The Nation's Pulse

A Letter to the Rev. J. Bennett Guess

When a church worships political ideology instead of God.

By 11.4.09

Send to Kindle

"The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry."
-- Reinhold Niebuhr
Christianity and Crisis
July 21, 1952

Reverend Guess. If I may.

Doubtless the articles in this space have given you some heartburn over the last couple of weeks. For you and Leigh Hunt Greenhaw, the chair of the United Church of Christ's Office of Communications, I don't doubt that you both have experienced many different thoughts and emotions as what you undoubtedly felt to be a good-faith interfaith project, So We Might See, was reported on in a far different light than you could have imagined.

The repercussions have been, you are surely thinking, not happy ones.

But is that really so? Is it perhaps something else instead -- a chance to explore? Since other denominations have had members come forward with their thoughts on all of this, I thought perhaps it would be useful to say something to both you, Reverend Ben, and Leigh, in your capacity as the chair of the UCC OC. As always, I speak here for myself, as is the polity of our faith.

Two stories. Two names.

Vernon Johns. Pauline Kael.

Two very different people who, some might think, would never be found occupying the same sentence.

Vernon Johns, though not a household name today, is as I'm sure you both know, considered by many to be the father of the American Civil Rights movement. Once upon a time he was indeed well known. In fact, his sermon entitled Transfigured Moments was so well respected that its inclusion in the 1926 edition of Best Sermons made Reverend Johns the first African-American to have his work included in this annual volume.

Dr. Johns has another, very distinctive role in American religious history, which I'm sure both of you are familiar with as well. He was once the famous pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And when the unknown young minister who would take his pulpit began his ministry at Dexter, Martin Luther King, Jr. felt compelled to introduce himself to a larger audience as Dr. Johns' successor.

The story is told that later, much later, in the late summer of 1963 when Dr. King was globally famous as the leader of the American Civil Rights movement, his fame now completely overshadowing Dr. Johns, Dr. King found himself emotionally and spiritually exhausted. 1963 had been a difficult year, filled with triumph and tragedy. King had led the protests in Birmingham, Alabama -- and promptly been imprisoned. Yet while in jail he famously wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. There were other marches, other calls on his eloquence. There were protests in Maryland, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Medgar Evers was assassinated. The legendary Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and jailed. And perhaps most symbolically of the attacks on freedom that year, four little girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Baptist Church.

Dr. King, as difficult as it might seem to believe today, was having an increasingly difficult time finding the words he felt he needed to keep going, to keep inspiring. So he sent his lawyer to go find old Dr. Johns. Why? Martin Luther King felt he needed his predecessor's old sermon notes. He felt that they and perhaps only they could inspire him to keep on keeping on in the job of inspiring change, to continue giving voice to the job of finally enshrining freedom for all Americans. The lawyer, Chauncey Eskridge, managed to locate Dr. Johns in Petersburg, Virginia. Now an old man, he was not doing well financially and Eskridge initially thought him a local wino. It turned out that Johns was not, or so it appeared, much of a sermon note kind of minister. But he had what the lawyer called "clouds in his head" that could materialize on short order as set pieces of inspiring message.

Let's leave Dr. Johns for the moment and move on to Pauline Kael.

The late Ms. Kael was, over three decades, the acerbic film critic of the New Yorker magazine, no doubt terrorizing a good many movie directors with her tart-tongued assessment of their work. A graduate of the University of California at Berkley, she had chosen writing over a career in the law. Described by the New York Times at her death as possessing "an intellectualism that reflected her background as a student of philosophy," Ms. Kael divided her time between a lovely home in Massachusetts and a hotel in Manhattan, where she felt compelled to spend several days a week seeing the latest cinematic offerings that she would then dissect with the skill of a surgeon.

Yet there is one quote associated with Ms. Kael that has nothing to do with her career as a film critic.

She was, as might be expected, a political liberal. Her friends, her professional associates, her neighbors were a warm bath of like-mindedness. In the aftermath of the 1972 presidential election that saw the liberal South Dakota Senator George McGovern lose to Richard Nixon in a 49-state landslide (McGovern famously managed to carry Ms. Kael's Massachusetts), Kael is legendarily supposed to have said, "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him."

There is some thought today that while somewhere along the line she expressed essentially the sentiment, this quote is not quite accurate. Perhaps putting it more in the fashion of an urban legend. Not an urban legend was the news from the New York Times two days after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, defeating the urbane John Kerry of Massachusetts:

In a story I read at the time on the front page of the Times Metro section was this Kael-esque sentiment: "Some New Yorkers, like Meredith Hackett, a 25-year-old barmaid in Brooklyn, said they didn't even know any people who had voted for President Bush."

Ms. Kael and the symbolism that surrounds her remark, or the later sentiment in 2004, came to mind when reading Ms. Greenhaw's response in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which can be found here.

And, perhaps more importantly, it comes to mind when considering the matter of the So We Might See exercise and the entire campaign of the Office of Communications for "Media Justice."

Think for a moment about the story of Dr. Johns and Martin Luther King's need for what he felt sure were a set of inspirational sermon notes from such a grand old man. Contrast this, if you will, with this information that Reverend Guess, presumably, supplied as to the use of grant money received from, among others, the Media Democracy Fund. The MDF -- a fund that, as stated in detail in previous articles -- is in fact partially funded by money from George Soros's Open Society Institute. That money in the So We Might See coffers coming from what is quite vividly a far-left wing foundation with distinctly political goals.

The money, said Reverend Guess, that would be used for various items including:

"Sermon notes, children's activities, and adult education materials, among others."

The difference in values exhibited here appears, at least in this corner, as striking.

We, the larger United Church of Christ, have surely if unconsciously, step by step, left the world of beliefs devoted to expanding human freedom -- the world of Vernon Johns and Dr. King -- and traded down, way down. Traded our most important values for, in this case, "sermon notes" intended to make the case for circumscribing the freedom of speech of others. And in what appears to many as a surreptitious fashion at that. To add insult to injury, we're effectively being paid to do it.

As a UCC minister, Reverend Ben, you will know that Robert Browne was one of the first ministers to proclaim Congregational principles in the late 1500s in England. He was also a prolific writer and author. Which is to say he spoke his mind, something he had in common with the Baptist Dr. Johns. For this, like Dr. King, he was imprisoned, his congregations harassed and, say the UCC history books, he was "broken in body and spirit" by the authorities of the day. Precisely because of the denial of basic free speech rights to Robert Browne, and other later Congregationalists, 102 of these oppressed souls sailed from England to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

Over the centuries, those associated with what is now the United Church of Christ have, among many beliefs held in common, displayed a fierce commitment to free speech and its importance as one of the most sacred of human freedoms. The names on this roster of free speech champions are many. Robert Browne, as mentioned. John Robinson, forced into exile from England to Holland because of his unwillingness to circumscribe his speech to please the Church of England. It was Robinson who was one of the early leaders of the group that evolved into the Pilgrims of 1620. Thomas Hooker, the first minister of the Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut. It was Hooker, who, in the late 1630s, set forth the basic principles known as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, a document that is viewed today as the foundation that would later establish the U.S. Constitution -- and the First Amendment. Hooker's work on the Orders is embodied in the opening "Declaration of Rights" in today's Connecticut State Constitution, saying this in Section 4:

"Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty."

The UCC tradition moves on to Jonathan Edwards, who made his ministerial home preaching in "The Great Awakening" in my own hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. As I was taught as a child, Edwards was a stout believer in a Congregational doctrine that thought is religion's best weapon, and as was also driven home in my confirmation classes at the Jonathan Edwards Congregational Church, Congregationalist's were great lovers of free speech as expressed in books and in Edward's fiery sermons. Included in this early tradition as well were lay leaders like John Hancock and John Adams, who brought their religious values to the Declaration of Independence.

The list of those who risked their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" for free speech in our faith continues, with all sorts of others who were devoted to free speech in thought or action. Indeed the disagreements on doctrine that emerged in the West as Martin Luther gave way to Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin would not have been possible were it not for free thought and free speech.

Which brings us to Everett Parker, the man for whom the UCC's Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture series is named and which I am sure you both so much time tending.

Everett Parker's crowning achievement in his life, like so many of those in the history of our faith, was expanding human freedom. For those unfamiliar with why Everett Parker is so well respected and beloved by UCC members, here's a great video that Rev. Guess's office has provided:

The incident that brought the Office of Communications to life in 1959 revolved around Dr. Parker's understanding that something was terribly wrong when Jackson, Mississippi NBC-television affiliate WLBT repeatedly had technical problems when the national NBC News was presenting the news of civil rights protests. "Sorry, Cable Trouble" the screen would read.

It was raw, very deliberate intimidating censorship, sending a chilling message of fear to anyone watching.

And right here is where I and so many others have a problem with So We Might See.

Obviously, Reverend Ben, for you as a minister and for Leigh as a prominent lay leader (Ms. Greenhaw is also married to the president of Eden Theological Seminary), history lessons of our denomination are unneeded, if useful for others reading this. Yet the understanding of the history of our faith in direct connection with the So We Might See situation needs some degree of context.

By signing the United Church of Christ onto a movement that inevitably is perceived as having a chilling effect on the free speech of talk radio and Fox News, you have effectively stood Parker's heroic effort -- and the tradition of all those from our past from Robert Browne to Thomas Hooker and Jonathan Edwards and so many more -- on its head. You are putting our church -- in what I personally find an appalling fashion -- in the position of those long ago segregationists and racists.

Which is to say you are supporting the use of raw political power to block out dissent. To circumscribe human freedom, not expand it.

Hopefully you would be curious to know that there is a point of view that looks upon the Civil Rights movement as what a friend of mine who was there at the time recently called "inherently conservative with a capital 'C'." When the politically correct crop of today's historians go the way of the world, future historians with no personal connection to the day will be able to see that the American Civil Rights movement was, as my friend says, "a response to fundamental, visible injustices." In a religious sense, the power was never really with all those bullnecked sheriffs.

The conservatives, the real conservators of constitutional government and the rule of law, were the ones singing freedom songs in those churches. In Birmingham, in Montgomery, in Atlanta. The clarion call for justice was about expanding human freedom, getting government (the sheriffs, legislators, governors, congressmen and senators) -- out. Removing the heavy hand of political power that had oppressed blacks for generations. The most important truth should not be forgotten -- that the denial of fundamental rights to a black man or woman in Alabama was a denial, eventually, to all the rest of us. So is that true today with free speech.

Leading the fight for these basic human freedoms was a magnificent goal. Many people paid a heavy price to achieve it. It calls to mind a line from that 1926 sermon of Dr. Johns:

"It is a heart strangely unchristlike that cannot thrill with Joy when the least of the children of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars."

Pull in the direction of the stars.

One of the things about the "Hate Speech Hurts" campaign of So We Might See is that quite aside from what so many see is an assault on the free speech tradition of both America and, in my case, the United Church of Christ there is something else.

It is small.

Is begging for grant money from a group that has such a patently obvious political agenda really pulling in the direction of the stars?

Well, yes. It is. If in fact the board of the United Church of Christ Office of Communications, Inc., not to mention the bureaucracy that buzzes around in Cleveland UCC headquarters -- is filled with so many religious Pauline Kaels. There is not a clue, in that case, that the entire idea behind So We Might See or even -- gasp! -- the entire "Media Justice" campaign would even be seriously questioned.

Who amongst you would ever sit at a board meeting devoted to communications, scan the list of past Parker speakers that ranges all the way from liberal Bill Moyers to liberal Michael Copps to liberal Russ Feingold -- and say, maybe we are going about this the wrong way? Does it not ever occur to you that an event endlessly centering around speeches by well, an unending list of liberals who say in one version or another: thanks for the invite, we agree, and oh by the way aren't we swell -- has a bit of a Kaelistic problem on its hands?

Who among you would ever dare whisper the apparently revolutionary thought that maybe, just maybe, there are UCC members who have enormous respect for the entrepreneurial spirit that has created media companies, that has produced the diversity -- let me say that word again, diversity -- that is talk radio and Fox News. Who among you would ever think for a moment that there are members of the UCC who believe government power is our real problem, that corporations are not creatures of evil, and that a little bit better understanding and appreciation for capitalism might help fill the collection plates that are perpetually not being filled for the missions the UCC traditionally supports?

That perhaps we might hear words like "net neutrality" and instantly hear "government control of the Internet"?

Who among you would ever consider for a second that this kind of thinking makes our church leadership look as if they are indulging an opportunity to cover themselves in self-importance? To clothe themselves in the garments of a Pharisee-style self-righteousness? Losing our voice to speak as a church but rather lecturing others in the tone of what C.S. Lewis once described as "omnipotent moral busybodies."

That no one would seriously breathe these ideas in this environment is what one might call the UCC's Kael-ism at its most notorious.

But not to worry. It can get worse. It could be deliberate.

Case in point. On the UCC OC board sits the Rev. Dawson Taylor, the Curate/Associate Pastor for Congregational Life at the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas. As it happens, his senior pastor, Michael Piazza, came to the Penn Central Conference the day before our official proceedings kicked off and gave a very interesting presentation. A charming, energetic and smart soul, he enthusiastically popped up a picture of -- yes -- Karl Rove. Startled -- I was pretty certain Mr. Rove was not a UCC member and was taking a wild guess that Piazza was no Rove fan. I was curious. The point of the good Pastor Piazza? That the UCC should take a page from Karl Rove's 2004 election playbook -- which was, essentially, turn out the base. The UCC is a liberal church, Piazza asserted. Heck, he proudly displayed a bumper sticker that proclaimed Jesus Himself was a liberal. And as to the rest of us who, ahhh, might not confuse our religion with our politics, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggested? Well, in essence, hasta la vista, baby.

Now I have to assume Reverend Taylor, he of the UCC OC Board, Pastor Piazza's associate, is in accord with this view. But even if this is not what is expressed, it would seem probable at a minimum that, Kael-like, he would sit there clueless as the So We Might See idea of getting Glenn Beck off the air or launching the FCC on Rush Limbaugh is discussed. Bathed in the warm bath of like-minded all-liberal colleagues the thought would presumably never cross his mind or any other at the table that maybe -- just maybe -- a whole lot of church members stretching across seven denominations might find this kind of thing, well, certifiable.

Perhaps even more mystifying is the notion that precisely in the day and age of a robust conservative media, no one in the UCC Office of Communications would understand a media outlet like The American Spectator could take note of the campaign and start parsing the Watergate lesson -- follow the money. Again, the Kael-like view of the world blinds.

My intention is not to single out Reverend Taylor.

Indeed, after quoting parts of my column describing So We Might See thusly:

A "full-fledged assault on conservative media" -- "an organized campaign . . . a carefully planned, well-funded systematic assault on talk radio and Fox News that involves at least seven major liberal American religious denominations." 

Ms. Greenhaw says, with the bliss of Pauline Kael herself: 

"I've never seen myself as a part of something like that and I've never been described that way before."

To which I can only say, and truly I mean no offense, you all need to get out a bit.

This has nothing to do with cyberspace. Pauline Kael never spent a minute in cyberspace. She spent too little minutes in an atmosphere of intellectual diversity.

"Humanity needs the contagion of lofty spirits," said Dr. Johns. Respectfully, a campaign designed to limit the speech of others, no matter how offensive you or others may perceive it to be, is not lofty -- and one can only fear its contagion.

It is, as mentioned, small. The very last thing that was true of what Everett Parker did, or what Thomas Hooker did, or Jonathan Edwards and so many more in our faith tradition.

The idea of partisan political money -- from George Soros or anyone else, left, right or center -- writing our sermon notes is at a minimum, a sign of contamination of our faith and our mission. The United Church of Christ is not for sale.

If in fact the OC is constitutionally separate from the denomination, and this is all it is capable of doing, perhaps the real question is whether or not we should call it a great fifty years and retire the whole enterprise. Just -- end it.

We have gone in these last fifty years from a bold and brilliant challenge to those who, as someone has said to me, would segregate and separate, who would deny basic rights to others, who would exclude -- to now engaging in petty attacks, smallness, filling the void with bickering activists, academics and church bureaucrats and those anxious to justify what seems perilously close to nearly useless jobs. If those jobs are about just finding ways to raise money by attacking media figures whose only real sin is disagreeing with church bureaucrats.

Let's end here with Dr. Johns again:

"So on the Mount of Transfiguration, while experience was rife, James reflected deeply, John thrilled with awe, and Peter spoke! Peter felt the tides running high in his soul: and he said so; "Lord it is good for us to be here."

Reflecting deeply. Thrill with awe. The tides running high in our souls.

Is that what's really going on when we spend our time trying to chill free speech with a government agency?

Reverend Ben, Leigh...Is it really good to be here?

Best wishes,

Jeffrey Lord 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.