Maligning the Faith of Others for Political Profit
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jun 23, 2008 at 04:29:31 PM EST
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is holding its bi-annual national meeting in San Jose, CA this week. Staff from the Institute on Religion and Democracy will be on hand along with their allies in Presbyterian division and discord. In light of this, I decided to reprise this post about IRD's Presbyterian point man, which I think says alot about what Presbyterians gathered in San Jose can expect. -- FC

Over at the Berkley Blog -- that's the blog of Jim Berkley, Director of Presbyterian Action at the infamous Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) -- the eponymous author has provided us a window on the methods of his employer.  IRD is, of course, the agency that for a quarter century has sought to disrupt and divide the leading churches of mainline Protestantism. In this they have enjoyed considerable success and will no doubt be noted for their efforts in the history of Protestantism.  

But things seem to be unraveling a bit for IRD, as we have seen in their recent inept attacks on their critics -- which revealed so much about thier methods and their character.  Jim Berkley was similarly revelatory in a May 22nd blog  post in which he harshly denounced the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

But before we get into what he said, let's take a quick look at RCRC itself.

It is a group that sounds like exactly what it is, a coalition of religious organizations that believe in the right of their members to make their own choices about matters of reproductive health including abortion -- free from the religious dictates of others or the interference of the government. RCRC comprises mostly major Christian and Jewish organizations such as the Episcopal Chuch, the YWCA, the American Jewish Committee, Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, and agencies and caucuses of national religious organizations. RCRC carries out public policy and related public education work in Washington.

The Berkley bother was an RCRC press release that he says "pretty well highlights the RCRC's central failure to propound essentially Christian belief rather than growing-stale secular opinion."  Because of this, he says,

"There is no excuse for Presbyterian entities--Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options, Women's Ministries, and the Washington Office--continuing to financially support and lend our once-good name to a crassly political, morally bankrupt, abortion-at-any-cost outfit like the RCRC."

As it happens, it makes perfect sense that the Presbyterian Church (USA) would be active in RCRC. The 2.6 million member denomination, whose policy history on abortion is available on its web site has been prochoice since 1970, (before Roe v. Wade) and updated their statement at their national meeting as recently as 2006:  

When an individual woman faces the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy, the issue is intensely personal, and may manifest itself in ways that do not reflect public rhetoric, or do not fit neatly into medical, legal, or policy guidelines. Humans are empowered by the spirit prayerfully to make significant moral choices, including the choice to continue or end a pregnancy. Human choices should not be made in a moral vacuum, but must be based on Scripture, faith, and Christian ethics. For any choice, we are accountable to God; however, even when we err, God offers to forgive us.

Thus it should come as no surprise, and it should not be the least bit controversial, that the PCUSA's Washington Office is a member of RCRC.

So what does this coalition of respected religious organizations have to say about abortion? According to its FAQs.

What does being religious and pro-choice mean?

Religious Coalition supporters are pro-choice not in spite of our faith but because of it. We recognize and affirm that all life is sacred and that part of being human is the responsibility to hold all life and creation in sacred trust. Part and parcel of that trust is the call to be responsible moral decision-makers.

To be pro-choice is to respect all points of view and respect individual conscience. To be pro-choice is to trust women and families to make their own decisions. And it means speaking openly in our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques about sexuality, knowing we have the love and support of our faith communities, whatever our circumstances.

As you know, Americans have very strong feelings about abortion. Some believe, on the basis of religious tenets, that the fetus is a person and therefore they are unalterably opposed to abortion. Millions of others-for equally conscientious and religious reasons-believe that human life does not begin at the moment of conception and that abortion is a permissible option. We believe that the decision about terminating a pregnancy is a personal decision, to be determined by an individual in keeping with her convictions and religious beliefs. We believe that no one religious belief about when life begins should be made a law that all Americans must live by. To do so would violate our cherished principle of separation of church and state.

So, let's go back to Berkley's complaint that the RCRC press release does not reflect a distinctly Chrisian perspective.  Well, duh, its an interfaith coalition whose members include the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, the Central Conference of [Reform] Rabbis, and The National Council of Jewish Women, (among others) and yet Berkley says this of RCRC:

This is a group that hasn't yet found an abortion it couldn't support, and it shamelessly speaks as if its political pronouncements were established Christian doctrine rather than growing-stale secular opinion.

Of course, it would make no sense for an interfaith coalition to conflate its public statements with "established Christian doctrine" (as if there were just one) and it does not do so, Berkley's claim not withstanding.

But Berkley also contradicts himself. He complains of the RCRC's "central failure to propound essentially Christian belief" [emphasis in the original], while also claiming that RCRC "speaks as if its political pronouncements were established Christian doctrine."

But Berkley has an out here, because his own definition of "essentially Christian belief" means being antiabortion. So by the Berkely definition, anyone who does not agree with him on abortion, including his own denomination, is not essentially Christian, but represents "stale secular opinion." This is, of course, the way that the religious right always frames such matters, anything they don't agree with is somehow antireligious; antiChristian; secular -- even if it is religious leaders or historic Christian organizations with whom they are disagreeing.

Berkley hangs his complaint on one sentence by RCRC head Rev. Carlton Veazy from an RCRC press release:  

...the continuous political attacks on abortion have obscured the single most important concern for the woman with an unwelcome pregnancy: making a decision that is right for her and her family.

This, Berkley says, is insufficiently Christian. But remarkably enough his own Presbyterian Church USA states something quite similar (see above):

When an individual woman faces the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy, the issue is intensely personal... Humans are empowered by the spirit prayerfully to make significant moral choices, including the choice to continue or end a pregnancy.

Berkley maligns the faith of others on the sole basis that it is not his idea of the correct Christian view on abortion. Anyone else's view is simply "stale secular opinion." He even goes so far as to put the word "religious" (A  Really Crass "Religious" Coalition) in quotes in the title of his post, suggesting that the members of the coalition are somehow insufficiently religious because they do not share his particular view on abortion.

The RCRC, on the other hand, as we can see above, speaks respectfully of those whose religious views take them to a different view of abortion.

Quite aside from the view of individuals (much polling shows that most Americans support abortion rights) many religious organizations are formally prochoice and have been for a long time. Here is what the RCRC says about it:

Pro-choice religions are among the most trusted institutions in the United States. These traditions, with more than 20 million members in the U.S., support reproductive choice as the most responsible position a religious institution can take on this issue.

The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all have official statements in support of reproductive choice as a matter of conscience, adopted by their governing bodies. Religious and religiously affiliated organizations from these and other traditions and independent religious organizations such as Catholics for a Free Choice are members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Members of the Coalition do not necessarily agree on various issues but work together to keep reproductive choice safe and legal and to improve family planning, contraception, sexuality education, healthcare, prenatal and postnatal services, and other human services that prevention unintended pregnancy, reduce the need for abortion, and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Berkley's short post, while interesting, might not be worth mentioning except that he is the point-man for one of IRD's main programs and he is a member of a major prochoice Christian denomination.

Berkley will be quick to point out that his opinions on his blog are his alone. Fair enough. But at the top of his current blog, he describes it as "News, Comment and Plenteous Opinion, by James D. Berkley, Director of Presbyterian Action" -- and he mostly writes about stuff related to his day job. So I would say it's a distinction without a much of a difference.

In any case, his post epitomizes the IRD method of ignoring or distorting facts, and maligning the faith of others to advance an ideologically driven agenda. Part of the method here is to state or imply that their view is the correct Christian position, and attribute sinister or (heaven forbid) "political" motives to others, as if they didn't have any themselves.

the IRD's writing is not only lame -- but a barrel of contradictions.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jul 20, 2007 at 11:17:20 PM EST
during the PC(USA)'s General Assembly is revealing.  The main site has the same set up for the Presbyterians that it had for the United Methodists' General Conference a few months ago.  Presbyterian Action's GA Blog (PresbyAct Blog) is quite interesting.  This bit, written by Rev. Berkley, is particularly odd:

At any worship service associated with General Assembly, however, a discerning congregant has to remain vigilant to avoid saying or singing words one does not believe. Excellent forms of worship, with massed voices and stirring instruments and rich pageantry, oftimes become diminished by portions of liturgy or lyrics of hymns that offend rather than uplift.

I regularly find myself needing to scan ahead in a responsive prayer or a hymn to decide if the words are really words I can repeat with integrity. In worship, we might end up "confessing" the sins of others or confession "sins" we would not consider sins. In songs we may find phrases or whole stanzas that simply are not sound theology or that reword classic hymns with more politically correct fluff. Responsive readings may contain lines we wouldn't feel right voicing and thoughts more conducive to politicking than to holy worship. So one must scan ahead to avoid being a hypocrit.


The gathering prayer ripped off words associated with Saint Francis of Assisi. But then the liturgy writer added a line for worshippers to use in response that read that "it is through kindness, justice, and humility that we are brought into unity with God's abiding Spirit."

No it is not!

It is only through the prevenient grace of God made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is by grace alone--offered to those with no merit in their own kindness, justice, and humility--that we become children of God and citizens of his kingdom! Here in a supposedly Reformed church, we were supposed to mouth in worship a version of works righteousness. Not this worshipper!

The theme for this year's General Assembly is Micah 6:8, so it should be no surprise to most attendees that the opening worship service was focused on "kindness, justice, and humility."  Yet Berkley is construing the words of the prophet Micah as "works righteousness" (more central to Lutheranism than Calvinism).  I believe that in the Reformed Church we are supposed to draw from the whole of scripture, not just the apostle Paul.  

by Rusty Pipes on Mon Jun 23, 2008 at 07:31:50 PM EST

does anyone ever browse over at Beliefnet?  Way back around 2002 I was poking around their site and took an online questionaire to probe what religion you were.  It asked a series of questions about your spiritual beliefs, what you believe constitutes a god, and spiritual practices.  At the end it gives you a list of religions that are rated based on how close your beleifs are.

Then in 2005, I took the test again out of sheer boredom.  A new question popped up:  Whether I agreed with abortion.  I completed the questionaire and received a much different result.

Abortion is a medical procedure.  Abortion has been turned into a political hammer.  Who over at Beliefnet got the bright idea to sort peoples spiritual beliefs by their political choices? Betcha I can guess what religion they are!!

by Yankee in exile on Sat Jul 21, 2007 at 08:42:43 AM EST

world. Many reasserters (conservatives looking to kick the Episcopal Church out) seem to claim that gay-friendly or gay-neutral individuals and churches are heretical Unitarians, probably out of a need to present a suitably impressive reason for schism. The gay-friendly/neutral types say they believe  the Nicene Creed, and use the Prayer Book, which makes them orthodox in the Anglican tradition.

by NancyP on Mon Jun 23, 2008 at 07:16:30 PM EST
I have to admire the depth of knowledge in evidence here on the discussion thread to Fred Clarkson's post. It would be great, it seems to me, if these voices could reach wider audience. There's a certain perspective gelling here, I feel.  But, maybe I'm imagining things.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jun 23, 2008 at 10:49:29 PM EST

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