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From the July/August, 2001
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We Don’t Get No Respect by Mark Tooley

We Don’t Get No Respect

Think Tank Considers Why the Mainline Is Ignored

by Mark Tooley

In a recent speech, columnist George Will described Washington, D.C., as “an enclave surrounded on four sides by reality.” One could say the same thing of many of the offices of the mainline churches.

In March, the Washington-based Aspen Institute hosted a two-day symposium on the public policy witness of mainline Protestant churches. But hardly anyone at the conference fully recognized an obvious problem for mainline church lobby offices in the nation’s capital: Their left-leaning staffs do not speak for most mainline church members.

Instead, speakers such as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University lamented that journalists ignore mainline pronouncements because they are “boring” and not as “interesting” as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

Wuthnow did not give the mainline churches enough credit. They do indeed provide spokesmen as colorful and ideological as Falwell or Robertson. But unlike the televangelists, liberal mainline leaders are not able to politically influence a significant segment of their own constituency. Like political fossils from a distant past, the mainline lobby offices are little more relevant to the US political scene than the US Socialist Workers Party or the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Wuthnow and other speakers lamented the “quiet” nature of mainline lobbying. In fact, mainline church lobbies are hardly quiet. Like the religious right, these church offices frequently publish news releases and participate in press conferences involving controversial and timely issues.

Unappreciated Progressivism

The conference speakers also noted how mainline churches are unappreciated for their “progressive” political stances. A review of some recent mainline rumblings makes this lack of appreciation quite understandable:

• Mainline leaders renewed their campaign to ban land mines through an international treaty that the United States has refused to sign. “This treaty has slowed the carnage and begun the long process of healing lands broken by land mines,” said Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), speaking at a Capitol Hill rally in March. His council is launching an effort to persuade every church, mosque, and temple to support the treaty. Edgar’s church council has been joined by the US Catholic Conference, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and numerous other denominations in demanding quick US ratification of the treaty.

• Heated opposition to the appointment of John Ashcroft (a Pentecostal) as US Attorney General in February emerged from, among other places, the Interfaith Alliance, led largely by liberal mainline Protestants. At a press conference in Washington, the Alliance offered a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, and two liberal Baptists to warn of the impending threat to their freedoms supposedly posed by Ashcroft.

• In a news release, and in a special announcement at its February board meeting, the NCC trumpeted the use of its Peters Projection Map on NBC-TV’s popular political drama West Wing in a February episode. The Peters Projection Map was produced with the support of the United Nations and is distributed by the NCC’s publishing house. Unlike most traditional maps, it de-emphasizes Europe and North America while emphasizing Africa. According to the NCC, the Peters map is “more fair to all peoples” who apparently have been marginalized by other maps.

• A new booklet published by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) endorses abortion rights and praises socialist systems for providing better health care to their people. Called Abundant Living: Global Health and Christian Response-Ability, the booklet endorses the full availability of legal and ostensibly safe abortions. “Accessible legal abortion services could drastically reduce deaths from unsafe abortions, especially for the poor,” it says. The booklet claims that readily available abortion services are essential for defending women and elevating their status.

The booklet also urges readers to work through United Methodist Women to lobby Congress for socialized medicine. One example of a health-care system that works is Cuba’s, according to the booklet. Cuba’s health-care system has advanced “remarkably.” The booklet claims that Cuba’s “level of health, education and overall social welfare is superior to any country in the developing world, and is in many ways very similar to that of the developed world.”

• At their first meeting since President George W. Bush’s election, the bishops of the United Methodist Church sharply rebuked Bush’s new initiative to deploy an anti-missile defense system, demanded that the US Navy abandon its munitions testing base in Puerto Rico, insisted that the US military cease its “war games” in Korea, urged reduced US support for Israel, and passed a resolution about Labor Day that expressed “solidarity with workers.”

The Methodist bishops’ statements, although addressing timely issues and directed to a President who belongs to their denomination, seem not to have received mention in a single major newspaper or wire service. The only coverage came from the church’s own official news service.

Disconnected & Ignored

Mainliners are ignored because reporters instinctively understand that mainline church officials rarely command and direct the political and social opinions of their constituencies. Voting patterns and polls show this, but most reporters can figure that out even without the data.

In short, the mainline church offices do not represent the church members for whom they are supposed to work. The Aspen conference, called “The Public Role of Mainline Protestantism,” was unable to admit this and consequently provided more cheerleading than impartial analysis on the political lobbying of mainline churches.

The Aspen event failed even to fully admit that these offices are controversial within their own denominations. It did acknowledge that many and probably most church members are not aware that these offices exist.

Although he believes that most clergy still support their Washington lobby offices, Wuthnow said that denominational funding for those offices continues to shrink. When asked about the possibility of lack of support within the mainline churches for the Washington lobby efforts, Wuthnow responded that the disagreement is “real” but “limited to a few issues,” such as abortion and homosexuality. The “general principles” behind most of the mainline political lobbying on issues of race, peace, and the environment command “widespread agreement” in the churches, he claimed.

James Wind, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and president of the Alban Institute, blamed the limited effectiveness of the mainline lobby offices on being “spread too thin” on a wide variety of issues.

Wind noted that mainline denominations, because they are committed to ecumenical cooperation, have blurred their distinct identities. He also admitted that “political ventures” were never the “preferred style” of most mainline church members. Direct political action was more appealing to mainline leaders and clergy.

The whole concept of the “mainline” church may be irrelevant, Wind surmised, because it is based on a “dysfunctional” and “anti-democratic” elitism. He called Evangelicals the “successful innovators” who could be transforming the nation’s political alignment. “Keep your eyes on the Evangelicals,” he concluded.

No Longer in Control

Laura Olson of Clemson University in South Carolina admitted that the mainline church lobby offices are “largely liberal” and devoted to “peace and justice issues.” She also reported that the D.C. offices and other denominational leaders are telling their denominations, especially the clergy, what the public policy stances ought to be, rather than vice versa. Still, Olson claimed that the church lobby offices command widespread support among their clergy.

Her evidence was scant. Olson conducted a survey of 62 clergy from mainline denominations. Many of these clergy’s names were given to her by the church lobby offices. All but one of the clergy whom she interviewed were consequently supportive of the lobby offices.

Elenora Ivory Giddings, who heads the Washington lobby office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said she receives requests for information from only one or two churches in her denomination per week. But she said they always affirm her work and insist that they do not believe the “negative information we hear about you.”

Giddings said she relies more on laity than clergy to politically advocate the issues chosen by her office and the denomination. “Some of us would like pastors to preach public policy sermons every Sunday,” she said, but that is unlikely. Many pastors preach only a “personal Gospel” and stay away from the “Social Gospel,” she complained. Another problem is that many church members believe public policy issues are not “appropriate” for worship services.

Tom Hart, who heads the Episcopal Church’s Washington office, cited the Jubilee 2000 campaign to eradicate Third-World debt to Western banks as an example of successful lobbying by mainline churches. The campaign resulted in the United States’ canceling over $400 million in debt.

Unlike other mainline lobby offices, the Episcopal Washington office focuses on just one central issue a year, Hart said. This, in part, explained its success with the Jubilee campaign. He also stressed the importance of reaching out to Republicans. He explained that “we’re not in control of Congress.” Then he smilingly admitted, “My partisanship is showing.” Hart is a former Democratic congressional staffer.

“Our agenda is fairly progressive,” Hart added. But he said, “Republicans don’t have a monopoly on religion.” He urged mainliners to use the “language of faith” when advocating their public policy positions. Hart mentioned that he had successfully sought Pat Robertson’s endorsement of the Jubilee campaign’s goals, helping to create a coalition that was not limited to mainliners or liberal Democrats.

Mainline church lobby offices all suffer from a frequent inability to gain media attention, limited legislative successes, reduced funding from their denominations, and polls showing lack of support from their own church constituencies. All of these factors point to a doubtful future for these church lobby offices. But Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow still enthused about them: “There’s reason to be happy with what mainline churches have been doing.”

The Aspen event was as fatally flawed as the mainline lobby efforts it sought to analyze. Like the mainline churches’ Washington offices themselves, this conference chose self-deception over reality. Indeed, if mainline leaders speak and nobody listens, can they really be said to have made a statement?


Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.

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