Institute on Religion and Democracy
June 3, 1999
An annual ecumenical Washington briefing for religious activists, meeting in April 1999, included not only the usual dose of liberal political themes, but also homosexual advocacy and syncretistic worship.
"Justice in Politics, the 29th Interfaith Public Policy Briefing," was sponsored by nearly all the mainline Protestant Washington offices, the National Council of Churches, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Interfaith Alliance, Bread for the World, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and Equal Partners in Faith (an advocate for feminist and homosexual causes).
Included among the mainline sponsors were the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Women's Division, both of which also provided "scholarships" for some participants. The briefing's planning committee included Jaydee Hanson and Jane Hull Harvey, both of whom are executive staff with the Board of Church and Society.
Staff for the briefing was provided by the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, headed by Fr. V. Paul Ojibway, S.A.
Speakers included former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Congresswoman Eva Clayton (D-North Carolina).
The several hundred participants were urged to resist welfare reform, fight for more U.S. funding for the United Nations, oppose privatization of Social Security, end U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq, and enact environmental regulation in response to the supposed threat of Global Warming.
Although the sponsoring organizations of the briefing were almost all Christian or Jewish, the opening worship service was led in prayer by a Hindu philosophy teacher. Arpita Arfidah, a former Catholic turned Hindu, chanted "Omm" and other incantations in Hindi. "Divinity is inherent in the hearts of all beings," she said, later urging listeners to protect and serve humanity, the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom.
Raj Want Sing, a Sikh who heads the Guru Foundation, echoed Arfidah's themes in his sermon. Every human is divine in origin, he said. In Sing's prayer to "our common Father," he prayed, "You are the one who makes us oriented towards you and you are the one who causes us to go away from you. We understand this is a game. This is a nice play you are playing."
Sing's notion of a capricious deity hardly resembled the God of Christians and Jews. Yet his audience seemed not to object. Besides, politics and not theology were the focus of "Justice in Politics."
One aspect of that political agenda was the legitimization of homosexuality within both the church and within society. Homosexual activists and their allies were encouraged to caucus together. One workshop was devoted to activism on behalf of the Equal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would equate sexual preference with race and gender in protection against workplace discrimination.
Another workshop was called "Claiming the Moral High Ground: Supporting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues from a Faith Perspective." Lee Walzer of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jewish Organizations complained that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a "total misnomer" as the "Religious Right" uses it. "Pleasure that comes from sexuality is holy," Walzer said, as he interpreted Jewish beliefs. "Failure to provide sexual fulfillment is sin and grounds for divorce." He said many Jews support "gay rights" merely because conservative Christians are opposed.
Episcopal priest Patricia Ackerman of New York said she was "out" by age 15 and was determined that the Bible was not going to "ostracize" her. She recounted gratefully that Union Seminary in New York had included her "partner" in seminary activities. And she fretted that "many people" are now leaving the church since the worldwide communion of Anglican bishops took a stand against homosexual practice at their gathering last year at Lambeth, England.
"We will be seen as perverse underlings until we get rites and rights to marriage," Ackerman warned.
Cedric Harmon, a student at Wesley Seminar in Washington, DC, complained that many in the black church are "bashing" homosexuals. "Don't put a faith label on bigotry," he implored. "The closet is not a place to be any longer...Misrepresentation of the Bible is coming to an end." He expressed hope that someday he would be able to attend a legally recognized same-sex ceremony.
Presbyterian elder Chris Purdom identified himself as a heterosexual who had joined the movement for homosexuality's acceptance. "Christians are perceived as the problem," he bemoaned, as many liberal-minded people view Christians as bigoted. Purdom expressed appreciation for the work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington office and criticized the Institute on Religion and Democracy for undermining the advocacy work of mainline denominations.
Workshop chair Laura Montgomery-Rutt of Equal Partners in Faith said she was a "proud" United Methodist. "We've had the wonderful experience of [United Methodist] ministers standing up and performing same-sex unions," she enthused. Nobody in the workshop explained or defended official church positions opposing homosexual practice. Purdom regretted that Presbyterians have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexual clergy.
Despite all the talk about homosexuality, economic issues seemed to dominate most of the plenary sessions and workshops. "Welfare reform legislation was a gross violation of human rights," exclaimed Kathy Thornton, a Sister of Mercy who leads NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington. "You and I now live in a country where it is optional to care about people who are poor."
Lisa Crooms of Howard University School of Law alleged that welfare reform was part of a plan to "criminalize" the poor. She characterized American society as believing, "All they [the poor] need is a swift kick in the rear." She claimed that poverty does not result from "individual failings or personal responsibility" but should be blamed on "systemic oppression." She bewailed the high prison population, saying many persons are incarcerated for "reasons largely beyond their control."
Crooms contrasted the victims in prison with a supposed criminal like Microsoft's Bill Gates, who is "responsible for extraordinary amounts of economic crime." The amassing of great wealth is the sort of crime that should outrage society, she asserted. She also cited New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani's administration of welfare reform as "criminal," and predicted either U.S. litigation or United Nations action against him.
Andrew Young expressed hope that America would come to see poverty as "immoral" in a way that slavery and segregation are now viewed. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and other speakers urged policies that would supposedly eliminate poverty through government programs and regulation, such as increased minimum wages and a national health care program.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne said conservatives believe reduced government will fuel increased private charity for the needy. "My faith tells me we should regard such a claim with skepticism," he said. "I believe the welfare state is our conscience. We won't do these things individually so we rely on each other." Dionne was also concerned that the term "family values" implied "homophobia" or "an attack on equal rights for women." But he urged "progressive churches" to be in dialogue with their "conservative brethren."
Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief of Staff to President Clinton, defended the Administration's domestic policies before church groups that had sharply criticized Clinton for cooperating with welfare reform. Calling the president's approach "incrementalism," she said Clinton had gotten what social programs he could extract from a Congress she believes is indifferent to poor people.
She specifically criticized Congress for not supporting more widespread federal childcare programs. "We have an ideological view that the challenge of raising children is the family's responsibility and the government should stay out of it," Echaveste noted with exasperation. What the administration is able to accomplish depends on what supportive activists do outside Washington, she said.
Although most speakers seemed to be in consensus over economic issues, there was disagreement over the U.S. war in Kosovo. Congressman Dennis Kucinich questioned the "strategy of continuous bombing" since it would result in an "ecological catastrophe" in the Balkans.
But Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic emphatically declared that the war in Kosovo was being waged for "moral reasons" and would require ground troops. He expressed doubt that "our leaders have either the courage or the clarity to lead us in such a task." And he predicted the end result would be an "appeasing compromise" and an insoluble refugee crisis.
Wieseltier's comments must have discomfited many in his audience. Most of the participating religious groups in the briefing have criticized the war, not for clear strategic or moral reasons, but because they reflexively distrust U.S.-led military initiatives. Instead, they implausibly look to the United Nations for leadership.
"Justice in Politics" to some extent spotlighted the divisions and ennui that exist within the Religious Left. Other than automatic support for the United Nations and multilateralism, liberal church activists are not generally united on or excited over foreign policy issues. The seeming success and popularity of welfare reform preclude any new federal expansion of the welfare state.
Homosexuality remains as one of the few issues that arouses the passions of church activists in search of a provocative cause. The Religious Left's sharp disagreement with the official teachings of and majority opinions within the denominations for which they claim to speak will likely inhibit their effectiveness.
And the high profile given to religions outside the Jewish and Christians traditions will confirm suspicions that syncretistic visions of earthly utopia, rather than any firm concept of the biblical Kingdom of God, are the primary motivator for the participants of "Justice in Politics."