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 Washington Notebook

December 29, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 46

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"We've tried to help restore a sense of community and a sense of movement."

Tom Perriello


Res Publica: A Public Works Project

By Joe Feuerherd

"Who are those guys?" a frustrated Butch repeatedly asks Sundance, referring to the stealthy trackers who aim to foil the duo's bank and train robbing plans.

It's a question some in the progressive political community, and a few observant politically active conservative Christians, are asking about Tom Perriello, Ricken Patel and Tom Pravda. Collectively the three make up Res Publica (Latin for "public works"), a New York-based "public entrepreneurship fellowship." Which is a pretty high-falootin moniker for any organization, even one made up of two Ivy League alums (Perriello, Yale Law School, Patel, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) and an Oxford grad (Pravda got his degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Balliol College.) But then again, the three thirtiesh social entrepreneurs have high ambitions.

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"We go wherever in the world we see the most pressing and urgent threat to social justice," says Perriello. Over the past few years, that mission led Perriello and Patel to Sierra Leone, where the latter served as a conflict analyst for the International Crisis Group and the former worked as Special Advisor and Acting Spokesperson to the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a United Nations tribunal. Pravda, meanwhile, worked for the United Nations Development Program in New York, and as a UK diplomat dealing with European Union development policy and relations with the Middle East and Africa. He has also consulted for Oxford Analytica and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

How serious is their commitment? Earlier this year the three - one a Catholic, one a nondenominational Christian, the other unclear about his religious affiliation - took a vow of poverty; which, jokes Perriello, is not necessarily a huge sacrifice given the nominal fees they charge for their services and the high-cost of living in New York City.

In 2003, the three decided to focus on developing the political and communications infrastructure of the religious left. "The public debate in the U.S. was the most important moral debate going on in the world," recalled Perriello. "We saw what seemed to be a resurgent progressive religious voice in America, but we weren't hearing the arguments for global community and the common good being made."

So they started making them. Working behind the scenes, and with the support of Riverside Church's senior minister James Forbes, the three friends played an instrumental role in:

  • Establishing the National Council of Church's online political organizing effort,, which "provides one-click opportunities to impact current political issues and shift the terms of public debate."
  • Organizing Progressive Faith Media, an online service geared to providing journalists with "easy access" to leaders in the "progressive religious community."
  • Promoting the Catholic Voting Project, whose 2004 Voter Guide promoted a consistent ethic of life over the abortion-centric "non-negotiable" voter guides published by conservative Catholic groups.
  • Supporting, a voter registration and mobilization effort. Several hundred thousand potential voters were contacted by this effort's phone banks in the final days of the presidential campaign, says Perriello.
  • Staffing Riverside Church's "Mobilization 2004" campaign, an effort to counteract the influence of the Religious Right.
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On Thursdays during the campaign, Res Publica hosted a conference call of progressive religious leaders. The purpose was to sharpen the message, plan strategy, respond to the latest salvo from the religious right and serve up a salvo or two of their own. Regular participants included Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler; Pax Christi National Coordinator Dave Robinson and dozens more.

"We've tried to help restore a sense of community and a sense of movement," says Perriello.

Post-election, those calls continue. And they've gone a step further. Over two days in early December (NCR, Dec. 17) approximately three-dozen religious activists met at the Washington office of the Center for American Progress, a recently formed think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. The Res Publica-driven agenda for the closed-door gathering included sessions on "building the movement infrastructure" and "objectives, strategies and core issues."

Republicans, many indebted to the Religious Right for their positions, control the White House and Congress and majorities in state legislatures and governor's mansions. Still, says Perriello, faithful liberals have reason for optimism. "Some of the [liberal religious] groups got their backbone back this year," he says. "There is a serious new political-spiritual voice emerging."

Will Res Publica - Perriello, Patel, and Pravda - be part of it? Hard to say. "We plan to go away and pray and figure out what we are called to do next," says Perriello.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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