When I entered church
this morning a cameraman was setting up in one of the side aisles at the transept. We don't videotape our services, and his camera
was clearly a professional piece, not something you might bring to film a baptism
. But it really was none of my business so I passed it by.
Though almost no one knew it, it turns out the cameraman was from ABC news and he was at my church to film for tomorrow's edition of the program Nightline. The subject will be churches and politics in America. Another crew was also in Columbus filming similar events at the World Harvest Church, a megachurch whose leader is the televangelist Rod Parsley.
It is no secret that conservative Christians have played a growing role in American politics for some years now, ever since Jerry Falwell brought out the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson ran for President of the United States. Before the seventies evangelicals rarely voted, staying out of politics. Roe vs. Wade, the increasing movement for gay rights, the sexual liberation movement of the seventies and the teaching of evolution has mobilized conservative voters. Randall Terry of Operation Rescue got them to run for low office, such as precinct committeeman in the Republican Party, and the efforts of Ralph Reed and other ideological conservatives mobilized them not only to vote, but to participate in grass roots politics, so much so that these men and women have often come to control the nomination process for the Republican Party. They also became the people who canvassed precincts, made phone calls and stuffed envelopes for G.O.P. candidates.
This movement shifted the Republican Party to the far right in many areas, and moved the party from a more pragmatic to an almost purely ideological outlook in many of its policies. Ideological conservatives were elected to positions formerly held by pragmatists. Republicans who sought to advance often have had to pay homage to the far right. They needed fundamentalist support to win nomination and to get the foot soldiers they need to run a winning campaign in the general election. Moderate conservatives such as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector found themselves under attack from the right within their own party. Previously, such challenges against an incumbent were unheard of, as they could put Republican-held seats in jeopardy.
Second, while Christians are concerned with sexuality, we don't all see sexual purity as the beginning and ending of morality. Like many others my church has come to see that gay people are as Jon Stewart so well put it, "not a random fetish but a permanent part of the human condition." Like national conference of the Episcopal Church the United Church of Christ is an open and affirming domination. That hasn't always been easy because old views die hard, but when the election was held to make my own church open and affirming the vote was 97% for. We marry gay couples and in our church directory long-term gay and lesbian couples are listed as families. Because that's just what they are.
Of course Reverends Parsley and Johnson do not agree. Recently they joined together to form a right-wing lobbying group called Reform Ohio Now intended to codify their moral teachings, including so-called intelligent design in Ohio law. Johnson is on record as wanting to make sure that no one ever has to hear about Charles Darwin's funny idea. When they announced their new group Rod Parsley stated "It's time to lock and load on Ohio."
For many of us who don't see Christ's teachings as a call to return to Phariseeism, that was the spark that lit the fire. Many Christians are tired of seeing our faith used as a conservative rallying cry. We're tired of being told by people of conscience that "You're one of the them!" when we tell them we're believers. We're tired of people thinking that faith requires us to give up on science. We're tired of letting the right become the voice of God in the world. The Sojourners movement led by the Reverend Jim Wallis marked the beginning of the mobilization of moderate mainstream Christians.
Hearing the call of Dr. Gladden, my own minister, Reverend Tim Ahrens, acted. Along with a group of other ministers and rabbis he helped form We Believe, a more centrist Christian lobbying group that does not endorse candidates, but also takes no positions at all on the issues of sexual purity. Rather the emphasis is entirely on the meek, the despised, the poor and downtrodden. Outside that Reverend Ahrens and others have begun to openly criticize Reform Ohio Now as not following the true teachings of Christ, and have entered open debate with both Parsley and Johnson. In fact, Johnson recently backed out of a debate with Ahrens, as 'not being advantageous at this time'.
What this means is that in Ohio there is an open and public schism between religious leaders right and left on the subject of what Jesus called Christians to do. This debate does not serve the interests of conservatives as it denies implicitly their claim that theirs is the Christian position. That undercuts the legitimacy of their teachings in a way that forces them to defend themselves theologically rather than simply calling us liberals. That sort of debate is one people like Reverend Ahrens, Eric Willians and Episcopal Minister George Glazier welcome, because we know our Bibles at least as well as they do, and we get to speak in inclusive language while they must speak the language of judgment and exclusion.
Tomorrow that debate moves to Nightline. This isn't the first time the national news has picked this up, it was covered in a September 2006 article in The New Yorker. But this the first time the debate has reached the major television networks. But this is part of a long-overdue larger debate for America's soul, one moderates can and will win.
Update! It appears I was misinformed, the Nightline piece is not supposed to be a confrontation between Parsley and my pastor, but rather a profile of We Believe. It can't hurt though to have publicity go to a group that is very much in opposition to Parsley's bunch.