Friday, April 7, 2006
UCC takes 'pugnacious stance' toward Christian right.
The New York Times reports today on the United Church of Christ's increasingly direct challenge to antiliberal movements within mainline Protestantism. Reporter Neela Banerjee puts a biblical spin on her lede: "After years of turning the other cheek, the United Church of Christ, among the most liberal of the mainline Protestant denominations, has recently staked out a more pugnacious stance toward the Christian right." This is perhaps accurate, but it's fascinating to see how the Institute on Religion and Democracy — which has targeted the UCC and other denominations' "liberalism" for many years — plays the innocent in the story.
Banerjee adopts a frame for the story — who follows Jesus' counsel to "turn the other cheek"? — that makes the UCC look like the Sunday school kid who has neglected the Beatitudes when the IRD has, in fact, been wearing sheep's clothing for decades.
The Times reviews recent highlights: UCC general minister John Thomas's Gettysburg College speech about the IRD's campaign to divide the mainline denominations; the church's pointed TV marketing campaign (but fails to note that the "ejector" ad has now been rejected by Viacom and NBC Universal–owned cable networks); and the General Synod's decision to support same-sex marriage last summer.
The most intriguing statement in the story is from the IRD: "In Thomas's case, I'm seeing an advancing case of paranoia," said Steve Rempe, the content editor for the institute's Web site. "He sees this vast conspiracy centered around conservative political motivations and doesn't seem to see the possibility that these people might have a legitimate pastoral concern for their churches."
But it's not either-or: There are people with legitimate "pastoral concerns" for the theological and political trends in the mainline churches; that's clearly true. It is also true, however, that the funding sources and ideological designs of many of the champions of these disaffected Protestants are closely tied to conservative political movements. The deceptiveness of Rempe's statement is that it dismisses any complaint about political motivations by hiding under the cloak of piety. IRD has successfully figured out how to play "wise as serpents and gentle as doves."
Because Banerjee's story is about two national organizations — the denominational leadership of a famously congregational and non-hierarchical family of churches and a well-funded but small advocacy organization in Virginia — it doesn't touch at all on how either effort is playing out in local churches themselves. Mainline Protestants have not been quick to change, their population is shrinking, and the UCC's aggressive outreach campaign — which involves helping local congregations unlearn old habits and think again about outreach and evangelism and hospitality to strangers just as much as it involves edgy TV ads and cool marketing materials — has been controversial at every level from the beginning. It's expensive. It's challenging. It may fail.
But the conflict between these high-visibility, high-stakes contenders can divert attention from the real story: how local congregations — which have long taken modernism and liberal theology for granted, which have for many decades tried to practice a social gospel, and which have failed to grow in a changing culture — are facing complex, change-or-die choices. The choice isn't about joining the religious right or joining the religious left; it's not about picking "orthodoxy" or "liberalism"; it's not about conflict or quietude. It's about learning to recognize the demands of the gospel in this particular time and place.
("Liberal denomnination fires salvos at right," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 4.7.06, reg req'd)
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 7 April 2006 at 8:26 AM