Catholic Activist Turned Congressman Has a Seat at the Table

Article excerpt

With a life story steeped in Catholic activism and a political outlook hewn from church social teachings, Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., is clearly the darling of the religious left. Meanwhile, this first term, 34-year-old politician is bringing faith-based sensibilities to Washington unlike others seen here in recent years.

"What Tom has been able to do is bring a spirit of grass-roots social change to Washington," said John Gehring, senior writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "His brand of conviction politics has real appeal at a time when people are hungry for leadership that transcends the narrow ideologies of left or right."

Mara Vanderslice, who works in the Obama administration's faith-based office, says flatly: "Tom is our favorite." Said Vanderslice, "During the [2004] Kerry campaign [when Vanderslice served as Kerry's religious liaison] no one was more supportive of me than Tom. He called every day."

To understand Perriello's personal take on politics one first has to become familiar with the remarkable path that brought him to Congress.

After attending Yale University as an undergraduate and law student, he traveled to Africa in 2002, where he worked with child soldiers and got involved with conflict resolution efforts in Sierra Leone. It was then he also worked with a special prosecutor and helped to indict former Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes, helping to remove him from power. PerrieUo has also worked in Kosovo, Darfur and Afghanistan, earning a rep that virtually any geopolitical nightmare would eventually attract him like an iron files to a magnet.

The immediate link that forged Perriello's overseas work with an emergent domestic activism came though group of amputees in Sierra Leone. "We were in the showdown with Charles Taylor just before he fell from power," Perriello recalled recently. "And they said to me, 'If you get him out of power, please go home and get Bush out of power. That's the best thing you can do for us in West Africa.' But the problems were deeper than just the Bush presidency."

By then, Perriello recalled, he had reached the conclusion that America's moral compass was well off course, especially in the political arena. "For 25 years we [Democrats] offered a kinder, gentler version of what was coming from the right." Perriello said he saw the need for deeper change.

So in 2004 he returned to the United States where his activism helped launch Res Publica and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, two social justice-driven nonprofit organizations that apply Catholic faith traditions to hot-button issues in the foreign and domestic political spheres.

In a short time, Perriello was influencing other Catholics to get similarly involved. "I am not sure I would be doing what I am doing if it weren't for Tom," said James Salt, political director of Catholics United, a nonpartisan group that describes itself as "promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic social tradition." Salt had started a Web site called Catholic Voter Project that caught Perriello's attention. While driving out to Kansas to work on a congressional race, Salt got a call from the future congressman saying he liked the site and wanted to bring more attention to it.

"By the time I got to Kansas, an AP story had hit the wires about us. Tom helped make it happen."

The mediating method Perriello employed to analyze the "deeper change" he was considering were the social teachings of the Catholic church. In them he found a battle-tested method for providing a systematic, analytic approach to answering the nation's core problems. "Turning greed into a virtue in the 1980s created a culture of instant gratification that everyone bemoans," Perriello said. "Moral decay starts at the top." This culture of instant gratification, he explains, had distorted the nation's politics, domestically and abroad. …