It wasn’t a religious gathering, it was a political convention.
And an article here on the pages of The American Spectator is suspected of causing the liberal United Church of Christ to abruptly shut down a much-advertised live webcast of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Obama’s speech to the UCC General Synod, delivered at the Hartford, Connecticut Civic Center over the weekend, had been scheduled for live streaming videocast for UCC members and the public.
Last week, in anticipation of Obama’s appearance at the national gathering of a church in which both he and I are members, I drew attention in this space to Obama’s claim that the “Christian Right” had “hijacked” the Christian faith. It was, I said, a dead-on description of what many UCC’ers feel has been done to their own church by political liberals, and raised the question of whether Obama’s “courage” in criticizing denominations to which he does not belong would be directed at the power elites in the denomination where he does belong. Would Barack Obama speak truth to power in a place where he could actually do something positive?
The answer turned out to be an unsurprising “no.” But what turned out to be a surprise — and I must admit the conduct of the elites running my national church has left me with very little capability of being surprised — was the sudden darkness which mysteriously overtook the UCC General Synod webcast when Obama spoke.
For those unfamiliar with the internals of UCC politics, UCC minister Barry Lynn just happens to be the head of a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In this capacity, Reverend Lynn has made himself a familiar figure on the national media scene. A longtime antagonist of “Christian Right” leaders like the late Jerry Falwell and others, Lynn is well out there proclaiming that there should be, in the famously misused phrase of Thomas Jefferson, a “wall of separation” between the state — i.e., politics — and the church.
Specifically, Lynn’s website advertises itself as “Project Fair Play: Stop Illegal Church Electioneering.” Lynn’s site runs an excerpt from the Internal Revenue Service. Included are these highlights: “Under the Internal Revenue Code…churches and religious organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective office. Contributions to political campaign funds…made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of an excise tax.”
While Obama was invited to the General Synod before he decided to run for president, he announced his candidacy months ago, and yet the UCC leadership, instead of obeying the law and replacing him with a non-candidate speaker, simply went ahead with what Lynn, usually quite prominently, insists is a serious violation of the law. The hope, apparently, was that no one in the liberal mainstream media would notice the problem, or report on it if they did.
In running my article about Obama’s impending appearance, The American Spectator, decidedly not the favorite reading of the liberal UCC power elite, suddenly was casting a spotlight on what was undoubtedly intended by Obama as a routine appearance before what he apparently perceives as just another far-left interest group, in this case the elites of his own church. That spotlight would inevitably bring unwanted scrutiny not only of Obama’s speech — but his very presence as a candidate. The webcast in and of itself (not to mention Obama’s physical presence) would have been a significant “contribution” to Obama’s campaign, a clear “participation” and “intervening” in a “political campaign on behalf of any candidate…for political office.” Had this been a church of the “Christian Right” and the candidate a conservative, Lynn and various liberals would have been all over cable TV demanding an IRS investigation. Instead, silence. Over twenty-four hours after the event Lynn’s website is silent. The mainstream liberal media? Need I ask?
SO A WEBCAST SYSTEM THAT had no problems relaying liberal commentator Bill Moyer’s address to the General Synod earlier in the day mysteriously went dark when the time arrived for Obama, easily the most advertised speaker on the program, to speak. Yet speak he did anyway, pitching for his candidacy in bold defiance of Lynn’s — and more importantly the IRS’s — views on the subject. Obama made no attempt to hide his presence at a UCC-sponsored event as anything less than a bid for votes.
The speech was salted with repeated references to Obama’s candidacy, such as his discoveries “since I announced I was running for president.” He used the UCC-provided podium to electioneer for his personal liberal favorites such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage. He specifically promised, “I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president….” His opportunity to say every last word of this, of course, an opportunity denied not only his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination but, under the law, the Republicans as well, was sponsored directly and quite unrepentantly by the United Church of Christ.
“I think the shutdown [of the webcast] was intentional, ” said James Hutchins, a UCC dissenter who runs the UCC Truths website, adding that he thought the Spectator article “may have played a significant part in this.” Hutchins added that “the UCC crossed the church/state line by a long shot,” specifically pointing to photographs on his own website of an Obama-for-president campaign table set up at the entrance to the Civic Center. Forgive me for voicing a personal but definitely unproved suspicion that there was also concern that a video version of this story would also instantly show up on QubeTV — a fledgling conservative site for which I am responsible and that has been billed in much national media coverage as a “conservative alternative to You Tube.” Hutchins also pointed to the fact that the UCC has now announced that it will “archive” the Obama video made in-house. The effect of this would be to bypass instant and always wandering press attention while making the Obama video available to the general public at the tap of a keyboard. Thus effectively making yet one last contribution to the Obama campaign.
Hutchins was not the only observer to realize the significance of what was happening between Obama and the UCC. Covering the event for the ABC New Haven affiliate WTNH television, reporter Mark Davis said, “[T]he General Synod is not just a religious gathering, and the address Saturday afternoon by Obama, a 22-year member of the UCC, certainly proved that….At times it certainly had the feel of a political convention.” Davis also made the remarkable observation that “the thousands of people in attendance appear to be true believers in Jesus and Barack Obama.”
HOW COULD SOMETHING AS EGREGIOUSLY over the line as this happen in my church? Easy. The very presence of intellectual diversity within the leadership ranks in any given group insures not only that all people and multiple points of view in the group are represented, it helps the leadership from blundering into serious mistakes. There is no intellectual diversity in the high ranks of the UCC leadership, a fact well displayed with the choice not only of Obama but liberals Bill Moyers and Marian Wright Edelman as the other main attractions on the speakers podium. The absolute last thing the church had any intention of doing was inviting any prominent UCC dissenter or well-known conservative (and they are not necessarily the same thing, though they can be) to speak. Secure in the intellectual bubble of left-wing activism even as their policies continues to lose members, dollars and churches, the leadership has now all-too predictably left itself wide open for a damaging investigation by the IRS.
The result? Their brazen and inept attempt to push Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy has backfired not simply on the church — but on Obama. Whatever the view conservatives have of Obama’s main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, no one would believe Clinton would ever make such a rookie mistake as to deliberately push her own candidacy in a setting that would invite the scrutiny of the IRS to either her campaign or her church. It is the mistake not just of a blunder-prone church leadership wearing ideological blinders, it is the mistake of a very, very green politician running around America insisting he’s mature enough to be president.
Once again, the national leadership of the United Church of Christ seems intent on selling the very core of its moral leadership for thirty pieces of political silver. In its haste to push the very earthly bound candidate of a very mortal man for a very human political office, and its relentlessly appalling insistence on striving to be considered a political player rather than a “Church of Christ” it has yet again cheapened if not abandoned outright the faith of the Christ who speaks to UCC members from the Gospel of John 28:36:
“My Kingdom is not of this world.”
Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder and CEO of QubeTV, an online conservative video sharing website. A former Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania.