Empowered by the Brand New Congress initiative in 2018, evangelical pastor and progressive Republican Robb Ryerse embarked on a long-shot, grassroots congressional campaign against Steve Womack, one of the most powerful Republican incumbents in Washington, DC. After he ultimately lost his race, Ryerse worked with the Vote Common Good campaign, traveling across the United States to help turn Congress blue.
Throughout his political journey, Ryerse gained new insights on the relationship between religion and politics in America today, the dynamics of our deep partisan divide, and the power of faithful people working for the common good. Running for Our Lives is the honest and authentic story of how one pastor tried to make a difference. Through all the joys and struggles of daring to make a stand, Ryerse shares what he’s learned about how our political identities shape us, what the role of government has in helping to meet peoples needs, and how others can get involved in politics as an expression of progressive faith.
When I saw this title on NetGalley, I was sure it was something I wanted to read. What I didn’t know was if it would infuriate me, give me hope, or change my views. But after finally deciding to request it, I’m happy to report that it did all three. I’m a strong believer in a solid wall between church and state. The state shouldn’t be telling religious institutions how to worship and religious institutions shouldn’t be trying to tell the American people how to live. I didn’t know anything about author, Robb Ryerse, before starting this book, but I soon learned he’s a pastor in Arkansas who ran to unseat the incumbent congressman from his district. I wasn’t sure if he was going to try to convert me to his way of thinking regarding the intersection of politics and faith, but I went into it with an open mind. No one is going to convert me to their religious beliefs at this point in my life, but I was willing to entertain different ideas on how elected officials and the faithful can best serve their country without sacrificing their beliefs.
RUNNING FOR OUR LIVES is about a lot of things. It’s about how politics work in America (hint, it’s seriously broken), how many of the American faithful have embraced an immoral president in the name of Jesus, and how people of faith can put their beliefs in action without trampling on the rights of others to believe something differently. I found this book refreshing. Having been raised Catholic, Robb and I have had very different religious upbringings, and yet we oddly have similar ideas when it comes to the teachings of Jesus. Nowhere does Jesus say that we should blame the poor for their circumstances. Nor did he ever say to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others if it mean less financial security for you. Yet I see these ideas being shared by Christians. That, “If only those people would do what I did, they wouldn’t be poor.” Or “We can’t help everyone.” I get it. We can’t necessarily help everyone, but we also shouldn’t, as a nation, make life harder for people in their own countries with our policies. But that is exactly what happens when our president rails about trade deficits with countries like Mexico. Mexico has a population of less than half of the United States and a GDP per capita of just $9,670 vs. our $62,794. It is unconscionable to expect a nation of impoverished citizens to buy the same amount of US products as we do from them. It is also very unchristian. Nowhere will you find Jesus demanding the poor buy more of your products in order for you to buy more of theirs. That is not how Christianity works.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Robb is my kind of Christian. Someone who really gets that Christianity is not about getting rich, or even ensuring your are comfortable enough before you help the less fortunate. I also completely understand the argument that Jesus wasn’t talking about government. He was talking about people. But people have let down the poor over and over and over again. When that happens, governments have the duty to ensure no one falls through the cracks as part of ensuring the common good. If people would step up and do what’s right, government wouldn’t need to. To ignore the crisis at our southern border because they aren’t Americans is a grievous sin in my opinion.
Once I realized Robb saw human suffering the same way I did, I was even more willing to really hear what he had to say. I highlighted more passages in his book than any other I’ve ever read. The following are some of my favorites:
Could we as potential candidates for Congress demonstrate that people are more important than party?
I’m so tired of both major political parties putting their party loyalty above their duty to their constituents, those who elected them to office in the first place. But we see it time and time again. It’s one of the biggest reasons people hate government. We feel as if government works for itself, but not for us. What is surprising about this is that most people think their own particular elected officials are generally doing a good job, but it’s those “other” guys who are messing it up. Which is why incumbents have such a high rate of reelection. I loved that Robb really got it and that he was determined to do whatever little part he could to right that enormous wrong.
Those who are cynical about American politics are convinced that the tribalism of the two-party system can’t be overcome. They frequently complain that their elected officials won’t cross the aisle to compromise. But how can we expect our leaders to put people ahead of party if we’re unwilling to do it first?
This is another paragraph that really stuck with me. I’ve been guilty as much of anyone of believing that I’m right. Because if I didn’t think I was right about an issue, I would be searching for what WAS right. And even if I think I’m right, I also know that nothing good ever comes from forcing my opinions onto others. We ping pong back and forth between liberal and conservative policies, depending on who is in the White House, giving the country whiplash. But if we stopped trying to make everyone bend to our will and realize that compromise is a beautiful word, not a curse, everyone could get a little of what they wanted, but no one would get everything they want. It means our country will change gradually, even if a big overhaul is what many of us believe is needed. But these gradual changes are more likely to be lasting changes that can be built upon over time.
The twenty-four hour news cycle means that each and every minute of airtime has to be filled in a way that drives ratings among people who already know the news. For this reason, sensationalized stories that feed the public’s appetite for entertainment and draw the largest audience get more play than substantive stories.
He precedes this statement by mentioning that everyone walks around with a handheld computer in their pocket, pushing news headlines constantly to our attention. So if we read that Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in five different news stories on our phones, when we tune into the news later, we don’t want to see what we already know. So the cable news channels look for that angle, the something different they think will appeal to their viewers. For Fox News it may be how the DNC orchestrated once again, a scenario to allow the establishment candidate to win the nomination. But CNN may start speculating on who Biden’s running mate may be, and MSNBC may run with the ideas that Bernie brought to the table and how they changed the conversation within the Democratic party. All of which leads to Americans, understandably so, believing the cable new stations are biased. I think it’s far less about the stations being biased and more that their viewers are biased and they know it. They want to appeal to their viewers, even if it means slanting a story a certain way. In most cases, the media gets the facts right. Not always, but more often than not. Where bias comes in is how they present those facts, and of course, the salacious punditry, speculating on everything and anything when additional facts are not available.
I started to refer to myself as an “Eisenhower Republican,” because I wanted people to recognize that I was not trying to do something that had never been done. I was trying to stand on the shoulders of other Republican leaders who fought for progressive ideas.
Robb ran as a “progressive” republican. Many people on the campaign trail asked him why he was running as a republican, if he was a progressive, and not as a democrat. He had to explain time and again that his ideas were the same ideas of republican presidents of the past. The party has shifted from what it once was, but that doesn’t mean Robb wants to abandon the party of Eisenhower and Reagan. Rather, he wants to bring the party back to what it once was. I found that refreshing, particularly with so many republicans allowing their party to be hijacked by nationalism and protectionist policies.
Blaming social media and cable news networks for this division is easy, but assigning blame doesn’t help us move beyond it.
He’s so right. We often look at how divided this nation is right now and point to Twitter and Facebook, which have made it easy to spread false information and to attack people for holding views different from ours from the safety of our keyboards. These platforms allow us to shut off our phone if we don’t like the ugliness we started with our harsh words. But saying that the cable news channels who pander to their viewers’ beliefs or the internet for making it easy for us to find our echo chambers, doesn’t help us do anything about it, unless we’re ready to give up cable news and computers. Instead, he offers his own thoughts on how to move ahead as a more civil society. His background as a pastor provides him with a different worldview than mine and gave me a lot to think about.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others as we love ourselves. This is not two commandments, but one, a unified vision of love. It is recognizing that when we love others, we love God. When we feed the hungry, visit the incarcerated, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick, we are serving not just other people but Jesus himself. … In fact, maybe the most loving thing I can do when I enter the voting booth is to cast my ballot not for my own interests but for the common good.
This may have be the single most powerful few paragraphs in the book. Here is where he really breaks down his views on how religion and politics should mix. How faith can influence our vote, but not in the way I’ve always assumed. I always thought that Christians voted for other Christians, assuming they would bring about Christian policies. But it goes much deeper than that in Robb’s view and I found myself nodding throughout this chapter.
Until our campaign finance system is revamped, the best–and I believe only–hope we have for significant and needed change in Washington is working Americans supporting grassroots candidates with acupunctural interventions of small-dollar donations.
This is where the book infuriated me. Robb talks about how campaign financing works and how much it costs JUST to get your name on ballot to run. He also explains how, with big money donors, once elected, incumbents are tasked with making fundraising calls by their respective parties, eating up large chunks of their day. Time they are not spending working for the people who elected them. I know money in politics is a problem, but Robb’s inside information on the workings of elected officials in congress was mind-numbingly maddening. This is not what we send them to Washington to do. Also, if they need this money to get re-elected, where do their loyalties lie? Ryerse provides concrete examples of how this plays out, and trust me, none of it is good for average Americans.
This was an incredibly fast and engrossing read and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in understanding politics in this country. You do not need to be a republican to appreciate it. You do not need to be a progressive of any party to understand what’s at stake. And you do not need to be a Christian to find something deeply satisfying to take away from this book.
An eye-opening, stunning look at American politics from an outsider’s point of view.
About the Book
Title: RUNNING FOR OUR LIVES, A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good
Authors: Robb Ryerse
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication Date: February 18, 2020
Category: Politics/Religion/American Elections
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
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About the Author