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How the Christian Coalition and MoveOn Helped Save Net Neutrality: A Buried Story of a Powerful Coalition

02/25/2015 11:29 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

This week's FCC action should bring a long-delayed victory for net neutrality. It's an important victory, without which the online world that we've come to take for granted would risk being auctioned off to the highest bidder. But this victory might never have happened without an unlikely political coalition a decade ago, a story that should remind us how even if we're divided by passionately felt issues, we can sometimes find powerful common ground.

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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 been on the other side of myriad issues, but 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."

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, as they've continued to. 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 FreePress.net 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.

Then Joan proposed to Michele that their two organizations collaborate on the issue. MoveOn had already taken a leading role. The Christian Coalition had done some low-key lobbying but had issued no public statements. When Joan broached the subject, Michele promptly got the go-ahead from her organization to participate. They ran the New York Times ad, as well as a joint Washington Times opinion piece. Roberta wrote a separate Washington Post op-ed in with the head of leading pro-choice group NARAL. Michele and Joan then delivered a petition with over a million signatures at a Washington, D.C., press conference, with Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. Michele also testified before Congressional committees and worked with MoveOn's media person. Because the groups were such strange bedfellows, their joint efforts attracted far more attention than if either had acted on its own. "If we'd just done this with other conservative groups," said Michele, "it wouldn't have had nearly the impact."

Joan agreed. "It's nice to not always be predictable," she said. "When MoveOn shows up, people expect what we're going to say. But when MoveOn and the Christian Coalition show up together, people think, 'If these guys can agree on this, maybe it's something I should pay attention to.' You get a totally different response."

Although the Christian Coalition took heat from some usual allies, the two groups persisted, and the regressive legislation deadlocked in the critical Senate committee. Political momentum shifted further after the 2006 election--and then entered an extended period of limbo after Barack Obama's election, when it became unclear just how the FCC Commissioners he appointed would rule. That limbo is now about to be resolved thanks to the sustained engagement of an array of organizations and individuals across the political spectrum. But without Joan and Michele's friendship and unlikely partnership, an equal-access Internet might well have vanished into cyberspace.

Both women found value in what Joan described as "working outside our regular neighborhoods. It was wonderful to make a difference on an issue that not a lot of people are thinking about, but is very big in terms of maintaining a public square that benefits everybody. It was a very happy ending."

"I think it's America at its best when you come together like this," said Michele. "At the end of the day everyone wants to make a better country for their families, for the future. When we talk basic values, there's a lot we come together on." Working with new allies also energized her. "When people on either side of the aisle work with others who feel the same way as they do, there's often in-fighting and egos. When you work with a group you normally disagree with, you're coming together without common baggage. You're both passionate, and you get a lot done. Not that I don't appreciate the organizations I usually work with, but when a group like ours comes together with MoveOn or the National Wildlife Federation, it shows that we really can find common ground."

Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 150,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful ... rich with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity." For more information, see paulloeb.org. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Loeb is also the author of a new edition of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (Basic Books, 2014), which has 100,000 copies in print.