Mad About Religion
Norman Lear Launches New Religious Partnership
by Mark Tooley
Television producer Norman Lear’s People for the American Way has created a new political lobby for left-wing religious activists. Called the Progressive Religious Partnership, and headed by renowned liberal organizer Ralph Neas, the new coalition is supposedly going to be a liberal version of the once vibrant Christian Coalition.
“I can’t fight all of these Christian preachers on TV with all the Jewish money. So you must raise some gentile money,” Norman Lear supposedly told Episcopal priest George Regas, a co-founder of the Partnership. Regas shared the remarks at the Partnership’s opening convo this spring in Washington, D.C.
Judging from most of the remarks at that gathering, the partnership is not likely to be known for its moderation. Besides touting traditional liberal causes, such as gun control and expanded welfare spending, Partnership leaders demanded homosexual marriage, government subsidies for abortion, and reparations for slavery.
Ralph Neas boasted that People for the American Way had spent over $200,000 organizing the partnership because it realizes it cannot change America without first changing America’s religious climate. The religious right, by which he really meant politically active traditional religious believers, has dominated America’s political discourse for too long, he and many others alleged.
Episcopal priest George Regas, one of the partnership’s co-founders, suggested religious conservatives had been short on “compassion” and “justice.”
But others were less restrained in their critique of conservatives. United Methodist minister James Lawson of Los Angeles accused the religious right of funding a “theocratic, fascist movement that emanates out of racism, sexism, and violence.”
The partnership aims to combat all these “isms” with its own brand of politics that are decidedly left-wing but still “rooted in the sacred story,” according to Regas. Central to their movement will be a balance between its demands for “economic and sexual justice.”
“We will not sacrifice one agenda for the sake of the other,” Regas asserted. “We boldly set forth our affirmation of gay marriage as part of God’s design which we will bless before the throne of Almighty God.”
A number of radical Roman Catholic dissidents were present to endorse the partnership’s vision of “sexual justice.” Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, complained that the “right wing” had touted pro-life causes to manipulate working-class people. “Working people were appealed to with the icon of the fetus,” Kissling insisted. “They couldn’t get working people to identify with the economic program of the right wing. But they could get them to identify with the powerless fetus.”
Kissling warned that the religious right is an “international phenomenon” often fueled by “extreme interpretations of Catholic doctrine that discriminate against women.” These extreme interpretations “emanate from the highest level of power in the Roman Catholic Church” but do not represent Roman Catholic tradition, she alleged.
It is very difficult to organize in the Roman Catholic community for “progressive” causes, Kissling complained. There has been an enormous rise in Catholic “right-wing” groups in recent years. Unlike prominent Evangelical groups, she fretted, the Catholic conservatives operate more behind the scenes and are especially prominent in the Bush administration.
The Catholic bishops are still a “good partner” to the “progressive community,” Kissling said, but less so than they used to be. There are fewer “liberal” bishops now. And abortion has “distorted every public policy issue that the Catholic bishops take.”
Reservoir of Gay Love
Marianne Duddy was another prominent radical Catholic voice at the partnership meeting. Duddy is the executive director for Dignity, a pro-homosexuality caucus group for dissident Roman Catholics. “On this issue [of ‘same-sex marriage’], the Roman Catholic Church has joined forces with the religious right to ensure the perpetuation of civil oppression and discrimination,” Duddy lamented.
Duddy boasted that she had celebrated a “wedding” with her lesbian partner during a Catholic Mass. “We need to ensure that our religious institutions and leaders stand up for that right [to choose whom we marry],” she told an applauding audience of partnership supporters.
Roman Catholic Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-director of the Quixote Center in Brentwood, Maryland, opened the partnership’s gathering with an invocation. She prayed to “You who are both Mother and Father,” and cited “our spiritual ancestors,” including Jesus, Mohammad, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, and Bishop Oscar Romero.
The Rev. John McNeill, co-founder of Dignity, was another dissident Catholic speaker for the partnership. He gave public thanks for God’s “great gift” to him, which was the “presence of a gay lover in my life for 35 years.” The two great “liberation movements” of our age are women’s liberation and “gay” liberation, McNeill said. Both are the work of the Holy Spirit, who is “preparing the world for an increased infusion of Herself into the hearts of the faithful.”
“At the heart of all homophobia is what I call feminaphobia,” McNeill explained, calling this new phobia a “hatred of all things feminine.” The homosexual community’s great contribution has been to provide a model for being “fully in touch with our complete humanness in both its masculine and feminine dimensions.” McNeill concluded by celebrating the great “reservoir of gay love, both human and divine.”
New Saints & Heroes
Catholic radicals were prominent at the partnership jamboree, but mainline Protestants had their fair share of the limelight. Katherine Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest from Massachusetts and president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, called abortion “providers” the “saints and heroes” of our day. “There are easier ways to make a living,” she pointed out. “They are making sacrifices for other people.”
Ragsdale declared that the “vast majority” of religious people are pro-abortion, including Roman Catholics, who unfortunately are overshadowed by their anti-choice “hierarchy.”
Rev. Regas was more vitriolic than Ragsdale in denouncing pro-lifers. “Deep in my soul I believe there is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child.” Forcing a woman to have a child is “legalized rape,” Regas insisted.
Defrocked United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech, who lost his clergy status after he violated Methodist church law by celebrating a homosexual “wedding,” complained that the church’s sexual ethics were not based on the teachings of Jesus but on “Jewish, non-Christian philosophies.”
“I think it’s because of the women’s movement that we have gotten to the place where we can talk about same-gendered marriage,” Creech enthused. “The resistance to same-gendered marriage is still that old partriarchal model that contains rigid gender roles that are imposed on all people.”
A Big Lie
In support of Creech, Rabbi Shira Stern, a chaplain from New Jersey, explained that Jewish prohibitions against homosexual practice were based on a misunderstanding that homosexuals were actually heterosexuals who were acting in “inappropriate” ways. Ancient rabbis did not understand that homosexuality was “inherent.”
Carol Shields, who co-chairs People for the American Way, accused Methodist conservatives of exploiting homosexuality to “further a larger and larger schism” in their denomination. They were perpetrating a “big lie,” she alleged. Similarly, conservative Southern Baptists exploited the “big lie” of belief in scriptural inerrancy to facilitate their seizure of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It ain’t about morals,” Shields assured the crowd. “It’s about these schisms in the church which translate into political secular power. These people don’t care who gets hurt and praying for them doesn’t help.”
Predictably, several Partnership speakers propagated numerous conspiracy theories involving the close presidential election last fall. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State revealed that the religious right had cut its deal with George W. Bush well before the election. The appointment of John Ashcroft to the Justice Department was proof enough.
“John Ashcroft is not just a deeply committed Christian,” Lynn opined. “John Ashcroft [has said] that Jesus was not just the Lord of his life, which many folks would say is true, but that Jesus was the king of the country.” How can he enforce laws that violate his strident religious views, Lynn wondered.
Lynn was also upset about the Christocentric prayers at Bush’s inauguration, which were “very dismissive of non-Christians in this country.” Subliminally, Franklin Graham was telling President Bush to “just say no to all that is not in God’s will for this country,” Lynn fretted.
Perhaps excelling all other speakers in flamboyance, Union Seminary professor Hyun Kyung Chung of New York introduced herself as a “recovering terrorist” who used to dream of bombing the US Embassy in her native South Korea. When her equally radical husband became a Christian “fundamentalist,” she was traumatized but did not abandon her politics or her theology. She divorced her husband and launched a career as a radical feminist theologian.
Bemoaning the complacency of middle-aged women in the United States, who are dependent on anti-depressant drugs for the most part, Chung had some helpful advice for them.
“Maybe we should ask women to stop taking anti-depressants and become a mad woman,” Chung coyly suggested. “Maybe so mad that we go to the Pentagon and we go to Washington and we go to gun shows and all these armament making factories,” where women can “smear our menstrual blood and say you should die.”
“We don’t comb our hair,” Chung told a laughing audience. “We don’t wash our hands. We don’t make love to our husbands. We don’t take care of our children. Just become real mad women. It would change America.”
Advocating that women work like little ants to “make a small hole in the patriarchal pyramid,” Chung also recommended renewed appreciation for the “ancient gods and goddesses.”
The audience of several hundred partnership supporters was amused and enthused by Chung’s rant. With the organizational skills of Ralph Neas, the money of Norman Lear, and the antics of Professor Chung, the new Progressive Religious Partnership is bound to make a splash. It is equally bound to be entertaining.
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“Mad About Religion” first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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