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Soul of a Citizen: How the Christian Coalition and MoveOn Helped Save the Internet Together

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I just posted one of my favorite stories from Soul's new edition on Huffington Post, about how MoveOn and Christian Coalition came together to help save the internet as we knew it. I thought you'd like to see it. If you like it, I'd greatly appreciate going to the original Huffington Post page and commenting, because nothing keeps helps articles visible more than a lively discussion. Maybe you even have your own anecdotes of working with unlikely allies. (And again, it's going to be hard to respond to comments individually, but if you post them on Huffington Post I can).

Here's the story. Please do repost it, forward it, or otherwise pass it on. Might make a nice PS along with forwarding my email on Soul's new edition to organizations or friends, something I very much hope you'll do, since the book is traveling largely by word of mouth. And if you want other ways to pass the word, here are some suggestions.

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Soul of a Citizen: How the Christian Coalition and MoveOn Helped Save the Internet Together

By Paul Rogat Loeb

Pursuing bipartisanship at the expense of conviction is a losing game, as we saw with the endless delays on the health care bill. But when we create unexpected alliances that cross political lines, they can yield powerful results. Consider how MoveOn and the Christian Coalition helped save the Internet as we know it.

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"When it comes to protecting Internet freedom, the Christian Coalition and MoveOn respectfully agree," read the New York Times ad. MoveOn was the largest progressive organization in America, and the Christian Coalition a key group for conservative religious activists. They'd never teamed up on anything before.

The story behind the ad began with a former Army Ranger captain and Christian Coalition activist named Joseph McCormick. After losing his Republican congressional campaign and being a 2000 Bush delegate, Joseph began to recoil at the polarization of American political debate. He dropped out of active politics and retraced Alexis de Tocqueville's journey across America, interviewing a mix of ordinary citizens and political leaders across the ideological spectrum. The discussions were so rich that Joseph decided to create gatherings that would bring together key organizational leaders of similarly differing perspectives.

Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs got involved early on, cosponsoring the second gathering of what would be called Reuniting America, in December 2005. The other main cosponsor was MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades, who had worked as a mediator and was strongly drawn to the idea. The retreat assembled leaders from organizations representing 70 million Americans, including conservative groups like the American Legion, the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Christian Coalition; progressive ones like the Sierra Club, MoveOn, Common Cause, the National Council of Churches, and the League of Woman Voters; and the massive seniors' organization, the AARP. Roberta and Joan quickly hit it off.

Four months later, Roberta couldn't make it to a Reuniting America steering committee meeting, so she sent her daughter, Michele Combs, Christian Coalition's communications director and a former head of South Carolina's Young Republicans. Michele and Joan, who sat next to each other at breakfast, also connected immediately. Michele was going through a divorce, and Joan had written a book on cooperative custody. Both were moms, so they talked about their children. Despite vast political differences, they instantly became friends. "We connected just talking the way women do," said Michele. "We have lots of commonalities."

At the next retreat, on energy security, Michele connected again with Joan, and with Al and Tipper Gore, who participated, along with scientists, energy industry leaders, and activists of diverse perspectives. "It was in a little hippie town an hour north of Denver," said Michele, "with peace signs everywhere. I was a little shocked. Then I walked in and the first people I met were Al and Tipper. But she was just a very kind person, compassionate and honest. I liked Al too, even though I didn't vote for him. When you meet someone intimately with just 30 other people, you have a chance to see the good in them. They went through a lot."

Later Michele participated in Gore's global climate change training sessions. "I'd been thinking about environmental issues since I was pregnant and was told "don't eat shellfish because of mercury.' If it's such a problem when you're pregnant, I thought, isn't it a problem when you're not? Thinking about climate change was a logical next step." After learning more about the issue, she started a Christian Coalition project promoting alternative energy, together with the National Wildlife Federation. Michele described the head of that group, Larry Schweiger, as "a very strong Christian, passionate on this issue, with lots of evangelical hunters and anglers in his organization." Michele liked joining Schweiger to lobby Republican Senators, "because when he goes in with the Christian Coalition, they can't accuse him of being liberal."

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Joan always gained something from talking with people she disagreed with. "But with Michele and Roberta, it went deeper. We formed a friendship. We'd talk on the phone about our families and who Michele was going out with since her divorce. Kind of a girlfriend thing. We bonded further at another retreat just for women. We figured if we got along so well, our friends and political allies would too, which turned out to be true."

The retreats fostered their friendship, and more. Soon after meeting Michele, Joan got the idea of a joint political effort to save what was called Net Neutrality--the right to keep the Internet available as an open commons for all. The Internet had developed that way from the beginning, with all content having equal access and phone and telecom companies supplying the physical routes for data to travel, but not being allowed to favor or disfavor particular websites, applications, or data. But as high-speed Internet use took off, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and TimeWarner lobbied to control all that their media carried. This could let them auction off the right for websites or applications whose owners wanted them to load faster, while relegating other sites to second-class service. Such a shift would have devastated nonprofits, small businesses, and all kinds of political advocacy groups, which couldn't afford the rates that the most lucrative sites could pay. The telecom companies would also be able to control any content they chose, as when Verizon refused to distribute a text message alert from NARAL Pro Choice America and AT&T muted singer Eddie Vedder's criticism of President Bush during a live Pearl Jam webcast. In August 2005, the telecom companies got Bush's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to eliminate the requirement that all content providers be treated equally.

The next spring, the battle moved to Congress, with the telecom companies spending millions to change the rules permanently. They got the House to pass a bill that would have confirmed the elimination of Net Neutrality. It looked as if the battle was lost. But a word-of-mouth revolt began working to block similar Senate legislation. Prominent bloggers of all perspectives took up the cause, including apolitical ones covering food, sports, and technology. In April 2006, the media reform group launched a new Save the Internet Coalition including the AARP, MoveOn, Gun Owners of America, American Library Association, National Religious Broadcasters, Common Cause, Service Employees International Union, and key individuals like many of the people who'd first developed the Web, plus online video gamers and prominent musicians. Opponents delivered petitions to swing Senators. But time was running out.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)

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