by Madeleine Bunting for The Guardian

January 11, 2009

Liberal secularists who have so far overlooked Obama's belief should brace themselves for an even greater challenge.

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions - belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment - that I couldn't see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can "probably" change someone's mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as "losers", as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

The irony of course is that the trio of intellectuals roped in to launch the advert, led by Richard Dawkins, are in all likelihood going to be celebrating the presidential inauguration of a passionate Christian, Barack Obama, next week - a man commonly agreed to be one of the most intelligent politicians of our age. But what they might prefer to overlook is that he chose - after an agnostic upbringing with doses of atheism from a distant father - to become a Christian in his 20s. "I felt God's spirit beckoning me and I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth," he writes in his book, The Audacity of Hope. You can't do pick and mix on Obama: he is pretty forthright that Jesus died to redeem his sins.

Obama's faith cannot be explained away as political opportunism to meet the conventions of American politics. The conversion was well before a political career seemed possible; besides, his faith has dragged him into plenty of controversy during his campaign. Recently, liberal secular allies have been shocked by his decision not to dismantle, but to take over and expand, Bush's controversial flagship policy of funding faith-based organisations to provide social services. Even worse, he has chosen the evangelical preacher Rick Warren (opposes gay marriage, anti-abortion but passionate on social justice and climate change) to deliver the prayer at the inauguration. The point is that Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the "best education I ever had". Michelle says of her husband that "he is not first and foremost a politician. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change."

You don't need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals - he was the subject of Hillary Clinton's college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships - nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

If this sounds a little abstract, Matthew Bolton, a 25-year-old organiser at London Citizens, helps make it very concrete. From a state school in south-east London, followed by Cambridge, he ended up working with cleaners campaigning for a living wage. He describes his job as firstly finding unlikely heroes - such as the Jamaican great-grandmother who had seen four private cleaning companies come and go and knew more about her job than any of them. Secondly, linking them with unlikely allies - such as the local mosques attended by Somali cleaners. Then organising protests and demos; the result was the cleaners won themselves a 40% pay increase and sick pay for the first time.

What Alinsky had spotted was that in poor communities, the strongest institutions with the deepest roots were faith-based; they provided vital resources to poor communities - a measure of dignity and a sense of meaning in lives scarred by poverty. Find a way to connect them and you have the power to bring about change. The great heroine of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, heads a list of some of the most powerful social activists in the US who have gone through the Industrial Areas Foundation training.

It was Neil Jameson, one of the founders of London Citizens and its parent The Citizen Organising Foundation, who did his training in Chicago in 1989, just after Obama had moved on to Harvard, and saw its potential for Britain's inner cities. Independent research has analysed that the London Citizens' Living Wage campaign has put £32m into the pockets of low-paid workers since they started in 2001. This is money fought for and won by hundreds of activists, and the achievement is not to be measured only in material terms, but in the increased self-respect and confidence. This is not about charity or political favour or impersonal bureaucratic allocation, it is about empowerment.

What this kind of community organising - and it has spread across the US - can do is draw deeply on the passion for social justice that runs through all religious traditions. It finds common ground between Muslim, Christian and Jew in places where poverty and crime can often set them apart.

So those liberal secularists who thought that they had seen the end of praying in the White House will have to think again. They might want to overlook Obama's faith, but he won't make it easy for them. Like it or lump it, he unequivocally believes that religion can be a force for progressive ends. A liberal secular elite on both sides of the Atlantic is going to have to deal with a much more challenging form of religious belief than those they have been wont to ridicule among George Bush and his cronies.

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