Amplifying the mainline
Written by J. Bennett Guess
June - July 2006
July 1, 2006

Over the past nine years, prominent Religious Right leaders have appeared more than 40 times on the major Sunday morning new talk programs. But the principal leaders of the UCC, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist Churches, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Reformed Church in America, among others, haven't appeared once. Why?

On Easter Sunday, April 16, NBC's "Meet the Press" hosted its annual installment of "Faith in America," where seven religious commentators spent an hour discussing the state of religious life in this country. Representing the "Christian perspective" were a conservative Roman Catholic priest, a liberal Roman Catholic nun and a charismatic Pentecostal pastor. Not a mainline Protestant leader among them.

It was at least the second consecutive year that "Meet the Press" had snubbed the 35-member- body National Council of Churches by excluding any representation of its mainline communions. A year earlier, NBC had invited the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a charismatic evangelical and a Roman Catholic priest to discuss the same topic. Again, no Episcopalians, no Presbyterians, no Lutherans. And certainly no one from the UCC.

Meanwhile this year, over at CNN, Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition" spent about 10 minutes on Easter Sunday talking about Christian voters. Blitzer's guest? Jerry Falwell.

If you've noticed lately that a news interview with a United Methodist bishop is just about as likely as a UCC commercial on network television, then you're starting to get the point.

Media Matters, a media research organization, has crunched the numbers and what they've found isn't heartening: Mainline, mainstream denominations - even though they account for more than one-quarter of church-going Americans - are rarely, if ever, visible on national news programs.

"Despite the fact that mainline churches are at the heart of the American landscape," says the Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's communication director, "they continue to be silenced, or perhaps just ignored, when it comes to media conversations about religion in America."

"At the beginning of the 'Meet the Press' show, host Tim Russert asked the panelists, 'Were people more religious at the founding of our country and were we more divided on moral issues back then than we are now?'" Chase recalls. "Ironically, there was no one present to represent those historic, mainline Protestant traditions that have been so prominently at the center of American life since its earliest days."

No news is no news

Unfortunately, the lack of "mainline" coverage has become routine.

Last December, when 115 mainline religious leaders were arrested in Washington, D.C., during a last-ditch effort to draw attention to federal budget cuts affecting millions of low-income Americans, the major news networks didn't cover the story.

In February, during the World Council of Churches' 9th international assembly in Brazil, many prominent mainline leaders, including UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas, issued a strongly worded apology to Christians around the world for not doing more to prevent the U.S. war in Iraq. In March, mainline clergy gathered in Washington, D.C., to demand an end to government curtailment of church-oriented travel to Cuba. And, in April, Church World Service, a broadly ecumenical relief organization, called on the U.S. Senate to adopt a "compassionate" immigration reform policy. In each instance, the major news organizations ignored the stories altogether.

However, in March, when Falwell chided a Minnesota city for allegedly evicting the Easter Bunny from a public venue, Associated Press covered it. And, about the same time, when Pat Robertson referred to Muslims as "satanic," Newsweek ran a story. And, in New Orleans, despite the millions of relief dollars raised by mainline denominations and the thousands of deployed volunteers now working there, it was Franklin Graham who landed an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" to talk about his ministry there, along with Campus Crusades for Christ, which was profiled by CNN's Anderson Cooper.

When and if mainline Protestantism attracts media attention, it usually centers on declining membership or squabbles over homosexuality, says Robert Wuthnow, a sociology professor at Princeton University and author of "The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism" (University of California Press, 2002). On April 3, he gave a lecture in Indianapolis on the role of mainline Protestantism today.

The unreported reality, Wuthnow believes, is that mainline churches still wield quiet influence on American public policy. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he says, evangelicals found their voice and journalists, in turn, began flocking to cover their every move.

Wuthnow says he and others have been left wondering, "What about mainline Protestants?" Even in recent years, Wuthnow says, mainline church advocacy has played a favorable role in several public policy decisions, including successes in environmental justice, international debt relief and corporate responsibility. But credit for these victories often goes to evangelical or Roman Catholic leaders, he says.

Jubilee 2000 is cited by Wuthnow as an example. The debt relief campaign resulted in $34 billion in debt forgiveness for developing nations. "Mainline churches were hardly noticed in this effort by the media," he says.

Why the snubbing?

While some suggest the pervasive public silence is linked to decades of mainline decline, others suggest a more-sinister plot.

The Rev. Peter Laarman, former pastor of Judson Memorial Church (UCC/American Baptist) in New York and now director of the national Progressive Religious Partnership, believes the silencing is the direct result of a coordinated, decades-old strategy by so-called "neo-con" organizations, most notably the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), to disrupt mainline churches, discredit their national agencies and "decapitate" mainline leaders.

The rise of the Religious Right not only depended on its ability to attract more political power, Laarman says, but its growth in influence also required a squelching of mainliners' longstanding clout. Because these more-moderate churches stood at the literal center of America's heartland and held significant sway on public opinion, their Christian credentials needed to be undermined. (More than 50 percent of members of Congress still belong to mainline Protestant churches.)

Articulating a thesis once put forward by theologian John B. Cobb, a United Methodist, Laarman says the mainline church enjoyed remarkable success through the 1970s: The Vietnam War, long opposed publicly by mainline leaders such as the UCC's William Sloane Coffin, had been ended. The sin of racial segregation had been exposed through the help of more-courageous mainline clergy. Civil rights legislation, advocated by mainline church agencies, was being enacted. The ordination of women was growing in practice and acceptance, and a "liberationist" reading of the Bible - not biblical fundamentalism - was gaining prominence.

"These were not only significant cultural milestones but certain moral victories for the mainline church, and the mainline church became a victim of its own success," Laarman believes. "After the 1970s, a significant part of the mainline church went to sleep."

"But then it was torpedoed by this offensive [from the IRD] that it didn't see coming," Laarman says. "Unbeknownst to most people, there was a huge counter thrust that was well-funded and well-organized. Of all the vehicles of the Right in the last 40 years, its success at dividing the mainlines is its best and least known success. These [divisions] are not indigenous reactions within these communions. These are being orchestrated by the IRD."

IRD: 'Looking to divide and destroy'

Founded 25 years ago, IRD works through a three-pronged programmatic strategy referred to as "United Methodist Action," "Presbyterian Action" and "Episcopal Action," whereby it routinely hounds mainline leaders as "bureaucrats and elites" and portrays elected heads of mainline communions as rejecters of true Christianity.

According to Laarman, IRD's goal is a simple one: Portray mainline church leaders as anti-Christian, anti-American fools, and by so doing, cripple any mantle of respect or credibility their words or actions may have, either within their own denominations or within the public at large.

IRD's website ird-renew.org reveals how its attacks are most often personal, and how its stated commitment to "promoting democracy and religious freedom" often fails to include any respect for the democratic processes that are hallmarks of mainline Protestantism.

Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian and professor of American religious history at Columbia University, is writing about IRD in his newest book - which he describes as "an evangelical's lament" - called "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Destroys America" (Basic Books, 2006).

Balmer, who attended last year's annual meeting of the IRD's Association for Church Renewal - which includes the UCC's Biblical Witness Fellowship - says there's a noticeable air of "triumphalism" among IRD enthusiasts.

"They feel confident that these issues of sexuality will be the means for retaking control of these [mainline] denominations," says Balmer, the son of an Evangelical Free Church minister. "I don't think it's overstated to say it's a conspiracy. They have this huge degree of support. What has really impressed me in the course of writing this book is the kind of infrastructure that the neo-cons have built over the past decades."

The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, says there is a growing body of evidence that groups like the IRD are working to "deliberately divide and undermine institutional churches."

"This is a concerted effort, not just against the National Council but the mainline churches themselves, to erode the confidence in leadership of these churches," Edgar says.

The NCC and the World Council of Churches were early targets of IRD and became the subject of an IRD-inspired segment on CBS' "60 Minutes" in 1983, when it reported IRD's allegations that both the NCC and WCC were using mainline members' offerings to "promote communism." However, in December 2002, when "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt was asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" to name any show he regretted during his 36-year career, Hewitt named just one: the story berating the ecumenical church bodies, calling the allegations "a lot of nonsense."

"In the mainline churches, we are genetically nice and we tend to be pleasant people, so we have tended to overlook the IRD, which is spending secular money to destroy the fabric of mainline institutional churches," says Edgar, a United Methodist minister. "A lot of us wanted to pretend that wasn't happening, but these false prophets have been working diligently to spoil the well."

Increasingly, the UCC - once outside the public spotlight and therefore able to avoid much of the IRD's attention or resources - has found itself receiving more of IRD's scorn.

About nine months ago, when clergy and lay leaders from the UCC's Missouri/Mid- South Conference met in a St. Louis church basement to discuss how IRD might be intentionally working with so-called "renewal groups" to sow discord and ultimately take churches out of the denomination, an IRD staffer flew from Washington, D.C., to listen in on the conversation. In March, when Thomas gave a lecture at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, his alma mater, that included comments about IRD's attacks on mainline churches, an IRD representative again traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend, tape and transcribe the speech, unbeknownst to Thomas (even though he had provided a copy to United Church News for posting on its website.)

"IRD is using church members, and even outside groups, to disrupt and ultimately control the mainline to promote its own political agenda," Thomas said at Gettysburg.

In response, IRD's Steve Rempe describes Thomas as having "an advanced case of paranoia," according to an April 7 article in The New York Times, which wrote about Thomas' increasing efforts to shed light on the IRD.

Thomas says its time for mainline churches to question IRD's motivations and, ultimately, to defend our churches from attacks.

"We need to be more active in protecting our churches from this kind of behavior," Thomas told The New York Times. "We need to differentiate between loving critics and critics who are looking to divide and destroy."

Edgar describes IRD as purposefully "unfair and unbalanced."

"They send people to every one of our governing board meetings," Edgar says. "They only pick up on negative comments and nothing in the positive sense. I do think it's time for those of us who have been the brunt of IRD attacks to not be silent."

"I'm very proud of what John Thomas has done," says Edgar. "It would be more helpful if more of our mainline leaders would do the same. There really is a need for other leaders to stand up and point out these conspiratorial organizations, like the IRD, that are intentionally corroding the integrity of faithful people and faithful churches."

'Reframing complex issues'

Edgar, whose new book "Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right" (Simon and Shuster, 2006) will be available in late September, suggests four reasons why mainline churches find it difficult to get their messages picked up by the media and heard by the masses.

First, he says, we're genetically long winded.

"In the mainline church, a lot of our leaders are not comfortable reframing complex issues with short, snappy answers, so we tend to allow the far Religious Right to give the short slogans while we give the 20-minute long answers," Edgar says. "And that doesn't play to radio and television."

Second, elected mainline leaders are accountable to larger, cumbersome church bodies in ways that many Religious Right leaders are not, so mainline leaders are often more cautious when they speak.

"When you are so independent that you have no hierarchy or constituency, or any defined body like a General Conference that meets every few years, you can say whatever you want, no matter how outrageous it is," Edgar says. "Mainline positions are rational and generally moderate in their sway and that often is not newsworthy, but still we have a responsibility to confront misinformation and outrageous statements."

Third, mainline leaders have been shy to seek the spotlight.

"Mainline leaders typically don't have big egos," Edgar says, "but we need to get good leaders like John Thomas, [Presbyterian Stated Clerk] Clifton Kirkpatrick or [ELCA Presiding Bishop] Mark Hanson on these shows."

Fourth, in response to IRD attacks, mainline leaders have focused more on internal management and less on external communication.

"It's time for mainline church leaders to spend less time trying to hold their organizations together, and speak instead about those issues that God cares about - that God cares about the poor, God cares about justice, God cares about the stewardship of the earth," Edgar says.

'We need fresh approaches'

Chase says that UCC members - incensed by TV networks' decisions to refuse to air UCC advertising - need to see the bigger picture.

"We now know that it's not just the about the TV commercials," Chase says. "It's about the need for religious freedom and diversity of voice in the marketplace of ideas."

That's why Chase is utilizing a specialized UCC website to draw attention to how mainline churches are being overlooked in the media. Many within and beyond the UCC have been using the site to contact TV network executives about the need for more-balanced religion coverage.

The issue resonates with many mainline Christians, Chase says, because it transcends traditional Left and Right fault lines. Mainline church leaders - be they liberal, conservative or moderate - are being left out across the board, he says.

The Rev. Michael Livingston, a Presbyterian who is serving a two-year term as NCC president, is urging mainline church leaders to "tell our story, by any means necessary."

Speaking in Cleveland on March 27 to members of the NCC's Communications Commission, Livingston lamented the media attraction to Religious Right organizations, saying the work of CWS, Lutheran World Relief and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, among others, largely goes unnoticed.

"Mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches have been pounded into irrelevancy by the media machine of a false religion," says Livingston, who is executive director of the International Council of Community Churches.

Livingston challenged communicators not to mimic the Religious Right, but to devise new strategies for increasing visibility.

"We need fresh approaches to telling our story," he says.

However, Livingston recognizes that seeking publicity is not necessarily the job of a mission worker, nor should congregations undertake ministry only to gain the spotlight.

"But it is the job of some of us to tell the story," he says, "so that the noise we hear so persistently and loudly; the noise that divides, that blames, that ridicules, that labels - is not the only reality, is not the thing that comes to mind when one thinks of 'church' or 'Christian.'"

Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Calif.), whose father was a Lutheran minister, says diverse religious expression helps society to craft common priorities - and the mainline perspective needs to be heard.

"The mainline church respects the goal of promoting and protecting common values shared among many faiths while still respecting the separation of church and state," Capps says. "This is why it is so vitally important that the mainline church remain engaged in public conversation about the role of religion in American life."

Rebecca Bowman Woods, news editor for DisciplesWorld magazine, contributed to this story.

Media lessons For savvy mainliners

IF YOU'RE NOT ON TV OR THE INTERNET, YOU DON'T EXIST. If the UCC's Stillspeaking Initiative has taught us one thing, it's this: To be culturally relevant, you've got to be culturally engaged. If in doubt, just ask Martin Luther, who creatively used the just-emerging printing press to usher in the Protestant Reformation. But that was 1539, not 2006.

TALK ABOUT THE FAITH, NOT JUST ISSUES. "Nearly all public expressions of Christianity in America today bear little or no relation to what Jesus of Nazareth said and did. Reclaiming Jesus is a central concern," writes the Rev. Peter Laarman, a UCC minister and editor of "Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel" (Beacon Press, 2006).

LEARN HOW TO BE 'THE GOOD GUEST.' Become the most reliable interviewee a reporter could hope for. Build a track record. Be available. Return phone calls promptly. Say 'yes' to requests. Have a sense of humor - and timing. Speak in short, simple sentences, not soliloquies. Above all, get some media training; it's invaluable.

THINK AND ACT IN HOURS, not days or weeks. Learn how the news cycle works. Anticipate tomorrow's issues. Your excellent op-ed or "letter to the editor" on last week's headline won't get much play; instead, write it today and send by email. Remember, the early verb gets the squirm.

HARNESS YOUR EGO FOR GOOD. Let's face it: The notion that you - and not someone else - should be speaking about important issues of faith and public policy requires some degree of ego. But that's okay. "We need to be a little more aggressive and a little more nose-to-nose if we're going to be heard," says the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

RETOOL CHURCH COMMUNICATIONS for broadcasting, not print. "We're much more comfortable with the written word, so most of our communications staff is less inclined to know the producers of television shows or talk radio," says Edgar. "We need to change that."

INVEST IN TOOLS OF THE TV TRADE. "When Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or James Dobson is asked to appear on one of these programs, they simply go to their basements, turn a few knobs in their studios and they're on the air," Edgar says. "If a mainline Protestant leader would get an invitation, they would have to go to the [network] studio. Our people are simply less available."

REACH OUT TO BROADCASTERS. "Even if you don't expect to be heard, make a phone call, send an email. That way you become familiar and they get to know you," says Connie Larkman, a UCC communicator and a former executive producer in TV news. "At least you're waving the flag, 'Our church is out here.'"

DON'T BURN BRIDGES. No matter how irked you may find yourself, maintain composure and build collegiality, even when a reporter woefully misses the mark. Point out inaccuracies, if appropriate, but resist the urge to take all complaints directly to editors or producers. The reporter isn't likely to forget - or disappear. Respect the relationship. Next time around, you'll be glad you did.

FEAR NOT. DON'T BE A WIMP. "We sideline ourselves," says the Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's communication director. "There are times when you have to stand up and speak boldly, especially when there are those that would question our faith in God or our belief in the Bible. Don't be afraid to say, 'Enough!'"

 

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org