The National Council of Churches' Over-the-Top Conference

According to the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD), on April 29 and 30, the National Council of Churches sponsored a conference on the interaction of religion and politics here in the United States entitled "Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right." The speakers at the conference were from "People for the American Way, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the National Council of Churches (NCC), along with the left-wing periodicals The Nation and The Village Voice." According to the IRD report, there were, of course, "conservative Christians on the program." The IRD report on the conference can be found here. A taste of what the article says will suffice:

The tone of the speakers was often quite shrill. "Jim Jones [the 1970s cult leader who led followers in a mass suicide] has gone mainstream!" cried journalist Katherine Yurica. "Today we are living in a nation governed by an unholy cult!" Yurica maintained that the Republican Party had gained power through "Hitlerian tactics." She insisted that evangelical leaders from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell "had to have read Hitler's Mein Kampf." She explained, "I say this confidently because anyone who has learned to quack like a duck has studied ducks!"

"Our liberties are at stake!" declared the Rev. Bob Edgar, the NCC general secretary. Edgar added that "these may be the darkest times in our history." (It was not clear who or what constituted the "we" for which Edgar spoke. Was it America, the NCC, or the political left that had entered "the darkest times"? Perhaps Edgar's failure to make a distinction among those three was a revealing moment.) According to the NCC leader, all of the gains of the civil rights movement are imperiled by "those in power in Washington" who are "taking us back to the 1940s."

Joan Bokaer, the founder of Cornell University's, decried the rise of an American Taliban, evidenced for her in the fine levied upon CBS for its complicity in the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl half-time show. Dr. Charles Strozier, a history professor at the City University of New York, described the "basically neo-fascist schemes of the new Republicans."

"We've got a police state-plus going on here!" cried author Mark Crispin Miller. Miller also claimed that there was "significant Christian extremism in the Pentagon" and that the U.S. Air Force Academy is "like a madrassah."

Much of the remainder of the article is simply more accusations against President Bush (. . . "unsubstantiated accusations regarding Bush's sex life"; "a 'coward' and a liar"; "the evil"; "You can't call George Bush a Christian!"), and the stands taken by large numbers of Christians both in the United States and abroad. The tone did not go unnoticed by some of the more moderate speakers. For example, the article notes:

There were occasional voices of moderation among the more secular speakers. "If we are going to ask the Christian right to stop engaging in demonization, we need to inspect some of our own language," suggested [Chip] Berlet [editor of Eye's Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash]. He asked conference participants to "avoid terms of derision" such as "extremists" and "radical religious right." Berlet later expressed his disagreement with Bokaer's call to "shut down the government." He drew loud expressions of protest when he urged his audience to "acknowledge that the majority of Americans don't see the world the way we do."

I agree with Berlet to this extent: I disagree heartily with the religious left on a large number of issues. But I don't believe that I have used inflammatory language in my discussions about their views. Moreover, I don't hear nearly the same type of shrill statements coming from the right as from the left (maybe I am not seeing them, but I do try to keep my eyes open). I believe the tone of this type of conference is not only counterproductive to dialogue, but seriously impedes the efforts of Christians to reach out to the community.

Moreover, the NCCUSA claims that it encompasses more than 45 million believers across a broad spectrum of theology and politics who work together on issues important to our society. I can tell the NCCUSA that while I am a member of the ELCA (one of the organizations that comprises the NCCUSA), that organization does not speak for me or for my understanding of Christianity. In fact, their views are counter to mine in many ways. I personally do not like having an organization that I am a party to (as the result of my ELCA membership) demonizing my views in harsh, over-the-top language.

Somewhat ironically, the article later notes that "Socially engaged religious conservatives were repeatedly attacked for being 'anti-democratic' and 'anti-American.'" Okay, what does the official website for the National Council of Churches, USA say about this type of rhetoric? NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar in a story entitled "Disagreeing Without Demonizing" says:

To brand any group of American citizens as 'anti-Christian' simply because they differ on political issues runs counter to the values of both faith and democracy. It is especially disheartening when that accusation is aimed at fellow Christians.

While it is certainly different to claim that someone is "anti-democratic" and "anti-American", than it is to claim that they are "anti-Christian", isn't this type of rhetoric (especially when one of the speakers said that President Bush isn't a Christian) tantamount to the same thing?

I believe that the rhetoric at this conference was inappropriate and unwise. I call on the NCCUSA and its members to give some careful thought about what they are saying before continuing this line of talk.


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