A Conservative Crack-up at The American Spectator
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jun 22, 2007 at 05:16:56 PM EST
When the religious right careens off the road of reason, the crash can be spectacular. Thursday night the sky was lit by the firey embers of the ravings of one Jeffrey Lord a former political director in the Reagan White House; duly recorded at The American Spectator.

On the eve of the national gathering of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, Lord compared his own church to the former Soviet Union and this comparison is justified he implies, because the leadership of the UCC is somehow analagous to the Talk to Action site guidelines!  As a co-founder of the site, naturally this came as a surprise to me --  as did Lord's claim that our modest effort and the activities of the national UCC are also somehow like Harvard and contemporary Russia.

Before we examine the smoking wreckage of Lord's rhetorical vehicle, let's take a look at tracks of his smear.

The hard, plain fact is that at the national level of my church, intolerance of political diversity is the coin of the realm. Pushing a PR campaign that proclaims it is a "welcoming" denomination, the blunt fact is that if you are a conservative in the UCC at the national level you are anything but welcomed. In the words of one liberal pro-UCC website, www.talk2action.org, they simply will not permit "discussion, dialogue or debate" about issues they consider "settled matters." As with many hard-core left-wing institutions (think, say, Harvard and its tussle with ex-president Larry Summers or, increasingly, Vladimir Putin's Russia and his treatment of dissenters) there is the not inconsiderable whiff of a totalitarian mindset. Either you're with the liberal national UCC leadership - or you're against them. Discussion over.

Lord claims that conservatives are not welcome at the national level of the UCC.  Huh. Well I wouldn't know about that. But I am certainly not persuaded since all Lord has to support his allegation are some sly misrepresentations of this web site, which has no affiliation with the UCC.  A regional UCC staffer, John Dorhauer writes a weekly blog post on his own time here.  And as important as we find our friend John's posts and the book Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion he co-authored with fellow UCC staffer Sheldon Culver to be -- that's it for our relationship to the denomination itself.

Let's unpack the smear a little further. Talk to Action operates in the best tradition of both private enterprise and the first amendment: we set the parameters for what can and cannot be published -- just like the New York Times, The American Spectator, or any blog in the blogosphere. Some blogs are free-for-all-open-fora; some are not; some allow comments, some don't. These are the editorial choices of owners of the respective publications and blog sites. It is their right. Some gadflies, rightwing and otherwise, believe that they are somehow entitled to hijack other people's blogs for whatever purposes they see fit. And some huff and puff when they are shown the door. Some never get over it.

Here is the context of the quotes Lord lifts from our site guidelines:  

Talk to Action is a platform for reporting on, learning about, and analyzing and discussing the religious right -- and what to do about it. It is not a forum for discussion, dialog or debate with those who sympathize with or belong to this movement. There is an editorial framework for this site that is different than you will find on other major blog sites, so please read this carefully: We are pro-religious equality and pro-separation of church and state. We are prochoice, and we support gay and lesbian civil rights -- including marriage equality. Therefore, debates about the validity of abortion and gay rights are off topic. We understand that some people who share our general concern about the politics of the Christian Right may not agree on all of these matters. That's fine. Anyone who agrees with the purpose of this site is welcome to participate -- but bearing this in mind. It is our intention to take the conversation forward, and not let it be held back by debating what, in our view are or should be, settled matters of human, civil and constitutional rights.

Of course, Lord's analogy falls apart because his claim about the Talk to Action site guidelines is nothing like the reality. What's more, it has no relevance to the open and democratic polity of the UCC; a national denomination with open meetings and frequent elections. Lord may not likeTalk to Action's editorial policy, but he offers zero evidence of supression of differing views in the UCC. Lord's rant and false analogy smacks more of the griping of a Republican political operative than the thoughtful critique of the president of a UCC congregation.

Meanwhile, no rightwing smear job would be complete without comparing the target to the former Soviet Union -- and Lord does not disappoint. But in making the Soviet analogy to the denomination's "liberal assumptions" he writes about his own church like he is living behind the Iron Curtain, and implies that UCC Truths, a tiny gadfly site, and the Biblical Witness Fellowship are somehow catalysts for a conservative glasnost in the UCC.

Fortunately for conservatives within the UCC, as with the conservative movement generally, technology has come to the rescue of this standoff. The once complete domination by liberals is at long last crumbling in quite visible fashion. After all, if the Soviet Union could come to an end, why not liberal control of the UCC? The UCC's liberal assumptions are now openly questioned at popular websites run by dissenters such as UCC Truths.com. Importantly, in addition to its own original content, in the spirit of diversity that is distinctly not welcomed by the national church, the site lists links both to the official UCC sites as well as to the sites of the blossoming roster of visible UCC dissenters such as the Biblical Witness Fellowship.

Of course by Lord's logic, (if we may call it that); if Talk to Action is a "liberal pro-UCC website," then the Lord-praised UCC Truths must be a conservative anti-UCC website.  But let's not follow Lord's red herring too far.

The activities of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, are cleverly obscured by Lord's screed. The BWF has led the way in fanning the flames of discontent, suspicion, and schism in the UCC for many years -- pitting Christian against Christian; dividing congregations; setting factions against pastors; and parishes against the national communion. More generally, IRD has also encouraged and organized what can be best described as covert operations to dismember the major communions of American protestantism.  

"Make no mistake," wrote Avery Post, (the national president of the UCC during the Reagan era), in 1982, "the objectives of the Institute on Religion and Democracy are the exact opposite of what its name appears to stand for. The purpose of its leaders is to demoralize the mainline denominations and to turn them away from the pursuit of social and economic justice."

Some things don't change.

Also obscured in Lord's screed is the simple fact that the leadership of the United Church of Christ, like all of the mainline denominations, is elected. Indeed, the congregational tradition at the heart of the UCC has its roots in the colonial era, and is one of the foundations of American representative democracy.

The simple truth is that there is always another election if members don't like their national officers or if the elected delegates to national conferences pass resolutions that some don't like.  But, apparently the member agecies of the IRD have been unable to win enough elections or to win debates on the merits for their views to prevail in their respective national churches. Thus the sour grapes factions of the IRD network are now dissatisfied with democratic polities that have given voice and stature over many years to principled Christian opposition to military adventurism, torture, and other extra-judicial political and police activities of the Bush administration -- and similar issues during the Reagan administration when all this got started.  Unsurprisingly, Lord, the former political director in the Reagan White House decries "political" activity by the UCC.  

The IRD, on the other hand, whom Lord does not mention although we have written about it a great deal at Talk to Action in connection with BFW and the UCC, is a secretive, self-perpetuating body, representing political and financial interests outside of the churches, (notably more than a few neoconservative Catholics) who are eager to whip-up internal discord in order to neutralize the moral voice and political effectiveness of the mainline churches.  Let's say it again: The Biblical Witness Fellowship is the IRD's UCC affiliate.  

From this distance, it seems to me that as major institutions go, the UCC is wide-open and democratic, with a vibrant culture and a great tradition. It has a long record of advancing human and civil rights for all, and for standing-up for peace and social justice, even when the going gets tough.  For that reason, it is also under overt and covert attack by neocons associated with the Bush and Reagan administrations and the religious right.  

As for Talk to Action, we are a small but steadily growing blog site that provides a platform to a dozen or so bloggers, authors, journalists and think tankers -- and others who share some common interests and concerns. Those who share our interests and concerns are welcome to join us.  It ain't Putin's Russia any more than the UCC is the Soviet Union.

of UCC member Barack Obama's speech to the UCC general synod to snipe at his own denomination. We can reasonably expect the smears to escalate as the campaign season wears on.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jun 22, 2007 at 07:41:49 PM EST

I think Frank C would appreciate the fact that sometimes I felt like Satan at the wedding in my own Catholic church when the hierarchy was all but falling over itself to endorse George W. Bush. During the 2004 election, I was actively visiting the Catholics for Kerry group on Yahoo. Lord should try putting himself into someone else's shoes for once. He's probably unhappy because the IRD hasn't succeeded with the UCC. In addition, I will go on the record as being one Catholic who doesn't endorse the IRD's efforts to infiltrate other people's churches.

by khughes1963 on Fri Jun 22, 2007 at 10:48:58 PM EST
Karen is right: members of my church have no business trying to control the policy of other denominations.

And yes, Frank does appreciate how you felt.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jun 23, 2007 at 08:43:46 PM EST

yes, the smear attacks have only just begun. it will take effort from reasonable people to ensure that the attacks do not have a negative cumulative effect.

by IseFire on Mon Jun 25, 2007 at 02:12:46 PM EST

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