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Missouri Capitol

The Missouri Capitol at dusk on May 16, 2014. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

This week I spent a day lobbying with the ACLU of Missouri, walking the corridors of power in Jefferson City, encouraging legislators to respect the rights and dignity of every Missourian.

This time we had three priorities: to ensure the privacy of our online identities, by passing a law which prevents schools, employers, and the police from demanding passwords for our social media accounts; to end the inhumane practice, seen in some prisons, of shackling women while they are giving birth; and to improve the data police keep on who they are stopping (both on foot and in vehicles), to ensure that any systemic bias in policing can be identified and rectified.

All worthy causes I’m proud to fight for.

Lots of my activist friends don’t like the idea of lobbying: to them, electoral politics is an inherently compromised process, and all participants are swept up in a broken system, and thus compromised themselves.

I share the frustration which leads to this conclusion. The closer you get to politics, the more you can see the many problems our political system has. I am not naïve to how money influences who can get elected, and how partisan fighting gets in the way of passing essential legislation.

This is particularly true when one party has a supermajority, as the Republicans do in Missouri now — they have little effective opposition, and therefore little incentive to compromise or reach across the aisle. In the highly polarized political climate in which we live, I can understand those who think that lobbying is pointless.

Yet I love lobbying. I enjoy it because it reminds me that politicians are people, and much of politics is about relationships.

I get a huge amount of pleasure from getting to know, even if just for a few minutes, politicians who do not share some of my fundamental beliefs about how the world should be.

I like learning about their families, hearing stories from their time in office, and letting them talk about their upbringing. I like looking at the photos which adorn their office, and noting which books they read and what posters are on the wall.

Sometimes I find myself unexpectedly charmed, as when a deeply conservative lawmaker talked about his childhood on the family ranch. Other times I am disgusted, as when I saw a poster on one representative’s door saying “Lawfully concealed weapons are encouraged on these premises.” But I am always interested to get to know who these politicians are, as people, and to learn what drives and animates their public service.

Part of this is strategic, of course: if you can make a personal connection with a lawmaker, you are much more likely to be able to persuade them to vote your way.

Whenever I lobby, I work hard to find connections between the personal lives and values of the lawmakers I visit, and the issues I am going to discuss — this can make all the difference between a successful visit and a wasted trip.

But mostly I enjoy this relational aspect of lobbying because it is so humanizing. Sitting in a room with someone whose politics I despise and listening as they explain why they take a view I detest can — if I really listen — help me appreciate the humanity of people I might otherwise write off as stupid or hateful. This is true even if their view really is misinformed or based in bigotry.

I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable, yet ultimately productive, lobby sessions with anti-gay politicians who will shake my hand before telling me I don’t deserve employment protections or marriage rights. Even then, humanizing them through developing a relationship is important to me.

This is because I see the humanization of other people to be a bedrock ethical commitment. Ethical Humanism — the tradition I represent as clergy at the Ethical Society of St. Louis — has been called a “religion of relationships,” because of our focus on developing ethical relationships between all people.

We believe we are following our religious or ethical calling when we are finding humanity in the other, and we believe that the root of positive social change — social change which brings everybody along in a journey to a better society — is right relationships between people.

Lobbying, at its best, expresses this ethical ideal, for me. It’s not just an opportunity to tell lawmakers what I want them to do. It’s an opportunity to listen, to learn, and to humanize.

Croft is the outreach director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a Humanist community. He is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion