"Liberal" Church Ad Attacked by Rightwing Agency
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Apr 06, 2006 at 01:37:38 PM EST
For a quarter century, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), bankrolled by the founding funders and architects of the institutional right in Washington, DC, (such as the Heritage Foundation), has waged a war of attrition against the historic churches of mainstream Protestantism. This gang of social and foreign policy conservatives have planted bogus stories with the media, and deployed staff to foment dissent, and to organize conservative factions into dissident formations throughout the churches as if they were strategic targets in a global war. All this and much more.

The 1.3 million member United Church of Christ, one of the targeted churches, has over the past two years, been engaged in a warm-hearted outreach campaign called "God is Still Speaking," which includes a TV and blog ad campaign that seeks to reach people who have felt "rejected" for one reason or another by churches (as UCC research has found that many people do), and seeks to offer a message of what they call "extravagant welcome." The ads assert "God does not reject people. Neither do we."

The current ad campaign was unveiled at a national news conference on March 27th at UCC headquarters in Cleveland.  Based on the UCC's news release, longtime IRD leader Mark Tooley published a piece in the  The American Spectator online on April 6 that is highly critical of the ad -- and of the UCC.

The Spectator is best known for receiving financing from Richard Mellon Scaife to run smear articles against President Bill Clinton as part of what was called "the Arkansas Project." Uncoincidentally, Scaife was one of the founding funders of IRD and remains a major contributor.

The purpose of the IRD is to neutralize the theological, social and public policy views of the mainline churches and to dismember them through schism. Indeed, IRD has a program, partly underwritten by Scaife-controlled foundations, explicitly aimed at fomenting schisms. So it was particularly fitting when IRD recently hired a new president who is a minister in a small schismatic evangelical Presbyterian denomination that left mainstream Presbyterianism in 1973 over such things as ordination of women.

But mainstream church leaders have gotten wise to IRD.  UCC president Rev. John Thomas recently said:  

The IRD pursues its political agenda in the churches through three strategies: campaigns of disinformation that seek to discredit church leadership, advocacy efforts at church assemblies seeking to influence church policy, and grass roots organizing which, in some cases, encourages schismatic movements encouraging members and congregations either to redirect mission funding or even to leave their denominations.

And Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer writing at Talk to Action about the primarily IRD-networked conservative "renewal" groups:

These are not renewal groups: they are trained activists intent on the demise, the destabilization, and the destruction of Mainline Protestant Christianity. They use cleverly chosen wedge issues to divide otherwise united congregations and denominations. They produce, print, and circulate periodicals, pamphlets, and diatribes filled with innuendo and misinformation intended to enflame the passions of otherwise content congregants.

Tooley's article is an excellent example of why thoughtful Christian leaders like Thomas and Dorhauer have come to say such things.

The current UCC ad portrays, in a humorous fashion, the "ejection" via church pew ejector seats, of people who might make some parishioners uncomfortable: a young black woman with a crying baby; a gay couple; a man of middle eastern descent; a homeless person; an elderly person with a walker. It ends with a warm assemblage of smiling UCC people who do not reject people who come to their church. With all this, Mark Tooley has a problem. He writes:

"The liberal-controlled United Church of Christ (UCC) has unveiled its latest television ad, which features an intolerant and presumably conservative church ejecting an "African-American mother," "a gay couple, an Arab-American, [and] a person using a walker," ... Who these dreadful exclusionary churches are, the UCC ad campaign of course never specifies. Presumably they include the vast majority of U.S. churches that, unlike the UCC, do affirm traditional Christian doctrinal and sexual standards."

Ahhh... hear the weasel word of the propagandist: "presumably." It's so good he uses it twice.  But then again, he had to; that's his entire argument.

Had he attended the press conference and listened to the prepared statement of Rev. Ron Buford, who directs the UCC's "God is Still Speaking" campaign -- the video of which has been available on the front page of the UCC web site for a week -- or just bothered to ask, he would not have had to rely on the word,"presumably." But that would have ruined a perfectly good hit piece.

(Tooley makes the same point about the UCC's first TV spot, which aired in the run up to Christmas in 2004, and "which featured a bouncer turning away racial minorities and gays from another hypothetical intolerant, i.e. conservative church." Of course, there is nothing in that ad either that suggests that it was a conservative church. The church in the first ad was as generic as the church in the current ad.)

The national news wire Religion News Service, ran a story just hours after the news conference, that addressed Tooley's complaint:

Ron Buford... said the 1.3 million-member church was not trying to take a swipe at other churches by billing itself as more welcoming and diverse.

"It does not mean to suggest that other churches reject people and that we have not; we have," Buford said. "We too can forget our core business, and these ads speak to us as well."

Ah. The person who directs the program said that the ad is directed at all churches -- including and especially the UCC itself! This makes sense of course, because as Tooley knows, or could easily have found out, the UCC has been holding training sessions with participating churches for the past two years about how to make their churches more welcoming; how to help to ensure that no one coming to their churches would be made to feel, even inadvertently, unwelcome. Hence the idea of "extravagant welcome."

Tooley could also have visited the FAQs on the God is Still Speaking campaign web site, which addresses the point another way:

We filmed in a congregation of the United Church of Canada. We sometimes hear that the stained glass or vaulted ceilings make this "clearly a ___ church," depending on the viewer's background. There is lots of variety among congregations of the United Church of Christ, and many of our congregations cherish buildings much like the one shown.

We use this architectural form because it says "church" clearly and quickly in the public mind. This is helpful in a 30-second spot. It establishes the scene immediately and readies the viewer for our message. Notice how church structures are portrayed in this same way or in a "little white frame" country church in nearly every TV commercial, show, or movie that wants to quickly establish this concept.

Also, it is natural for people to bring their own experience to this commercial. Many of them erroneously assume that only certain type churches look this way. This is a wonderful opportunity to share with them the wide architectural variety in United Church of Christ congregations.

Tooley's screed in The American Spectator, perhaps unwittingly confirms the main point of the ad -- that there are churches and individuals who may be unwelcoming. Tooley's article also underscores that for some, it is a profession.

All of the ads in the series may be seen on the UCC's God is Still Speaking campaign web site.

to attack a church's efforts to be welcoming to all.

I think this is a turning point.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 06, 2006 at 10:55:26 PM EST

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