We open the Wisconsin installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this piece.

By Amy Johnson,
Director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin

The people of the great state of Wisconsin make the most of our seasons. We have the seasons of summer, winter and road construction. Autumn itself features the seasons of the Packers, the Badgers and various types of hunting. The people of this state also recognize political campaign seasons, and we take great pride in exercising our democratic right to vote.

This current campaign season has been different because this time the season began in the spring of 2011, and it has yet to end. The intense debate over state employee collective bargaining rights in February of 2011 led to a series of recall races of incumbent state senators in the summer of 2011.  Shortly afterwards the focus shifted to petition drives to hold a recall election of the governor, the lieutenant governor and four other state senators that took place in June of 2012. 
When the recall process ended on June 5, nearly $120 million had been spent to influence the outcome of 11 races.  There was no rest for the weary because it was then time for Wisconsin voters to focus on the presidential election and select a new U.S. senator.

Being in a perpetual campaign mode is in itself exhausting for voters. However, this season has been particularly wearing on Wisconsin residents, because it began as a debate over existing and specific jobs.  This debate was personal for the government employees and teachers struggling to maintain labor protections, and it was personal for the unemployed, farmers and low-wage workers who had been struggling for years without any protections.

It quickly became clear that most adults in Wisconsin had strong opinions on collective bargaining, as well as opinions on the governor and members of our state Legislature. The debate that started in Madison soon played out in all parts of the state. Intense quarrels occurred in public places and at family gatherings. It seemed that each Wisconsinite held fast to their own opinion, and any criticism of our individual views felt as if we, personally, were being attacked.

Our ELCA congregations experienced division among members who held differing opinions. This was not the first time that Lutheran Christians in Wisconsin strongly disagreed on controversial issues. At the same time, it was important for us to remember our common identity in Christ and our commitment to love and serve our neighbors. Even during the height of the debate when people feared talking with others about the state budget debate, our congregations continued to serve our neighbors and pray for our elected leaders in their weekly services.

When the large demonstrations had quieted in March 2011, and the state capitol building was easier to enter, I was finally able to meet with lawmakers and staff to explain the priorities of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy. At the conclusion of each meeting, I shared that ELCA congregations around the state prayed for them, our lawmakers, every Sunday. These public servants had been living in a pressure cooker, and many were often afraid for their safety. But this was the first time they had heard people were regularly praying for them throughout this tumult. That realization allowed them to tell their own story and share what it was like to be at the center of the debate. Those conversations were an important reminder to me that by sharing something personal and by listening to their stories, they in turn were more open to listening to me.  

Our Lutheran heritage teaches us that government can be a gift and an instrument in working for the common good. Government is not something that can be ignored, nor can its leaders be dismissed.  Rather, Lutheran Christians hold a unique perspective in this day and age that our governments are to be respected because we believe that good governments can help bring peace and justice (our baptismal calling) on all the earth.  Just as Lutherans must not abandon our government and our role as faithful citizens, we must not abandon each other, even when we disagree. We must continue to learn from and listen to our neighbor, valuing the other person’s perspective and working for deeper understanding. 

Stay tuned to the “Advocating on the Road” blog series—in the coming weeks, we will hear from advocates in Wisconsin who work to listen and find common ground.