The Faith & Politics Institute is celebrating 25 years of service to policy and political leaders in the nation’s capital. Since its founding in 1991, the Institute has offered opportunities for members of Congress and political professionals to cultivate effective public leadership through mutual respect, moral reflection, increased understanding and honest conversation.
The Institute was born out of an idea by Reverend Doug Tanner, FPI’s founder, to establish a retreat center where politicians could step away from their over-scheduled, regimented, stressful responsibilities to engage in the introspection and reflection that lead to more deeply grounded, visionary leadership. Together with then-U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard (D-IL), Anne Bartley, and Reverend Joe Eldridge, Tanner began a weekly reflection group for members of Congress that soon formalized as The Faith & Politics Institute.
From those humble beginnings, The Faith & Politics Institute has developed into a mainstay of bipartisan, values-infused leadership development on Capitol Hill.
In 1997, U.S. Reps. Amo Houghton (R-NY) and John Lewis (D-GA) were invited to serve as co-chairmen of the Institute's Board of Directors, a position they held until 2005.
Under their leadership, the Institute's work expanded considerably and attracted increasing numbers of Capitol Hill professionals with an interest in reflection and conversation across racial, religious, ideological, and party lines. Since that time, the Institute has helped to cultivate a community of leaders who seek to do the difficult and necessary work of forming "a more perfect Union."
From the start, FPI’s programs have been designed to
- Cultivate qualities of transformational political leadership;
- Facilitate personal spiritual formation in the context of political engagement;
- Encourage thoughtful engagement with public issues at the intersection of faith and politics;
- Promote conscience, courage, and compassion as spiritual values essential to democracy; and
- Address issues of race, poverty, and violence.
The early success of The Faith & Politics Institute’s reflection groups and forums compelled the organization’s leadership to launch a new initiative, which quickly became its signature program. In 1998, the Institute led its first congressional pilgrimage to iconic civil rights sites in Alabama. Since that time, nearly 300 Members of Congress, from both chambers and both parties, have visited the places seared into the nation’s conscience during the darkest days leading to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
- In Birmingham, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, members of Congress and guests have paid their respects to the four young girls killed in 1965 when members of the Ku Klux Klan targeted the church with dynamite.
- They have worshipped together at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Reverend Martin Luther King began preaching in 1954 and from where he helped to plan the Montgomery bus boycott.
- They have walked arm in arm with Congressman Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where troopers fractured his skull on “Bloody Sunday” 1965 as he joined in the peaceful Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.
“To walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis will forever be etched in my mind and heart as one of the most moving and significant moments in my life,” said U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) of his experience.
In addition to the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, the Institute has periodically led pilgrimages to other locations often associated with the struggle for civil rights – Farmville, Virginia; Mississippi and the Gulf Coast; New Orleans. In 2016, to delve into the leadership lessons of forgiveness in the aftermath of terrible violence and hatred witnessed in the murder of nine congregants at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the Institute organized its first pilgrimage from Columbia to to Charleston, South Carolina, and surrounding areas.
While the U.S. civil rights movement has its own unique history, the struggle for freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity is not limited to the United States. Likewise, the history of inspired leaders stepping forward to confront outrageous injustice is found in countries around the world.
In 2003, The Faith & Politics Institute used its pilgrimage model to lead a congressional delegation to South Africa, where participants had an opportunity to study firsthand that nation’s process of racial reconciliation. They heard from F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president and a Nobel Laureate, as well as individuals who testified before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. They explored the role of faith in the struggle against apartheid and the courage of leaders who forged a peace process and a democratic, non-racial democracy. In 2016, The Faith & Politics Institute returned to South Africa as part of a larger delegation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s “Ripples of Hope” speech.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) reflected on his experience. “I met a remarkable range of men and women, young and old, leaders of this generation and the last, in South Africa in this past week, and was reminded in all of our conversations … that all of these men and women have fought that fight, sending forth ripples of hope that brought the mighty walls of apartheid crashing down and built a more equal nation in its place … In the months and years to come, the United States and South Africa can and should look to each other for lessons and inspirations as we continue to work to heal the damage of racial injustice, to reverse the trends of economic inequality, and to protect our experiments in democracy.”
Likewise, the struggle for civil rights for the minority community in Northern Ireland is replete with examples of courageous leadership. In 2014, The Faith & Politics Institute led a delegation to Dublin, Derry, and Belfast, to hear firsthandfrom leaders in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland of their efforts to overcome great odds – and numerous earlier failed efforts – to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement. Their leadership ended decades of sectarian violence and launched a process of reconciliation, societal reforms, and the return of regional self-governance.
Voices of Wisdom
The experiential nature of FPI’s pilgrimages have provided political leaders with profoundly moving learning experiences, which many have taken to heart. Closer to Capitol Hill, The Faith & Politics Institute has provided political professionals with a regular schedule of programs designed to fulfill its commitment to cultivate the qualities of transformational leadership and encourage thoughtful engagement.
Programs have featured religious leaders, authors, military leaders, historians and business executives who shared wisdom from their personal experiences. Examples include:
- South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a renown Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who spoke about the importance of faith in resolving conflict.
- Best-selling author David Halberstam, a Pulitzer prize winner, spoke at the Capitol about the role of young people in shaping the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
- Historian Ron White, author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, facilitated a retreat for Members built around Lincoln’s leadership.
- General Colin Powell joined The Faith & Politics Institute for the formal launch of its “Conversations on Race” initiative.
- Businessman Tom McMakin, founder of the Great Harvest Bread Company, shared the wisdom he gained from spiritual practice in the business world and creating community in the workplace, experiences that led him to write Bread and Butter.
- Internationally renowned author and Georgetown University linguistics scholar Deborah Tannen shared the research underlying her advocacy for a new style of public conversation in which individuals express their values and ideas with clarity but also listen with compassion and understanding.
The Faith & Politics Institute continues to present timely programs to support Members of Congress, their staff, and other political professionals as they struggle to balance the work of the people and their personal need to nourish and deepen their “interior life.”
As The Faith & Politics Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary, it looks to the future with plans built on the successes of the first quarter century. In 2017, FPI will present its signature civil rights pilgrimage along with new pilgrimages exploring other illustrations of values-based leadership; forums; and other programs – in addition to its regular weekly reflection groups for political leaders and senior staff.
We look forward to a new chapter in our history.