It was an extraordinary sequence of events — just the kind the media laps up. But despite a press release the NCC issued on the prayer and the meeting, and even the efforts of the right-wing Institute on Religion & Democracy to use the event to make some hay for its side, not a word about the incident made national news.
This publicity blackout is a far cry from the kind of klieg-light attention the Christian right garners for such stunts — and the contrast illustrates only one of the daunting obstacles faced by the mainstream religious community as it attempts to challenge the conservative Christian juggernaut.
Since its grand successes in the fight for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, the mainstream American religious community has found itself beset by conflicts within denominations that often distract it from finding a unified voice.
Nor has the cause been helped by President Clinton, who is by all accounts a man of sincere faith: He has yet to take aim at the right-wing religious forces that so threaten his agenda.
Nevertheless, a nascent countermovement is beginning. Isolated local coalitions of religious activists have sprung up wherever the Christian right has moved in to do battle, and now the long-established religious organizations on the New York/Washington power axis are taking notice. For instance, Rabbi Jody R. Cohen of the American Jewish Committee is working to build local coalitions of Christians and Jews. Others among religious leaders are also recognizing that all the components necessary for a nationwide movement already exist.
In the war over religious freedom, the most brutal battles are being fought at the local and state levels. Right-wing Christians continue to wreak havoc in selected school board elections across the country. In February, a group called Of The People, led by Betsy DeVos, wife of Amway founder and well-known Christian right funder Richard DeVos, announced its goal to introduce so-called parents’ rights amendments in 50 states. Such amendments could be used to limit school curricula and, in some cases, limit the ability of public schools to identify kids being abused at home, or to offer them counseling.
But grassroots religious leaders are beginning to work together across denominational lines to defend religious freedom. In Des Moines, Iowa, where the religious right launched a vicious anti-gay campaign that defeated veteran school board member Jonathan Wilson last September (see Power Preying, Mother Jones, December 1995), several large mainline churches formed an organization called FORWARD (Fellowship Of Religions Working for American Reconciliation amid Diversity).
“FORWARD basically says that faith-based people can work together — maybe not completely approving utterly of each other’s positions or theological convictionsÉ but accepting one another and knowing that we have to work together for the common good,” explains the Rev. Samuel Massey, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church. “We can respond to issues such as housing, wages, and concerns of the family in positive and creative ways. We’re not willing to say, ‘Here’s a simple answer — you buy it or get off the truck.'”
In February, FORWARD held an educational forum, just before Iowa’s ballyhooed presidential caucuses, that was expected to draw about 100 people; 350 showed up. FORWARD’s immediate plans call for a voter education program for next September’s school board elections that includes candidate forums and the distribution of voter guides.
Such locally based ecumenical alliances are putting pressure on national religious groups to follow their lead. The Interfaith Alliance, initially formed in July 1994 as a Washington leadership organization, soon became more locally driven as scores of grassroots religious activists appealed to the alliance for guidance in local and state election activity. The alliance now boasts 46 chapters in 23 states. (As Mother Jones went to press, FORWARD joined the alliance and changed its name to The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.) Executive Director Jill Hanauer spends half her time in the field, helping local chapters with organizing for electoral campaigns.
The Interfaith Alliance is also getting into the voter guide business, a staple of Christian Coalition politics. The organization polls candidates on a range of issues and prints the results on handbills. In recent contests for the Virginia legislature and for the seat of the scandalously retired Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood — two Interfaith Alliance chapters distributed 110,000 guides that helped defeat the right-wing candidates.
“Our message as The Interfaith Alliance is that apathy is immoral,” Hanauer says. “We are going to make it a moral imperative that religious Americans vote.”
Unlike the Christian Coalition, which devises a national strategy for local chapters, The Interfaith Alliance takes its cues from the ground up. Last November, in Washington state, for example, where the Christian Coalition was rumored to be launching stealth candidates in several school districts, the state chapter of The Interfaith Alliance came up with a pledge it asked candidates in four school board elections to sign. They had to promise to “affirm the religious diversity of this country” and “reject any political group which preaches or practices exclusion and intolerance, including any assertion that votes for its candidates are ‘votes for God.'” The pledge tactic worked: Suspected Christian right candidates failed to sign it, and more progressive forces prevailed.
But The Interfaith Alliance also has kept its hand in national issues. When congressional field hearings were held last fall on Rep. Ernest Istook’s (R-Okla.) prayer amendment, which would allow organized prayer in public schools, the alliance sent a delegation led by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Ph.D., one of the organization’s founders and the former president of the American Jewish Congress.
On abortion, however, one of the right’s hottest issues, The Interfaith Alliance has pledged neutrality, citing the impossibility of reaching consensus in a multidenominational organization that includes two progressive Catholic bishops on its board; this decision has prevented the alliance from working closely with the best-organized sector of the Catholic dissent community — the pro-choice forces.
To the left of The Interfaith Alliance stand religious leaders like the Rev. David Dyson, pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. A veteran union organizer for the United Farm Workers, Dyson is turning those skills to the creation of a national database of religious activists. Dyson believes what’s really driving the religious right, as evidenced by the fervor of Pat Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks,” is an economy that is choking average citizens while enriching multinational corporations. So he’s focusing on issues of economic justice.
“We need to start identifying and mobilizing activists in mainline, midsized, middle-class Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant congregations around the country,” Dyson says. “The deficiency I’ve seen — and I say this affectionately because, you know, I’m part of this whole structure — on the part of the progressive religious elements is, it’s been too leadership-oriented, which is how we’ve always done things.”
Dyson’s idea for the network sprang from one of his recent successes, a campaign by the National Labor Committee, a coalition of unions and churchgoers, to put an end to The Gap’s exploitive, union-busting practices in Latin America. A church-led letter-writing campaign pressured The Gap’s California-based executives to get on a plane to New York to negotiate with Dyson and his allies. Their meeting culminated in a document in which the executives promised to allow outside human rights monitors into their factories to assure good working conditions.
“There is enormous power in religious people, at the congregational level,” Dyson says. “Let’s face it, most campaigns are letter-writing, showing up at a demonstration, making phone calls.”
The success set Dyson to pitch the idea of the database to ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a national nonprofit network that organizes low-income citizens around a range of issues including housing and jobs. ACORN provided Dyson with the technical support and organizing help to launch the People of Faith network in January. The initial sign-up mailing went to 1,200 congregations. Dyson expects the database to catalyze an unprecedented exchange of information and mobilization efforts.
Ultimately, of course, the network will depend upon the kind of action that took place at Dyson’s church one Sunday: Some 60 congregants stayed after the service to write letters on church stationery to implore New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani not to privatize the city’s public hospitals, which serve the poor. With its racially mixed congregation (two-thirds black, one-third white and Latino), the grand old neoclassical church gave a hopeful glimpse of what a national religious progressive movement may look like.
At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., rabbi and lawyer David Saperstein presides over a staff of energetic young people who seek to bring the altruistic values of their religion to the political process. Known as the premier religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill (and said to have Clinton’s ear), Saperstein has been battling the Christian Coalition’s “Contract With the American Family,” particularly its so-called Religious Equality Amendment.
Saperstein sees an enthusiastic force for change in the thousands of young people attending reform synagogues. Recently, the center brought together several hundred teenagers in Washington, D.C., for a long weekend during which Saperstein schooled them in the fine art of political lobbying and the launching of community-based campaigns. “The battle with the religious right today, the battle over these constitutional amendments, is a battle over the soul and the future of this great land,” Saperstein told the assembled high school kids. “We Jews have known more freedoms and more opportunities here in America because of that concept of fundamental freedom.”
As the rabbi took a long pause, the teenagers sat in rapt silence. “The religious right would take all of that away from us. That’s what this battle is about,” he said, bringing his voice to a whisper. “It is about the destiny of this nation.”
But a battle for the destiny of the nation calls for a leader to inspire such a movement. “We haven’t had a world-class leader in the church since Martin Luther King died,” says FORWARD’s Rev. Dr. William Cotton of Des Moines’ Grace United Methodist Church.
Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), concurs. “There are very few discernible progressive religious leaders who are taken seriously. Who is Billy Graham’s progressive equivalent? Does not exist.”
Saperstein points to another problem: The multidenominational religious community needs to reclaim its franchise on a holistic human rights agenda, he says. The issues that once drove religious activism, such as civil rights and opposition to war, have become secularized and fragmented into professionally led single-issue groups, he observes.
And while secular activists raise money for individual causes through direct-mail campaigns, liberal religious groups still rely primarily on a portion of the collection plates passed along sparsely populated pews, and whatever else they can drum up from congregants. That’s a dramatic contrast to the Christian right, which disseminates a complete agenda through a machine fueled by dollars extorted by televangelists and the largesse of right-wing millionaires.
When some on the secular left grumble about the apparent lack of a liberal religious presence in the national media, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg of The Interfaith Alliance bristles. “Well, the rich secular leftniks would do themselves a great favor by helping to finance the liberal religious forces, which they are not doing.”
In order to re-establish a religious, progressive human rights agenda, the mainstream religious community must grapple with a range of cultural and theological differences the Christian Coalition doesn’t face. The strength — and the weakness — of mainstream religion in America is that it is composed of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, blacks and whites, and a host of other races and smaller sects. And the three main branches of mainstream American religious belief have suffered deep internal schisms, in part because of backlash movements stemming from the more liberal ’60s and ’70s.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the election of the authoritarian Pope John Paul II in 1978 marked the beginning of a significant crackdown on the Catholic left that has rendered it almost nonexistent as an institutional force. Today, the Catholic left, best represented by what is known as the dissent movement, operates largely outside of the church.
Jewish leaders publicly fret over the dramatic rise in intermarriage due to assimilation, while arguments over Israel’s peace process with its Arab neighbors continue to divide the American Jewish body politic.
Meanwhile, African-American Protestant churches continue to struggle with problems of economic injustice, violence, and drug abuse in their own communities, leaving little time or resources to combat the religious right on a national level.
And membership in the mostly white Protestant churches has slipped significantly. A 1989 study of American Presbyterian membership revealed that over the previous quarter century, the church lost one-fourth of its membership. The study showed baby boomers born into the church weren’t participating as adults, a result that may be true for many mainstream Christian denominations.
Nor have the leftward positions taken by mainline religious leaders — against the war in Vietnam, against the Nicaraguan Contras, against nuclear proliferation — always met with the approval of their congregations. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches admits that organizations like hers have tended to be ahead of the congregants on issues ranging from foreign policy to women’s rights. At pres-ent, nearly all the mainline churches are struggling over the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the growing influence of feminist theology, which, by its very existence, calls into question basic assumptions about the nature of the divine. Ironically, the mainline churches are at risk of fracturing within over the right’s favorite wedge issues.
The core of these struggles is the need to be “both authentic and relevant,” says Jill Hanauer. Often, the mainstream and liberal forces find themselves thwarted by their own good intentions and need for consensus, while the right charges ahead on orders from its leaders.
The issues that drive the right are what Campbell calls the “me and mine” issues: “my family, my money, my taxes, my house.” And the right offers easy answers to the most perplexing issues of the day. Take, for example, the restructuring and redefinition of the family, for which the right has a simple, backward-looking prescription. As economic and familial paradigms are turned on their heads, says Mary E. Hunt, people want to rely on religion as the one thing that doesn’t change. But in the mainstream and on the left, it has.
“On the right, they’ve got all the answers, and they will tell you what the answers are,” she says. “On the left, we have none of the answers, and we’re not even sure what all of the questions are.”
Nonetheless, the assault from the right may ultimately prove to be a strengthening factor for mainline churches as they struggle to articulate their core values. Even now, there are hopeful signs that mainstream churches and synagogues are on the rise. In Des Moines, for example, the mainline churches are filling up again as believers return.
“I really believe there’s a new kind of progressive groundswell,” says the Rev. Dr. William Cotton of Iowa’s FORWARD. “I think the best of the country decides sometimes to shine through. It might just be that we are on the verge of a new progressive era.”