WASHINGTON — Many NGOs dedicate time to advocacy on Capitol Hill to garner support for development and humanitarian policies and funding, but faith-based organizations work together to bring a different perspective to these lobbying efforts.
“We, at one level, are doing what everybody’s doing, which is trying to understand to the greatest extent we can what drives a particular member. And that is as varied as the membership in the House and Senate,” said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.
“We do look at what is the religious background of this member, and is there a particular appeal that we can authentically make that would make a difference in this case?”
Faith-based organizations play a unique role in lobbying legislators, appealing to members through the lens of existing religious beliefs that can influence their decision-making. One of the most well-known instances of successful faith-based advocacy was in support of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which was initially launched under the George W. Bush administration in 2003.
Congress authorized $2.19 billion in fiscal year 2004 for PEPFAR, and since then, faith communities have remained key players in securing reauthorization and continued funding for the program.
“The faith-based advocacy [was] critical in bridging the differences between the right and the left and in helping to craft compromises — and to build support for compromises — that resulted in tens of millions of lives saved,” O’Keefe said.
“We’re there to talk about policy from … a faith-inspired perspective.”Jihad Saleh Williams, senior advocacy and government affairs adviser, Islamic Relief USA
CRS aims to meet with every member of Congress regardless of the member’s religious affiliation, O’Keefe said. The organization’s work to eliminate causes of poverty and injustice is rooted in principles of Catholic social teaching, a tradition that bolsters the NGO’s reputation and allows it to work well with members on both sides of the aisle, he said.
He added that disagreement with a member over one issue — say, the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion rights — doesn’t prevent them from gaining support on other development issues where values do align.
CRS works closely with other faith-based organizations — both those that are part of what O’Keefe calls “Team Catholic,” as well as those of other faiths — on the Hill to coordinate advocacy efforts for certain bills or funding requests. The NGOs determine what type of appeal may be most effective with particular members who may have seats on relevant committees or from whom they want support.
“If there is an office where the elected official is a strong Catholic, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for HIAS to take the lead on that meeting,” said Noami Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at refugee resettlement organization HIAS.
“Every single day we are in partnership with other faith organizations and we work in coalition on a lot of different issues. What we find is that we are all heading in the same direction and certainly we sometimes might have different strategies, but through the coalition, we really do speak with one voice. The value of us coming from different faith traditions is that we can be very strategic.”
HIAS began as an agency that resettled Jewish refugees in the U.S. Now, it is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the country that works with people of all faiths as well as with refugees abroad — issues Steinberg said have become unfortunately partisan during the Trump administration.
Her team works to develop relationships with congressional offices even when they are not pushing for a particular policy or funding so that when there is a tougher issue on which they seek support, they have existing contacts to tap.
Because many members of Congress aren’t familiar with U.S. development and humanitarian issues before they take office, faith-based organizations play a key role in educating them from a moral and ethical perspective about the role U.S. foreign assistance plays, according to O’Keefe.
“I don’t always go into a Hill office, and neither do my colleagues, and talk about Jewish values necessarily — unless that would have a particular resonance with that office, and sometimes it certainly does.”Noami Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy, HIAS
HIAS also ties this advocacy closely with its grassroots efforts on refugee issues, which includes urging Jewish communities across the country to contact their members of Congress to express their support for more funding and higher refugee resettlement caps.
“I don’t always go into a Hill office, and neither do my colleagues, and talk about Jewish values necessarily — unless that would have a particular resonance with that office, and sometimes it certainly does,” said Steinberg.
“One of the messages we share with our grassroots advocacy network … is you should never assume that even if your elected official has been on the right side of these refugee issues, that they know how important this is to you, to their constituency,” Steinberg said.
“Keep those calls coming, keep those emails coming. Because we want them to know that people in their district vote partially based on these issues.”
Support for wider U.S. foreign assistance has historically been bipartisan, but attempts by the Trump administration to slash funding has further challenged these programs. This has made faith-based support for development and humanitarian aid even more important, O’Keefe said, because of the power religious constituencies can have in influencing members of Congress.
Politics can also impact inroads faith-based organizations are able to make on Capitol Hill. Jihad Saleh Williams, senior advocacy and government affairs advisor at Islamic Relief USA, said his organization can have difficulty getting a response from Republican offices who are nervous to meet with a Muslim organization with which they may not be familiar.
As a former congressional aide, Williams said he understands the instinct of Hill staffers to protect their boss at all costs, and that IR USA must understand “discreetness” required for some of its meetings.
“What we have to respect is that risk adverseness due to either still assumed threats or stereotypes, or because members are worried about how their constituents are influenced by who Muslim Americans are [and] are scared to have public any relationship,” Williams said.
“I really have tried to work hard over time, particularly with Islamic Relief and with other minority religious groups … to make sure … when people think of the faith community, they don’t just think of the Christian community.”Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy, Catholic Relief Services.
Williams said he often begins outreach with congressional offices by discussing IR USA’s domestic work in order to build relationships. Many offices incorrectly believe that the organization only works in the Middle East, he said, or only deals with civil liberties and counterterrorism issues. By educating members about work to promote food security and health access — particularly during COVID-19 — in the U.S., Williams said he can gain an entry point to promote the value of international development and humanitarian work as well.
NGOs use interfaith coalitions to work together to counter such misconceptions about particular groups, positioning faith-based organizations as a united block that support the same issues, regardless of religious affiliation, to strengthen their power on the Hill.
“I really have tried to work hard over time, particularly with Islamic Relief and with other minority religious groups in the United States, to make sure … when people think of the faith community, they don’t just think of the Christian community,” O’Keefe said.
“We partner a lot with Islamic Relief and consider them brothers and sisters in this development and humanitarian world.”
All three organizations said they must often counter the belief that they only work with beneficiaries who share their faith tradition. Williams said advocacy on Capitol Hill allows them to demonstrate who they are and what they stand for, which can be stereotyped or misunderstood.
“We serve people that are in need regardless of faith, but we do it because of our Islamic values,” Williams said. “We’re there to talk about policy from … a faith-inspired perspective.”