The Faded Forces of Prophecy

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Richard Cohen hits the nail on the head today.

For too long now, the term “faith-based” has been synonymous with dumb. It’s dumb to speak of Islam as if the terrorists are its true representatives (F. Graham). It’s dumb to think the Holocaust was God’s way of getting the Jews to return to Israel (Hagee) or that Catholics are not true Christians (Hagee, again) or that “Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world” (Parsley).

It’s dumb to reject evolution when all of science thinks the opposite, and it’s dumb to oppose sex education, as if knowledge was by itself a sin. It was beyond dumb for the Rev. Pat Robertson to predict a natural calamity for Orlando because of Disney World’s policy regarding gay men and lesbians. Yet, the endorsement of such clergymen has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times. To pass this kind of muster is very disquieting.

The liberal clergy in this country is a faded force. Gone are the days when ministers did such things as leading the civil rights movement and marching to end the Vietnam War. Now, the ones with political clout are too often small-minded men who swaddle their bigotry and ignorance in the soothing word “faith.” And John McCain, like a spiritual beggar, goes from one right-wing minister to another, ignoring their previous statements of intolerance and hoping for an endorsement. The other day [meeting with Billy and Franklin Graham], he didn’t even get lunch. He deserved humble pie.

Well, why are we “liberal clergy” a faded force?

I used to think the relative invisibility of the progressive religious forces was due to media preferences — for the provacative over the substantive. Up here in Albany some thirty years ago, for example, the media was all over a visit by noted former Miss America, pop singer, orange juice hawker, and then-current gay-basher Anita Bryant. Yet we couldn’t get a peep from the press about those of us who thought Bryant’s message was hateful and dead wrong.

Over the years, however, I’ve become convinced that the reason religious progressives have faded is because they’ve self-faded. In April, I was walking in the now nearly-deserted Washington Office of the National Council of Churches and it hit me that it was inevitable that sooner or later, the progressive religious presence in Washington would start to board up like factories in upstate New York. For thirty years I’ve attended meetings, consultations, and “strategy sessions” wherein people came from around the country, put their heads together, met in small groups, reported to large groups, and in the end — went home.

The forces that took to marching in the fifties and sixties settled for meetings thereafter.

In early 2005, for example, I was invited to join a meeting of an interfaith who’s who of everybody opposed to the Iraq War. We met in the Methodist Building adjacent to the National Council of Churches, in fact. The Purpose For Which We Gathered: come up with an interfaith strategy to hasten an end to the Iraq Occupation.

Now, I went with enthusiasm because I had only a year and a half earlier taken a sabbatical to study strategy (military) and how it might apply to advocacy. I should have been prepared for the limited view of strategy I’d find at this gathering; I was not prepared for the stubbornness of that view.

Their strategy? In one sentence: “Well, we gotta have a great big march on Washington.”

Huh?

I tried, as diplomatically but as insistently as I could, to point out the difference between strategy and tactics, and how the latter grow from the former — but to no avail. The BIG ISSUE of the day, as I recall, was whether the Jewish groups could, in good conscience, march with another group (which simply had to be included) who had a pro-Palestinian position.

And so it went. There was no march, of course. Nothing happened until that summer, when Cindy Sheehan, who had no overt religious connection I know of, camped out in Crawford, Texas, waiting for the president to explain to her why her son was sent to die in Iraq. Only then did public sentiment toward our presence in Iraq change.

Organized religion had nothing to do with public sentiments — because organized religion deserved to have nothing to do with public sentiments.

Maybe they’ll have a meeting about it someday.

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