The Secret of Liberty is Courage
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jul 04, 2007 at 06:05:05 PM EST
You never know what illuminations, political and otherwise, may burst forth on the 4th of July. Between the wonderful picnics and ever-more-spectacular fireworks; random, celebratory pops in the distance; and the sometimes tedious ruminations about the meaning of it all -- the insights that have meaning for us may come-in sideways from unexpected sources. And on this 4th of July, one of the sources for me is Bill Moyers, who recently gave the keynote speech to a national gathering of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut. He addressed among other things, the Declaration of Independence and the threat of the religious right.
But on the way to illumination, there may be obstacles. If the illumination we seek is a sunny day at the beach, the obstacle may be no more onerous than a traffic jam. But when it comes to the illumination that allows us to see serious threats to the things we hold dear, the most dangerous obstacle can be denial.

Denial is one of the major stumbling blocks in learning to contend with the religious right in any and all of its many manifestations. Denial takes many forms, and often runs deep as we would frankly rather not have to acknowledge ominous and discomfiting things happening around us.  Perhaps most significantly, it can be difficult for any of us to imagine the malevolence of others. Yes, the malevolence of some is obvious. But in other cases we seek other explanations, and sometimes long after those explanations are no longer remotely plausible.

We see brittle denial on stunning display response to so many things these days -- the reality of climate change, the imperial designs of the Bush administration, and more.  The brittle denial in the case of many mainline protestants is the inability, or unwillingness, to accept that their respective communions have been the targets of a quarter  century of overt and covert operations aimed at sewing discord and division among them. Bill Moyers whose keynote address to the UCC gathering in Hartford was heard by some ten thousand people, is not one of those in denial about this.

On this Saturday morning, June 23rd, 2007, in the opening ceremony of this Church's 50th anniversary, I've come to say, that America's revolutionary heritage, and America's revolutionary spirit, life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, for government of, by and for the people - is under siege. And if churches of conscience don't take the lead in their rescue and their revival, we can lose our democracy....
My friends, they say your church is ... dying. 1.2 million against the Southern Baptists, 16 million and growing. They say your church is ... lame, and limp, and liberal. And they're coming after you. Read the book recently done about how the Institute for Religion and Democracy is after your local congregations. But you know ... they don't take on people they're not afraid of. And it is a small, committed, determined People of Conscience who can turn this country around!

The book Moyers was talking about in Hartford, was Steeplejacking: How the Christian  right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, by Sheldon Culver and Talk to Action's own John Dorhauer. The book is about how factions organized and led by the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy have systematically sought to disrupt and dismember the historic churches of mainline protestantism, how UCC staffers Culver and Dorhauer have sought to defend their churches against the steeplejackers, and their recommendations about how others can do so too.

Moyers is correct -- IRD and their minions do not take on people they are not afraid of. And they do not spend large amounts of money to gather intelligence on people and events that do not matter.

IRD has monitored Culver and Dorhauer, and many others of us who have cast light into the dark corners they inhabit; and spoken out about their nefarious activities or indeed -- stood for the many things of which the IRD and its minions do not approve. To name but a few instances: IRD agents attended the 2005 Open Center conference in New York, where a number of us spoke about the religious right; a presentation by  John Dorhauer, Andrew Weaver and blogger Chuck Currie in St. Louis in 2006; conferences earlier this year sponsored by The Interfaith Alliance in Albany, NY and the Institute for Progressive Christianity in Cambridge, MA. There was also an IRD agent in attendance at the New York event for the launch of Steeplejacking; for speech by UCC president John Thomas at Gettysburg College last year; and at the UCC gathering in Hartford. Clearly, a lot of money is being spent to monitor such events, large and small -- and to produce the inevitable snidely unflattering reports.

I am writing on the Fourth of July -- this celebration of American independence from the tyranny of the British monarch. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of mainline protestant churches, including as Moyers pointed out, eleven who were members of predecessor churches of the United Church of Christ.

I am thinking about their courage and about the many kinds of courage that it takes today to cope with the challenges of our own time. Moyers continued:

Fifty years ago when this UCC fellowship was forged, mainline churches were part of the progressive awakening that put the force of law behind civil rights and spread opportunity and wealth further than ever before in our history. Think about it. Half a century ago, America seemed on the verge of at last getting it right. Fewer than 150 years had passed since our Declaration of Independence had let loose in the world the radical notion of equality in the sight of God and under the rule of law.

And I am thinking too, about the denial among so many in the mainline protestant churches in response to a quarter century of aggression from forces primarily outside of these great institutions; aggression bankrolled by such financial scions of the secular and religious right in the U.S. as Scaife, Coors, and Ahmanson.  And I am thinking about the courage that it will take for leaders and rank and file members of these churches to clearly and resolutely resist, overcome -- and finally be free from the sustained war of attrition on their respective communions.  

Moyers continued:

You believe in the democracy of the pew, in the authority and power of the local congregation, and so do I. You believe in a witness based on the historic tradition of scripture but also the lived experience of today, and so do I. You believe, as Anselm said in Faith Seeking Understanding, the old story reconciled with the new discoveries of science and reason, and so do I. And you believe in the power and the promise of democracy, and so do I. I thank God ... I thank God for your witness and for the storied heritage of this Church. This United Church has the lineage that has influenced the American Experiment far beyond its numbers and its treasures. You have raised the prophetic voice against the militarism, the materialism and the racism that chokes America's arteries. You have placed ... you have yourself in the thick of the fight for social justice. You have aligned yourself on the side of liberty, equality and compassion, a church of prominent firsts, first to ordain an African American, the first to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay person, and the first to have a Baptist to deliver your keynote address. Justice Brandeis might have been speaking of this Church when he said the secret of liberty is courage. For this courage, you have been attacked. Like other mainstream churches across the land, you have been in the bull's eye of a highly organized and heavily funded campaign by corporate, political and religious forces who would stifle the prophetic voices that speak truth to power and call the Empire to repentance.

Bill Moyers of course, is capable of soaring eloquence that far exceeds the rest of us mortals. He speaks from the heart, and from a mind of vast knowledge and experience. Thus it is no small thing that he names the IRD as a threat to the highest aspirations of a great, progressive religious tradition. And no one should ignore the significance of his going out of his way to highlight Steeplejacking and that the book was the subject of much attention and discussion in Hartford.

That said, I have recently seen a few critical commentaries about Steeplejacking, and Culver and Dorhauer's presentation at the UCC's General Synod, or both -- and in them there is a remarkable disconnect.  While there is a certain acceptance that the IRD is a problem, what some people cannot quite accept is that there is an IRD affiliate in their midst; and that their intentions are not merely conservative, but profoundly malevolent. I suspect that this is symptomatic of a wider and deeper current of denial in the UCC. But it is also part of a wider pattern of denial and pooh-poohery that we have seen in response to the threat of the wider religious right to the constellation of values that comprise the underpinnings of democratic plurlalism, and in turn, constitutional democracy as most of us understand it. But it happens that the intentions of the IRD-related faction in the UCC are quite clear, just as the intentions of the various elements of the religious right are usually quite clear. Fortunately, for those still in denial Steeplejacking makes an irrefutable case.  

Steeplejacking summarizes the history of the BFW -- which was formed originally as the United Church People for Biblical Witness in response to a 1977 UCC study on human sexuality of which they did not approve. The name was later changed to the Biblical Witness Fellowship.

Unsuccessful in changing the UCC's direction through the normal democratic processes, BFW publicly announced a shift in tactics in 1991:

"It is time for the evangelical leaders in the denomination to shift their resources and emphasis toward  working for renewal, not through political channels, but by working directly with local churches and pastors..."

In 2003, Culver and Dorhauer report:  

"David Runion-Bareford, the current head of the BFW noted that it [the shift in tactics] "changed the direction of thinking on the part of evangelical churches in the UCC to the understanding that separation from the UCC was the only solution.  An accelerated exodus began which continues to this day."  When asked about the future of the UCC, Runion-Bareford predicts more schism to come: "It's heading toward fragmentation.  The future is uncertain."  He sees the period of schism and fragmentation as a transitional state before the like-minded conservative churches band together."  

In 1996, BFW affiliated with IRD via the Association for Church Renewal, an IRD-led entity comprising,among others, the leaders of schismatic movements in the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Their statedfounding purpose was to, among other things, 'Assist renewal groups in... sharing strategies and resources."  James Hiedinger,the ARC chairman, (and leader of the schismatic Methodist factions) writes

"The Association for Church Renewal is a group of renewal executives who have a long history together. Representatives of the various renewal ministries within the mainline denominations have been meeting annually since 1979..."
As mentioned above, the group formally came under the auspices of IRD in 1996.  ARC regularly meets  in tandem with the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, where they network and find "fellowship." This meeting is pointedly not held with the mainline denominations or the National Council of Churches, the churches they say that they wish to renew. No doubt uncoincidentally, one of the IRD's top staffers, Jerold Walz is a member of the NAE board.  

The methods of disruption and division are different in different denominations, each of which have somewhat different issues, and very different polities. Along the way, the targetting of local UCC churches by the schismatics, ran into a snag. The UCC has a list of approved seminaries where prospective pastors are trained. But part of the strategy of taking churches out of the UCC, has been to get churches to change their bylaws to be able to call pastors who have been trained in conservative evangelical seminaries. The obstacle was that the calling of  pastors from seminaries not credentialed by the UCC, meant that they were ineligble for denominational health insurance and pensions. But in 1998 they had found a way around the problem: a group of churches pulled together a caucus they called the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Churches. BFW then created an alternative -- and secret -- pastoral placement service called the "Pastoral Referal Network" which also provides an alternative health insurance and pension plan for pastors -- outside of UCC channels. (see page 82 in Steeplejacking).

So, let's summarize the main points:  The BFW has, in the unambiguous words of its leader, been seeking to take churches out of the UCC since at least the early 90's. In 1996, BFW joined forces with groups that were dedicated to doing the same thing in other denominations, and under the formal auspices of IRD. In 1998, BFW created a critical piece of infrastructure for a church within a church, apparently setting the stage for the ultimate schism. Meanwhile, they also caucused with the National Association of Evangelicals.

There is much more. But these facts alone lead to inescapable truths. What remains for for those UCC members and leaders  who are not engaged in, or under the influence of this historic malevolence, is to find the courage to defend the UCC against those who seek to destroy a great institution that has stood for liberty and equality for hundreds of years.

What is true for certain members of the UCC, is as true for the rest of us. We face formidable threats to our liberty, and obstacles to the advance of equality in our time. There are there are also tremendous opportunities, if we choose to be open to them as Bill Moyers notes in his stirring address, which is well worth a read. And yet for many, the recognition of all this requires a leap out of the studied complacency... and sometimes cynicism...  that so infects our public life. This choice can be an act of tremendous and life-changing courage.

And so on this Fourth of July, 2007 -- I simply want to say that that is the kind of courage that we need, and need to be able to recognize in order to find the leaders we need to meet the central challenges of our time.

on this 4th of July.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jul 04, 2007 at 06:19:47 PM EST
what you offer - the courage to stand for the right when others fail to see.

Well done, Fred.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Sun Jul 08, 2007 at 08:15:13 AM EST

I cannot tell you how much what Bill Moyers said in Hartford has stayed with me in the days since General Synod. I plan to use the DVD of his address in at least 2 if not 3 worship services later this year because what he said was so incredibly important for all of my congregation to hear.

There is hope within the UCC despite the best efforts of the IRD. We confirmed a young woman today whose confirmation project detailed the "firsts" of ordination within UCC heritage, chosen specifically because these three first ordinations (referred to by Moyers in a quote above) represent (1) the ultimate fulfillment of God's stated purpose for all humanity, which is created in God's image male and female (and, she said, by clear evidence, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, etc.); (2) the ultimate proof that equality under Gospel love applies to all of God's children, and that includes the recognition that each of us has unique gifts for ministry that we are called upon to use in our own special ways. She said point blank that she was joining our congregation and the UCC because both our local church and our denomination live out God's plan, imperfectly, but better than any other church she could find. And she plans to work to make all levels of the church more perfect in application.

I'm thinking she's ministerial material, too, because she can, will, and already has stood up to those who impugn her faith because of who she accepts into the church. And she also refuses "to check her brain at the door", instead approaching everything she hears with a critical, inquisitive mind. She is who Bill Moyers was referring to when he spoke of courage.

by RevRuthUCC on Mon Jul 09, 2007 at 12:27:18 AM EST

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