Dark Christianity
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Interfaith Alliance response to "Justice Sunday"


This Interfaith Alliance response to the "Justice Sunday" of two weeks ago is very insightful:

“Response to Justice Sunday”

Audio Press Briefing

The Interfaith Alliance

Washington, DC

April 25, 2005

Don Parker: This is Don Parker. I am press secretary for The Interfaith Alliance. Our web site is www.interfaithalliance.org. I’m in Washington, but like most of you, our speakers are on the line from locations around the country. I’m going to introduce the moderator for this event.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is the president of The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, based in Washington. He also serves as the pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Dr. Gaddy is also one of twenty international religious leaders on the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders, a group formed to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

Dr. Gaddy and all of our speakers today are available to the news media for commentary on issues relating to the intersection of religion and politics in general and on this issue in particular. Dr Gaddy …

Welton Gaddy: Thanks, Don. Good morning and welcome to all of you who have joined us for this press briefing. We’re very pleased to have a distinguished panel with us today. The panel includes the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, the Rev. Dr. Carlton W. Veazey, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., and Rabbi David Saperstein. In just a moment I’ll introduce each of these people to you in brief statements.

For the past several days, as you know, an event called Justice Sunday has pervaded the news. The purpose of the event was to garner support for Senate leaders seeking to do away with the historic practice of the filibuster when dealing with judicial nominations. Organizers of the Justice Sunday event had identified opponents of this initiative as “anti-faith.”

In an implicit endorsement of such ideology, the majority leader of the United States Senate, Sen. Bill Frist, agreed to address this group of religious fundamentalists meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, last evening. Many in the progressive religious community had encouraged Sen. Frist to back away from the speech to this group.

Though the senator addressed the group last night, he obviously listened to those of us in the progressive religious community who had asked him not to endorse a message confusing religion and politics. The majority leader of the Senate talked mostly about civility and compromise last evening.

Now why all of the uproar about this Justice Sunday event? Frankly, more was and is involved than just what was on the table – or behind the pulpit – in Louisville, Kentucky.

This telethon-like event was about more than “the nuclear option” – it was about politicizing religion. The Interfaith Alliance works to protect the integrity of religion and the vitality of democracy, thus our concern. Neither religion nor democracy is well-served when religious leaders try to define an individual’s faith and religious commitment by how it fits their political posturing. Playing the religion card divides people rather than unites people. No one’s religious conviction should be attacked as anti-faith just because that person doesn’t agree with destroying a tried-and-true democratic process. This kind of litmus test signals a redefinition of religion that is blasphemy and a redefinition of democracy that is scary.

I’d like to introduce now the panelists in the order in which they will speak. First will be the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who is the eleventh president of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and has been since 1974. Dr. Thistlethwaite is the author or editor of ten books and has been a translator of two different translations of the Bible. Dr. Thistlethwaite, why don’t you go and then I’ll introduce each of the others as we go along.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: Thank you Dr. Gaddy. I would like to say first … I watched on streaming video the entire presentation from this church and I was shocked at how sacrilegious I thought this was. These people turned a church sanctuary into a political platform. Members of the senate’s telephone numbers scrolled across the bottom of the screen just like a political telethon. Explicit instruction was given to the congregants to take out their cell phones – by the pastor of this church – and to program their cell phones with the main number of the Senate under the heading STOP, and then he added “filibuster”.

A Bishop [William] Donohue, a Catholic participant … now, all of these people are standing behind the pulpit when they are making these presentations … railed against the secular left, and one thing that I think we need to get the message out about is that we, the congregations and communities and people represented by the speakers on this conference call, we are actually the religious mainstream. We support the Constitution and our country’s historic separation of church and state.

And what we are up against is a radical Christian religious right who wish to establish one form of religion as the only definition of faith. Chuck Colson presented a judiciary that he said at one point was too independent, and then later on contradicted himself and said we have a judiciary that needs to have the freedom to be independent. This is, I think, smokescreen, and I think Dr. Gaddy is exactly right in saying that playing the religion card is a gloss for a political agenda that I found, from the altar of a church, was truly shocking.

WG: Thank you, Dr. Thistlethwaite. The Rev. Dr. Carlton W. Veazey is president and CEO of The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a force for social justice and religious civil rights, women’s rights and progressive communities in 25 states. From 1989 to 1992, Rev. Veazey was chairman of the prestigious Theological Commission of the National Baptist Convention USA, one of the world’s largest African-American organizations, with more than 7 million members. He’s also the current pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Dr. Veazey …

Carlton W. Veazey: Thank you, Dr. Gaddy. I want to say first, we represent 40 denominations and women’s organizations to ensure a woman’s right to choose. We are very concerned, because so-called “Justice Sunday” was not about religion, although the organizers are using religion to get what they want. It was part of an ongoing power-grab to take over the courts and reverse decades of progress for minorities, women, the environment, workers’ rights and other issues, and groups that have been relatively powerless.

It’s also … the second thing is that religious zealots are taking this country to the brink of theocracy. We’ve seen this over the past few years in many areas as a lust for power. This must be a wake-up call, and I’m asking all the progressive religious people in this country to be aware and wake up to the fact that we are being led to this theocracy by the Christian Right, who will not stop until they take over the government.

And finally, I want to say that I understand that Dr. Albert Mohler compared the inerrancy of the Bible, which he believes, with the Constitution. You can see a direct tie there, that he is saying that they have a right to interpret what we believe and have a right to interpret the Constitution the way they see it. We think this is dangerous and the Coalition condemns this kind of action, and we hope that we will join together to put a stop to it. Thank you very much.

WG: Thank you, Carlton. The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. is the fifth senior minister of the great Riverside Church in New York City – an interdenominational, interracial and international church. Dr. Forbes is a pastor, educator, administrator, community activist and interfaith leader, including his service on the board of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation. Newsweek and the Baylor University survey have recognized Dr. Forbes as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Dr. Forbes …

James A. Forbes Jr.: Yes, thank you so very much, Dr. Gaddy. Yesterday I preached in my church about the issue that we are discussing in this way. I talked about the issue of “Who are the people of God?”

According to the announcement regarding Justice Sunday, it seems that there was the suggestion that people who lined up with the political right’s agenda were people of God and that the other folks were actually not the people of God. Now, they didn’t say it that way, but the text of the day talked about our being a holy nation and a royal priesthood.

So I raised the question about whether or not we understand that the term “people of God” has many different dimensions. In the one place, all of us are people of God. In another place, some of us are covenant people of God who are responsible for reflecting the spirit and the values we find in our God. And amongst those who claim to be covenant people, there are those who are faithful to the values and those who tend to abdicate the highest standards of their religious tradition.

My thinking is that we are at the point now when we are dividing up in ways in which, when our nation needs us most, at a time the nation is going through soul-searching regarding its national purpose, regarding its philosophy and its values. Here we find political operatives using sometimes the left and sometimes the right, and my thinking is that we desperately need to change that. That is to say, instead of being used by a political party – either my party or some other party – the issue has to be whether or not we can stand firm and deep in the broad tradition represented in my case by the Christian faith.

And that means that when the Religious Right decides that I am not a part of the family, that should be a crisis for me. And I think our listening and responding is, I think, a maturing of our response in this time of crisis. What that means is, we now know that when a particular program is designed to exclude our voices as either inauthentic or actually even in opposition to faith, we have to weigh in. I mean, it’s our responsibility to our sisters and brothers of a different perspective not to let them speak that way without at least listening. And we did listen. And then we must dialogue. And that’s not easy.

Efforts were made yesterday to engage, and even before that. A little bit of evidence is that we did impact in some way. We also must indeed continue to be involved in a personal way in regards to our citizenship responsibility, but we must remember the words of Elton Trueblood, who said that in the Bible perhaps one of the most important words was “and” – not just one side of an issue, not just the priestly, but the prophetic. Not just sexual morality, but societal health. Not just personal behavior with respect to the reproductive rights, but looking at the culture in general.

So my thinking is that yesterday signaled a real beginning. And I think the progressive forces in this nation, if we have pretended at times not to hear, not to listen, not to engage, that’s over. At every turn along the way, when issues are raised that would suggest the legitimacy of the division and the polarization of the family of faith, rewarding some as God’s children and others as scarcely children of God at all, we will speak up, because too much is riding on the nature of our profound witness that comes out of our faith.

WG: Thank you so much, Jim. Rabbi David Saperstein – I’m pleased to say, also a member of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation board – directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Washington D.C. office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose 900 congregations encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 rabbis. Rabbi Saperstein also holds a degree in law and instructs courses on Jewish law and the separation of church and state at Georgetown University Law Center. Rabbi Saperstein, we hear you gladly …

David Saperstein: I want to ask the reporters who are with us to think through for a moment with us the fundamental assertion made by the supporters of this rally that those who oppose these judges by filibustering them are filibustering against people of faith, over and above what you’ve already heard: the resonancy, how broadly those words sweep, and the divisiveness of them.

Think through with me how intellectually vacuous and politically damaging this line of argument could be. Are the proponents of dismantling the filibuster actually arguing that if the opposition, extreme opposition to abortion or gay marriage on the part of a judicial nominee, is secular, it is okay to criticize them? It is okay if they manifest it in a way that disregards precedent and shows that they’re not committed to Constitutional law, it would be okay to oppose their nomination?

But if they hold exactly the same view but claim it is rooted in religious belief, it is inappropriate to criticize such people or to argue that they are unfit to be a federal judge? Would they say the same thing about, let’s say, an observant, politically liberal Catholic who believes that capital punishment is always wrong, or an observant Jew who stands in a 2,000-year-old Jewish legal position that believes that abortion is compelled if a woman’s life is in danger or her health would be permanently altered?

You know, clearly they would take the position that if someone were so far off the reservation that they won’t listen to established law, they would be after them just the way they are now about all these liberal activist judges – the vast majority of whom, sitting judges were appointed by Republicans. But they’re still too liberal and activist for them. Pick someone further out and of course they would go after them.

Making a religious claim for a position does not protect you from criticism. It doesn’t make that position right. In the name of the Bible, in the name of religion, this nation has seen people of faith claim that the horrific American institution of slavery, that Jim Crow separation of races, that the oppression of women and anti-Semitism were justified or mandated by the Bible and by their religion. These ideas are repugnant ideas, and people who hold them have a right to be criticized. The notion that they are immune from criticism, immune from being questioned on their fitness for the court because they are rooted in religion, and to oppose them is discrimination against people of faith, undermines the free marketplace of ideas that is a sine qua non for democracy.

I would also just point out on a factual matter, the vast number of the over 200 judges who have been nominated by President Bush and appointed were also people of faith, also had religious objections, many of them to abortion or to gay marriage. Those people weren’t voted out because of that. Their faith wasn’t the issue. It is these ten justices, the extremism of their position, that is the issue. The fact that they have totally ignored precedent in many cases or engaged in extremist explanations of their judicial authority that makes them unfit to be judges.

That’s where the debate ought to be. And to try and religious-ize this debate, to try and give protection for extremism under the guise of religion, demeans religion and undermines our democratic system. The filibuster was created in part to avoid extremism. It said on issues of fundamental principle that there had to be enough common ground that was found that a substantial majority of the Senate would agree. That’s all that the filibuster does in this case.

The President passed over 200 of his judges. These ten, let him pick other, more moderate conservatives who hold many of the same positions but are willing to abide by the rule of law, and I suspect they will go through as easily as the 200 have gone. This is a dangerous argument that the organizers of this rally are making, and one that ought to be rejected by religious leaders and political leaders in America.

WG: Thank you so much, David. Now let’s turn to those of you reporters on the call who have questions. If you would identify yourself and your news source, and if you want to ask the question to one person in particular, note that, please.

Adelle Banks, Religion News Service: Hello, I was wondering if any of you would just talk about why this event has sort of gotten everyone so fired up as far as whether this is a major shift in your opinion in the ongoing debate in the role of religion in the public square.

ST: Yes, I think it is a major shift. I think it really does signal that there’s absolutely no limits to which the radical religious right will not go to wrap their political agenda in the Bible.

CV: I want to say, this to me is the first time we’ve seen a blatant display. They usually operate behind the scenes. But Justice Sunday gave us a rare chance to see first hand how they manipulate people’s fears and up the chance for them to meet their ends. I think we will see it again. I raise the issue about bureaucracy, because we are seeing that they are coming out and clearly indicating the direction they want this country and particularly the government to go.

WG: Adelle this is Welton, I would agree with both Carlton and Susan. I think that there are two dynamics that are worthy of notation. I do think that Sen. Frist moderated his comments significantly in response to the overwhelming pressure he felt from the progressive religious community and both sides of the political aisle to not endorse the idea that you can judge the authenticity of faith by one’s position on a political issue. At the same time, you heard last evening a theological elaboration of the kind of politics envisioned by spokespersons for the Religious Right. To equate a belief in the infallible inerrancy of the Bible and the infallible inerrancy of Scripture is to raise a frightening prospect that every dimension of American democracy must conform to the opinions of those who embrace one particular method of interpretation of Holy Scripture.

DS: At the same time, when Sen. Frist gave his statement he had the opportunity to disavow that religiously divisive message that all of you have spoken about so eloquently. He conscientiously chose not to, despite the fact that all of us and so many others called on him to distance himself from it.

In doing that he gave his stamp of approval, his legitimizing of it. When you stand idly by and see something wrong done, you are complicit in it. And he failed that test last night. And I think that for most of us this was a major disappointment.

So Frist’s involvement is one thing, Adelle, that it made it different and the other is that it is right on the cusp of a major decision being made by the Senate of the U.S. and will have enormous implications for the future of this country. It isn’t an abstract view on gay marriage or on abortion rights that somewhere down the road is going to be played out.

We know in the next week or two the Senate is going to vote on the future of the filibuster, will help decide, will this one-party control of all three branches now lead to kind of a no-block against extremist appointments to the courts, including the Supreme Court, of judges who are going to sit for their lives, interpreting the laws of the country. Or will we uphold this 200-year-old tradition that helps prevent extremist actions from being taken and forces leaders to find common ground. I think it was a confluence of those two things on top of what my colleagues said, that made this different.

JF: Also, during last year’s political campaign often people said, one of the political parties is the religious party and the other is the secular party. We endured that and tried to counter it by suggesting that it is a matter of a difference and the piety of different parties may be expressed.

But when you move from considering one not religious to claiming that a particular party is adversarial to people of faith, that is an intensification of the polarization and antagonism, and it calls for a serious challenge and vigilance; lest we all find ourselves beyond the pale of even be able to fit within the Christian family as defined by the others as the nemesis to the faith itself. I think that’s going so far that not to respond is irresponsible.

WG: Thank you, Adelle. Is there another question?

Draeger Martinez, Los Angeles Daily Journal: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My paper focuses on the legal world of Southern California. So I want to know what impact y’all believe that Justice Sunday will have in terms of influencing Senators to allow the filibuster to be set aside. Will it have a major impact, minor impact, or maybe no impact at all?

JF: If Senators respond to calls and mail, the admonition of a pastor to have the people call in on this, and if they’ve got quite a large listening audience, I believe that it will bring some concentration of voter insistence, and that it probably could have an impact on how Senators either justify what they had intended to do, or how they may indeed, for political purposes, as they read where the calls and the emails come from, it could have some impact. But I do not criticize their having an impact as much as saying we need also to let these same Senators know that there is a large body of people of faith, across faith lines, who understand the Constitution and the rights of the people in quite a different way.

CV: I agree with that, and I also want to add that I think this whole effort was setting the stage for mobilizing the Christian Right, getting them to work them up, so it will make it easier to try to get rid of the filibuster. Also, I think what we need to do, as Jim Forbes just said, we’ve got to wake up the progressives in this country to what is happening. And I think this is the opportunity for us to mobilize, to make sure that we do not lose that 200-year tradition of debate.

ST: Clearly the event itself was designed to get people to call their senators. There were short speeches, and then scrolling across the bottom of the screen were telephone numbers, “Call your senator” then another short speech, and so forth. It was like watching a political action committee at work. So clearly it was designed to do that. Now, whether or not this event was so over the top that there will be a backlash against it, remains to be seen.

WG: My hope is – and I’m not answering your question exactly about what will be but more in terms of what I hope will be – I hope that people across the nation who read about what happened in that event last evening, including those people who fill the Senate chamber on both sides of the aisle, I hope they will be so frightened by the idea that members of the United States Senate should work for those holding one religious ideology rather than for the nation, will scare them to the point that they’ll take a look at to whom they give attention in their addresses, such as the one Sen. Frist gave, and will make them think twice about trying to implement the will of one segment of the religious community rather the sweep of Cosntitutional proof and the commitment to democracy across the nation.

ST: I would also like to add that some of the rhetoric against judges was so hostile – “the future of democracy and our values are threatened by the Supreme Court and arrogant and out-of-control judges.” In Chicago we’ve had a dreadful event of the killing of the family of a judge. Anything that heightens the rhetoric of threats against judges I think was also incredibly unwise and deeply inappropriate coming out of the mouth of a pastor.

Frank James, Chicago Tribune: Hi there. This really is for anyone. I’m wondering what the progressive and moderate people of faith are going to do that could match what we saw yesterday, because that was a fairly well-rehearsed and well-honed … it had all the production values you could want for TV. I’m just wondering, what could you do that would match that, that would reach the people you’re trying to reach? Do you have any plans for … maybe not a simulcast, but you see where I’m going. Any plans for something that at least uses the same technology that was used so effectively yesterday by the Religious Right?

DS: Are you suggesting this phone call is not the technological … [laughter]

FJ: [laughing] Yes, I think that’s right. I was suggesting that.

ST: I think one thing you can be sure that we did not do – because there was a worship service across town that actually did not tell people how to vote, and Welton, you probably want to say more about that. But you can be sure that one thing the mainstream and progressive people of faith will not do is turn their church altars into political action committees.

DS: At the same time, while there are legal restrictions on partisan political activity that can take place, churches are, on a legal ground, entitled to share their prophetic witness to be moral guide to the conscience of the nation. We support that strongly and without equivocation. But in America, you have a right to be wrong. And what we saw here was really a misuse of fundamental Constitutional rights in a way that was harmful to religion, harmful to the civic discourse of America, and harmful to a constructive political discussion and debate.

WG: I think you will see progressive religious organizations, both in terms of local houses of worship and organizations like those represented around this table responding to this kind of crisis as Sue said, not by telling people how they must feel to be religious or how they must vote on something to be religious, but encouraging a look at how does a religious person exercise responsible citizenship in a nation that is deeply divided and in relation to a Constitution that is under siege. We do trust that people of faith and goodwill, committed to the democratic process, will insert themselves into the political debate in support of that kind of civility and democracy, and we will encourage that and applaud that – even as Dr. Forbes did in his sermon at Riverside yesterday.

DS: Let me just add a footnote to respond directly to the question that was posed. I’m not sure that it is our job to try and match them, using the very techniques they have used, in part because we’re so troubled by, as ST has pointed out so eloquently, we’re so troubled by much of what has happened, that I don’t think we want to – intensify the corrosiveness that last night has represented. At the same time, we all have mechanisms throughout our church communities, throughout our synagogue communities, to reach out, to give our local clergy the information they need to preach from their pulpits.

And when you think about the impact that it has, you shouldn’t match what the politically conservative churches do and what the moderate and liberal, more mainline, churches do, because you’re mixing apples and oranges.

There was a time in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, where the Coalition of Decency comprised the labor unions, the Christian community, the Jewish community, and the African-American, the NAACP. Some people did their work through our churches and synagogues. But it was precisely the triumphs of so much of the achievements of the ‘50s and ‘60s in opening up opportunities for minorities and women that taught people that they don’t need us to do this work.

So, you know, if you look at all the staffs of the moderate Republican and the Democratic people who are committed to preserving the filibuster – and probably a number of the staffs of offices who are working to end the filibuster in this regard – if you look at the people who in all the public institutions of America, all of the civic institutions who are getting involved, if you look at the people who are writing op-ed pieces and writing editorials on the newspapers across the country … they’re members of our churches. They’re members of our synagogues. That’s how they do their work. And the polls show over and over again that many of these people who have devoted their lives to public service truly believe that they are playing out their religious ideals. So not only are we not likely to try and match them tit-for-tat on exactly what they did last night, at a deeper level, the way that the far right is functioning through evangelical churches to do political work, and the empowering that the mainline churches have given their members to go out and to do that in the vast array of civic institutions in American life, just has us working very differently, but I don’t know any less influentially or successfully.

JF: But it is clear that whereas the Religious Right has been working a long time to build up to the strength they now have and to the audacious means they are able to use, what we as progressives are already doing – and it is not yet as clear, since it takes time to mobilize and to come to full visibility – but I think that it will be clearer, as the days go by – that there is a borning – a progressive movement – that is asking about what are the most effective means for us to promote the values we hold and what means have been used by others but actually subvert the values we hold. But that is no excuse. We must be as efficient and effective in the use of media and modes of communication, but hopefully in ways that will not be the death knell of that which we stand for and for which our nation has been standing for through these years.”

WG: Let me thank you for joining us, those of you who joined us for the briefing, and let me thank especially Sue Thistlethwaite, Carlton Veazey, Jim Forbes and David Saperstein for joining The Interfaith Alliance for this press briefing. You can go to our web site – www.interfaithalliance.org -- for more information and contact information on the panel members. Any one of us would be glad to speak with you individually. You can call Don Parker, our press secretary, and we can help you make that happen if you’re having trouble on your own.

Make no mistake – that in the debate now underway in this nation, nothing less is at stake than the vitality of our democracy and the integrity of our religions. Thank you for joining us. Good day.