The website of the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan in Clearwater, Florida carries information about Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST), which is a congregation-based community organization in Pinellas County, Florida, operating within the DART network. The page concerning FAST states: “The organization is not political but rather, it is biblical.”[i]
This assertion is echoed in other places. Rev. Willie McClendon Jr., a minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church who co-founded FAST, also insists that the organization is “Biblical and not political” but simultaneously says, “There is power in numbers. Politicians look at it in terms of (potential) votes.”[ii] Despite protestations to the contrary, it really is about politics.
A local news article reported that FAST “managed to wrest commitments from city and county officials to build 3,000 new low-cost housing units within three years. Since its founding in 2004, the group counts new bus shelters and funding for prekindergarten programs among its victories.”[iii] What does FAST think politics is if this isn’t political?
Since when isn’t politics about establishing public policy? Since when isn’t it about getting laws passed? Since when isn’t it about allocating public money for particular projects…and therefore not allocating money for other things? Since when isn’t politics about getting people elected who support you in the endeavors that one believes will best serve the common good?
Of course this is political activity.
When DART, with FAST in attendance, holds a public accountability session to shame or pressure St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor to support its Construction Incentive Project (CIP),[iv] it is engaging in political activity. When FAST pushes for a new “local hiring law,”[v] it’s engaged in political activity. When FAST boasts that, because it lobbied all seven county commissioners to support an affordable housing trust fund, “$19.2 million has been allocated to the fund,”[vi] it is engaging in political activity.
FAST’s 2012 501c-3 form states that FAST engages in political lobbying. It states that FAST attempted to influence legislation through direct contact with public officials and through rallies and similar activity.[vii] That’s political activity.
So, why does FAST claim that it isn’t political when its political activity is in the public eye, a fact that anyone to see?
Because it’s playing politics and the political activity of religious institutions is dangerous business.
Whether or not FAST is on the best side of a given political issue, the fact that its advocacy never concerns doctrinally-defined moral principles but is, rather, only about applications of those principles means that there will always be fellow congregants among FAST member churches who are at odds with FAST’s agenda. To force dissenting congregants into political support of a prudential position – an application – of principles about which they have every legal and moral right to disagree[viii] is an abuse of religion. Congregational membership in FAST is, therefore, abusive and divisive.
Whether or not FAST is on the best side of a given political issue, the fact that FAST is engaged in political activity and exists for no other reason than to engage in political activity, brings religious institutions into an uncomfortable relationship with the IRS, too. Therefore a sort of “mental reservation” is required that redefines “engaging in political activity” or “being a political organization” to mean “engaging in partisan political activity” or “being a partisan political organization.” The word partisan must be redefined, too because if one observes that all of FAST’s political activity serves progressive (statist) applications, FAST argues “partisan” means “Republican Party” or “Democrat Party.”[ix]
FAST’s secretary, Rabbi Torop, expresses it this way: “We are quite clearly and emphatically non partisan and non political. We neither endorse nor advice any particular candidates. When it comes to a particular election, we look to find allies and partners in government entities who want to solve the same problems we want to solve, and with whom we can find agreement on the kind of solutions that are the most appropriate and achievable. We are very careful to be non political in that sense.”[x] [emphasis added]
The sense in which FAST is non-political is very narrow. To further its self-interest, FAST requires its own lexicon.
Why on earth would a religious institution yoke itself to such a divisive, deceitful political organization?
Perhaps because the individuals forging that yoke share similar, partisan political perspectives.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing among Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.
[i] Good Samaritan Episcopal website: www.goodsamaritan-swfla.org/fast.htm
[ii] Amy Mormino, “Faith in Action: FAST of Pinellas County,” The St. Petersburg Christianity Examiner, 5-24-11.
[iii] Sherri Day, “Religion Spiced with Politics,” Tampa Bay Times, 3-17-07.
[iv] Mitch Perry, “FAST movers,” Creative Loafing Tampa – Political Animal, 4-17-14.
[v] Mark Puente, “St. Petersburg considers $150,000 study on local hiring practices,” Tampa Bay Times, 11-18-12.
[vi] DART website, page about FAST: thedartcenter.org/location/fast/#sthash.oYSdY3VI.dpuf
[vii] FAST 2012 tax form: pdfs.citizenaudit.org/2010_10_EO/20-2058779_990EZ_200912.pdf
[viii] FAST, like all faith-based Alinskyian organizations, has only institutional members. If Good Samaritan Episcopal is a member of FAST, then its entire congregation is considered to support FAST’s agenda when FAST confrontation public officials or issues public statements. Furthermore, FAST is supported by a percentage of member-congregations’ income – meaning that every tithing congregant in a FAST congregation contributes to FAST.
[ix] For example, Bishop Robert Lynch’s March 15, 2011 column, “Holding FAST,” argues that FAST is “is neither Republican nor Democratic.”
That said, insofar as the Democrat Party at this point in time tends to be progressive, there is a natural affinity between it and FAST. So, for instance, the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club announced a February 20, 2012 meeting to learn more about FAST from one of its organizers, “speaking to us about the outstanding work that this organization does.” www.largodemocrats.com/2012/02/
[x] Jeff Solochek, “Weekend interview with Rabbi Michael Torop of Faith and Action for Strength Together,” a Tampa Bay Times, 10-30-10.