s historic election catapulted his identity as a Black man into headlines around the world, while his status as a pastor was relegated to a biographical note. In the American imagination, it makes sense that a pastor seeped in the tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be elected in a place like Georgia. We expect certain regions and populations to be more pious and comfortable with the overlap of religion and politics.
Boston is of course not Georgia. In 2015 and 2016, it was ranked by the American Bible Society as the third and second least “Bible-minded” city in America, respectively. (Our close neighbor, Providence, came in first and third in those same years). Boston magazine ran a story just two years ago entitled “Has Boston Given Up On God?” detailing how churches and synagogues of various denominations are struggling with a drop in attendance. Missionaries from other parts of the country have even relocated here in an effort to save our souls.
Boston’s reputation as a “godless” city is partially deserved; after all, it has some of the lowest self-reported religious believers and practitioners in the country. But Boston is not as irreligious, and certainly not as anti-religious, as the above headlines might suggest. After all, one of our neighborhoods recently elected a progressive Black attorney who also happens to be the founder of her own Christian ministry to state office.
State Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, who represents the 12th Suffolk District serving parts of Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Milton, was steeped in her Christian faith from an early age thanks to her mother, Rev. Brenda A. Fluker. As a teenager, her young-adult Bible study leader told Rep. Fluker Oakley she had a calling to ministry due to her insightful interpretation of Biblical passages. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later, during a particularly difficult period in her life, that she answered this call and founded Delighting in God ministries (D.I.G.). What began as a weekly young adult Bible study in her home has now evolved into several different forms of ministry, including online classes and weekly devotionals, due to her changing life circumstances.
“I don’t know if I will ever go to seminary to be a traditional minister or faith leader, but I do think that I have been called to policy and politics to have more things to converse to God about and to be a true light and reflection of his kingdom on earth. And that responsibility I take seriously. And it keeps me humble,” Rep. Fluker Oakley said in an interview.
Any analysis of Bostonians’, and our elected officials’, religiosity suffers from the fact that the parameters of what makes a person “religious” in the United States has for decades been defined against the scale established by the religious right—that of white, evangelical Christian churchgoers.
The vast majority of religious Bostonians, and our elected officials of faith, do not fit into this mold. Instead of white, conservative, and evangelical Christians, people of faith in Boston are more likely to be people of color, left of center, Catholic or non-Christian, and/or fall into all three of these categories.
“There’s a widely held misconception in the United States that to be religious is to be conservative Christian,” said Dr. Lauren Kerby, the religious literacy specialist for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. “Americans tend to believe that if you are more religious, then you are more conservative, and if you are less religious, then you are more progressive.”
Despite prominent examples like Dr. Martin Luther King, according to Dr. Kerby, “the fact that someone can be deeply religious and progressive is an idea unfamiliar to many Americans because that’s not what we see on television, that’s not in the messaging we get from conservative religious organizations and politicians. This idea of what it means to be religious as a very conservative thing has upheld the power of the Christian Right for the last 40 years and is really deeply embedded in how we think about religion.”
Rep. Fluker Oakley has observed this phenomenon: “So often in the media and politics, we see the conservative right dominating what it means to be a Christian in this country. I always thought that that was skewed, and certainly not representative of my political views and how deeply I hold my faith.”
Fluker Oakley is far from the sole person of faith to be elected to office from the Boston area.
I also spoke with two more recently elected officials with deeply held religious beliefs—Back Bay City Councilor Kenzie Bok, and Concord School Committee member Fatima Mezdad—to get a sense of what it looks like and means to be both a public official and person of faith in our contemporary, local context.
“For me it has never been that I have my faith and I have my political activism side by side, it’s always been that my faith is what motivates my political activism in a very fundamental way,” Bok said in an interview for this article.
“I’ve always felt like an activist. I’ve always felt like I’ve needed to fight for what I believe is right,” Mezdad said. “I like to think of my faith as a living faith, a faith that is adaptable… For me, faith comes down to kindness. Being kind to everything and everyone around us—whether it is our neighbors, or our environment.”
Councilor Bok also sees her faith as something that is not just abstract, but manifest in the world. She grew up in and still attends Trinity Church Boston, and it was through her church that she was introduced to progressive activism.
“I think one of the things the church really taught me growing up was how to put on a different pair of glasses and see the world as it should be,” Bok said. “As I grew into adulthood, I was really drawn to the opportunity for faith in action—what does an ethic of love look like in terms of public policy. That didn’t feel like a step away from my church and what I had been brought up believing, it felt like a deepening.”
Bok gained some of her first exposure to progresive political organizing through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), helping to lead their push for the adoption of Boston’s Community Preservation Act. The councilor learned more from her experience in the GBIO than just the mechanics of how to lobby for and pass legislation.
“Sometimes, I feel in secular society we gloss [religious difference] over. ‘Oh, we all believe in the same things’ in some sort of amorphous values, surface level way…. And I just think you can’t get very far in understanding people’s motivations or building trust or coming into partnership without talking about those things,” Bok said. “That’s something I feel that I gained from interfaith conversation that has served me well in the political space. Because there is nothing easier, and more deceptive, than saying, ‘Of course we all agree.’”
Concord School Committee Member Mezdad also has deep roots in interfaith work. She was part of the original Daughters of Abraham group that was founded in Cambridge post-September 11, and 18 years later she is still a member of her local branch. Mezdad also believes that acknowledging religious difference is an essential component of progressive political policy.
“Because faith is so present in our lives, we cannot deny it, we cannot ignore it. It is part of the work that we do- to advocate for recognition, for protection of rights,” Mezdad said. “That’s where I see faith intersecting with politics—activism, in terms of protection, in terms of outreach, in terms of understanding.”
There doesn’t appear to be many academic studies exploring the connections between interfaith experience, a commitment to progressive political activism, and eventually running for office. However, it seems to be more than a coincidence that many interfaith organizations, such as the GBIO are deeply involved in political organizing, and two of the three elected officials that I spoke with have a background in interfaith groups.
Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), which works with college students “to make interfaith cooperation a vital part of the college experience,” shared some findings from its Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), conducted in partnership with Drs. Alyssa Rockenbach and Matt Mayhew. The study showed that “most college students place a high value on interfaith leadership and service—the basic ideas that people with different religious and nonreligious beliefs should work together for the common good,” according to Mary Ellen Giess, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at IFYC.
It is also no accident that the three elected officials who agreed to be interviewed, and the majority of elected officials with publicly available evidence of their faith commitments, were all women. Women, particularly women of color, have always been at the forefront of progressive politics, even if their role has often been downplayed or overlooked. And like their male counterparts, progressive women are often inspired by their faith.
“Religious women played critical roles in the major social movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” writes Dr. Kerby in American Religious History: Belief and Society through Time, “They often did so not in spite of their religious commitments, but because of them.”
Dr. Kerby further explained that “when we think of religious leaders, it is going to reflect that patriarchal bias that is so embedded in how we think about religion, so Ilhan Omar does not get characterized as a religious leader, for example.”
All newly elected to their respective offices, Rep. Fluker Oakley, Councilor Bok, and Member Mezdad are part of a record-breaking number of women who have run for and been elected to office in the last four years. But they are also part of a decades long tradition of women of faith who have worked toward progressive political change both nationally and locally.
“Being a Black American here in the United States, [I recognize] the role that the Black church has played in the Civil Rights Movement and I’ve always kind of viewed the church as a place for social justice,” Fluker Oakley said.
“Boston has a pretty substantial tradition of left religious organizing,” Bok noted. She went on to detail some of the work GBIO has done in its more than two decades of existence, from increasing access to affordable housing to helping to pass criminal justice reform.
“It’s not just me that bucks that trend, it is Boston activist religious life that bucks that trend,” the councilor added. “There is considerably more religious organizing on urban justice issues in the city than there is in the other direction.”
On Tuesday, March 23, another progressive politician was sworn in as the first Black, first female mayor of Boston. In a ceremony that made history and broke a half-dozen Boston stereotypes, Mayor Kim Janey was ushered into office with a prayer by Reverend Willie Bodrick, II, Senior Pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church and the chords of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Introducing the new Mayor, Representative Ayanna Pressley, quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” In this same vein, Pressley noted that Mayor Janey’s rise to office “is not an individual achievement, it is the culmination of the ancestors’ prayers.”
“There are so many people with the misconception that religion doesn’t matter in public life, that it doesn’t play a role, and these women are offering really direct counter evidence to that,” Dr. Kerby said. “Religion is embedded in all dimensions of human experience.”
Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist covering religion, politics, social justice, and their intersections. You can follow her work at ClaireSadar.com and on twitter @KARepublic.