Rebecca Linder Blachly leads the Episcopal Church’s six-person Office of Government Relations (OGR), and in normal times works out of an office essentially across the street from the Capitol. OGR is part of “Team Beyond” – working on ministry beyond the Episcopal Church along with Episcopal Migration Ministries, ecumenical and Interreligious affairs, and global partnerships.
OGR is having an eventful year. TLC Associate Editor Kirk Petersen interviewed Blachly on February 12, the next-to-last day of the impeachment trial. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TLC: I want to start at 30,000 feet. I was looking around on your website, in a video you said you tend to focus more on values than issues. I wonder if you would say a little more than that.
RLB: I would say we start with values, and we then turn to issues. The originating point is always a value that is a core one to our Christian faith. As we look into how can that be made real, then we get involved in issues.
And as you know, everything we do in OGR comes from General Convention resolutions, or Executive Council resolutions, so we’re really implementing the will of the church as made manifest through the resolutions of those bodies.
Poverty is something we all care about. So OK, what does that look like? Then you look at the current context that we’re in, look at the available policy options to address poverty, and then there may be a policy solution that is recommended. But it really comes from wanting to serve the most vulnerable.
At one of the committee hearings of the [late-January] Executive Council meeting, you were giving your briefing, and Bishop [of Utah Scott] Hayashi said something about detecting “a certain lightness that we haven’t seen in a long time.” This has got to be a big change for Government Relations with the new administration.
In some sense it’s the same work – we’re going to legislators and staff on the Hill and presenting our case. The difference now is we are seeing an administration that has taken a lot of bold steps that are in line with policies the General Convention has supported.
The refugee resettlement program is something we’ve been a part of in the Episcopal Church since 1938, and formally with the government since the 1980s. That program was close to getting wiped out. Now President Biden has issued an executive order on the whole U.S. refugee admissions program, making sure that the program is strong and has sufficient oversight and security vetting, and also is able to serve the most vulnerable.
So the tone of the work changes, and the content changes, from being a defensive posture on some issues, to something where we can think proactively and creatively about how to carry out the work.
Listening to you in that committee meeting, I was struck by how closely the things that the church cares about, in a public policy sense, line up with the Democratic Party. Which then made me think, what is it like dealing with Republicans?
I really believe that the resolutions at Convention are trying to address the problems that we face at any given moment. That changes from convention to convention, as we all have new challenges as a society, and as the Holy Spirit moves among convention, and helps to guide the wisdom of how to make the church respond at this moment.
Whether that aligns with one party or another – it may, I think at the surface level, but we work with a whole range of coalitions, many of whom are conservative. So, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we’re working alongside them on refugee resettlement. We’re working alongside them on things like protections for Dreamers and DACA, and on making sure that people who are seeking asylum have their legal rights afforded to them.
We had an action alert on Tuesday, asking support on the COVID stimulus bill, with the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Catholic Bishops, and a bunch of different groups, and we’re all pushing for the same things.
On the Republican piece, all our work is relationship based. We often try to persuade, to make the case for our position. Sometimes that may be successful, sometimes it’s not. And then we really look for common ground. It may be that on nine out of 10 issues we disagree, but there’s one issue where we’re able to find alignment.
Members of Congress also have quite a diversity of views and opinions on things. I think that gets missed. On top-line, controversial issues, yes, you can see where the parties align. But members of Congress care about a lot of interesting things. A conservative Republican we worked with, we disagree with on a lot, and he was very concerned about preserving sharks. He really wanted to work on some environmental stuff. The environment broadly wasn’t necessarily something he was interested in, but sharks were. We don’t have a ton of policies on sharks, but we do on protection of biodiversity.
To continue with the political party alignment, my sense is the leadership of the Church skews far more heavily Democratic than the overall membership of the Church. Is that fair?
I don’t know. We have a very politically diverse group in the pews. If you look at the members of Congress [who are Episcopalian], it’s been pretty evenly split for the past three Congresses, between Republicans and Democrats.
But I don’t know that I can speak to it. What’s your sense of it?
The leadership overwhelmingly skews liberal, and the membership is closer to a 50-50 thing. In that same committee meeting, Bishop [of Southwest Florida Dabney] Smith said he has a 50-50 diocese – sort of putting a stake in the ground that we need to be sensitive to both sides.
Yes. We are highly sensitive by being in a political environment to the different arguments, and to the different language registers that are used, and what resonates and what doesn’t. That’s something we’re very deliberate about.
We have more credibility if we’re perceived as able to work with both sides. If we’re perceived as being heavily aligned with one side, that doesn’t help our ability to do work on Capitol Hill. That’s why we work hard to partner with progressive groups and conservative groups.
On health care, I think the right and the left disagree very much on how to drive down medical costs, but everyone wants medical costs down. We’re not going to denigrate people who have a different perspective on it.
We’ve been concerned about family unity and immigration, treating immigrants with respect, for decades – and that didn’t use to be a totally winning point on the Democratic side.
The Church sometimes aligns more with one party than the other, because those parties are moving, and the Church is moving forward, too.
Speculating about the years to come, I think there may be some major transformation, because I think maybe one of the political parties will need to re-evaluate.
Probably the most controversial topic in the Episcopal Church in the last decade has been issues of human sexuality. Looking through your website, you don’t seem to have very much on that issue. Is that something you engage with much?
We’ve engaged by supporting the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies on some amicus briefs around transgender rights, specifically. We supported people of all sexual orientation and gender identity in legislation. We supported repealing the executive order on the transgender military ban.
A lot of what we’re doing is this very boring regulatory stuff – submitting comments for regulations about how the FCC regulates prison phone call rates. It’s very expensive for people who are incarcerated to call their family members. It shouldn’t be that expensive.
It’s one small piece of criminal justice reform, it’s not getting us all the way to ending mass incarceration, but it’s important, especially when people can’t visit during COVID. It’s important for reducing recidivism. That’s not partisan.
Some national security proponents are very focused on refugee-resettlement efforts for national security reasons. They’re pro, because it helps U.S. standing in the world. It’s not just church groups saying it’s the right thing to do, it’s small-town mayors saying this is good for my economy. Whenever possible we try to have a coalition that includes someone arguing the economic, and the security, and the moral framing all together. We’ll work with anyone who wants the same outcome that we want.
Where were you on the afternoon of January 6?
I was at home, watching. I had been anticipating the vote-counting all day. Our office is just a few hundred feet from the Capitol. We are in the Capitol buildings – the Senate and House buildings, and then occasionally the Capitol itself – with great frequency.
Early in quarantine we were looking for a hill for my 3-year-old son to roll down. He was 2 at the time. So we went to the Capitol and rolled down the hill all day. It’s our neighborhood, it doesn’t feel like just something from high school civics class.
It was quite disturbing to see. It resonates for everyone, but for those of us who work on the Hill every day, that’s our view out the window. We say good morning to Capitol police officers every day, or we did pre-pandemic. Nobody was in the office that day because we’ve all been working from home.
I was on the phone yesterday with a staffer who works on the Hill, and I hadn’t checked in on her in a few weeks. She said she just had to tear herself away from the impeachment, it’s too hard to watch. She was in the building.
We had a service for members of Congress, a morning prayer service, we had it online in January. It was via Zoom. We had a number of members of Congress and staff, but it was off the record, so we don’t say who it was. But they came together and had a prayer, and Bishop Curry led us, and it just felt like a really healing moment.
You mentioned in the committee that the closest place for you to get coffee from the office was in the Senate.
Yeah! We had to go through a metal detector every day to get coffee, but we did. It’s a place where people work, it’s an official building, but it’s also, you run into friends in the hallway and give them a hug, you say good morning to the same people every day.
I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s so disturbing.
There’s a sense, too – I don’t quite want to say “sacred,” but there’s a hallowedness to the halls, there’s a reverence that we bring to it. That’s the seat of the institution that has allowed us to govern ourselves as a country. We have not always lived up to our ideals, but we’re trying. So there’s a sense that I, as an American, more than as a Christian, feel hurt by that behavior and disrespect.
How long do you think it will be until you can get coffee in the Senate again?
I don’t know if it will go back to the same way that it was.
Is there anything else you’d like to have the Church know about your work and your office?
We sometimes get asked, why are you doing political stuff. I think this is one path, among many, toward a more just, a more humane world, where the values that we hold dear as Christians are lived out. I truly believe that advocacy does direct change. There’s some real impact to it. I feel we have an obligation, as a Church, to be in the space of federal-level advocacy, lifting up the values and holding up the plight of the most vulnerable.