Preface to Steeplejacking
Michelle Goldberg printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jun 20, 2007 at 11:19:26 PM EST
I was honored that John Dorhauer and Sheldon Culver asked me to write the preface to Steeplejacking, and Fred suggested I post it on Talk To Action. Here it is, for anyone who needs more inducement read this important book:
Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, head of the Anglican church in Nigeria, has described jumping back in horror after realizing he'd shaken hands with a gay man. Gay sex is already criminalized in Nigeria, but Akinola has championed a bill that would go much further, making it illegal to advocate for gay rights, belong to a gay group or publicize such a group in the media. "Strictly interpreted, the bill would ban two gay people from going out to dinner or seeing a movie together," The New York Times reported. Violators risk up to five years imprisonment.

Very few American conservatives would admit to backing this kind of repression, and yet twenty-one American Episcopal churches have put themselves under Akinola's authority rather than remain tied to a denomination that accepts gays and lesbians. Somehow, among many American Christians, vociferous condemnation of homosexuality has become the supreme mark of piety. Similarly fierce fights over sexual morality are erupting throughout the Protestant mainline, threatening to tear churches -- and church property -- away from their historic denominations. How is it that, in a time of widespread war, swelling inequality and environmental emergency, the question of gay rights is rending American churches in a way not seen since slavery?

This is not a spontaneous phenomenon. As Sheldon Culver and John Dorhauer reveal in this essential book, it is part of a carefully orchestrated campaign meant to undermine the liberal Protestant tradition and make Christianity synonymous with right-wing fundamentalism. It's hard to tell this story without sounding like a conspiracy theorist  -- it is, after all, a tale of power-seeking reactionaries enacting a plan to infiltrate and undermine established institutions. Yet Culver and Dorhauer have carefully marshaled evidence linking fights in individual congregations to larger organizations like the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which is heavily funded by right-wing foundations.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy has made no secret of its goal of hijacking mainstream Protestantism -- in a 2000 report on its "Reforming America's Churches Project," it boasted of successes in its almost 20-year campaign to "discredit and diminish the religious left's influence." But there was still much more to be done. The report outlined a plan to spend $3.6 million over four years to manipulate the governing church conventions of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church. It laid out its plan to use gay marriage as a wedge issue, and explained why taking over the mainstream churches is so important: "Secular proponents of sexual license like to portray their opponents as fundamentalists and conservative Catholics. They are befuddled to learn that liberal-dominated mainline churches oppose their agenda as well. IRD will continue to expose the pro-homosexual bias of mainline church agencies that want to disregard the official teachings of their churches."

Just as planned, right-wing groups have formed parallel organizations inside mainline congregations all over the country, often attempting coups against more liberal church leadership. Few churches caught in such struggles realize that they're part of a broader campaign, which is one of the reasons Steeplejacking is so valuable  -- recognizing the systematic nature of the assault is a crucial first step in organizing against it.

A Baptist preacher once told me that members of the Christian right will always cross denominational lines for political reasons, but they'll rarely cross political lines out of religious solidarity. That's because the Christian right is a political movement masquerading as a spiritual one. It seeks to harness peoples' yearning for transcendence and anxiety about a quickly changing world to a punitive, partisan program. It's about power. Much more is at stake in the battle within the mainline churches than positions on a few wedge issues. The outcome of these struggles will determine whether America's historic Protestant churches remain firm voices for social justice or become mere adjuncts of the political right. The Episcopal Church has been deeply critical of the policies of George W. Bush, especially the war in Iraq. Not so Archbishop Akinola, who, following Bush's reelection in 2004, published an open letter to the president saying, "By your victory at the polls, you have put to shame the revisionists and their agenda in the Church of Christ, and particularly in the Episcopal Church of United States of America...I hope that by your election victory, these ordained men and women will feel rebuked and be forced to repent of this grievous sin of repudiating the word of God, and to seek genuine restoration."

When I published my 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which was about the religious right in American politics, I thought I'd find an audience among my fellow Jews, secularists and civil libertarians, as well as gays and lesbians interested in the systematic way that homophobia has been used as an organizing tool. I've been both surprised and delighted by the enthusiastic reception I've found among liberal Christians. Throughout the country, such Christians have expressed despair at seeing their faith appropriated by forces utterly at odds with their interpretation of the gospels. Some have even confided that the very name "Christian" has become an embarrassment -- a heartbreaking admission. Very often, Christians ask me what they can do to reclaim their religion and stand against the right. The question usually leaves me humbled and a bit baffled, because, as a secular Jew, I'm not remotely qualified to answer it. Now, though, I know what to say: As a start, read this book.

You bring an important and knowledgable perspective to bear on all this.  As you know, there is a great deal of denial about the role of the IRD-tied renewal groups in the mainline churches, and reluctance to recognize that there are agents of disruption, both witting and unwitting in their midst, despite all that has happened over the past two decades or so.

It is important too, to see that the beneficiary of these divisions is none other than George Bush, and the targeted institutions are those who happen to oppose the excesses of American foreign policy.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jun 21, 2007 at 01:24:53 PM EST

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