Frustrated that they continue to be overshadowed by conservative religious leaders, a new association of politically liberal clergy has emerged. Mostly comprised of old National Council of Churches (NCC) types, the Clergy Leadership Network (CLN) will focus on opposing U.S. military action and fighting for a larger federal welfare state, while criticizing religious conservatives.
Several of CLN’s leaders were also formerly leaders in the Interfaith Alliance, another liberal religious group founded ten years ago with the nearly identical purpose of counteracting the “Religious Right.”
“We’re reaching beyond non-partisanship to engage issues of public life,” declared the Rev. Albert Pennybacker, a former leader in both the NCC and the Interfaith Alliance. He said the CLN, of which he is chairman, will model itself after the Hebrew prophets, the “champions of justice in Muslim history,” and the “man from Nazareth.”
Speaking more bluntly in a more recent interview with Salon.com, Pennybacker said CLN’s major concern is “regime change,” its non-partisan status notwithstanding. He also suggested that CLN clergy will offer this solace to the parents of service personnel killed in Iraq: “God didn’t take your child, the policies of this government took your child.”
“One of the gifts of the present administration is the summons – or call to arms – for progressive religious people,” Pennybacker told Salon.com.
In the same interview, Pennybacker admitted that although CLN acknowledges the differences within the religious community over same-sex “marriage,” he supports the “right” of homosexuals to “make choices about marriage.”
CLN’s unveiling, over which Pennybacker presided, was recently held in Washington, D.C. Members of the CLN’s national committee include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, and former NCC chief Joan Brown Campbell.
Also included on the national committee are several United Methodist bishops, the former president of the United Church of Christ, the former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, liberal Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister, a Muslim academic, a retired Episcopal priest, the chaplain at Yale University, and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (dating to before the conservative ascendancy within the convention).
“We stand for change,” Pennybacker exhorted. “Change in the failed policies [of the current administration].” He claimed that CLN’s “progressive” clergy had been “turned away” when they had petitioned for change directly to President Bush.
A special emphasis for CLN will be the “unilateral foreign policy atmosphere of imperialism and bullying that runs counter to the inclusive commitments of all religious communities,” Pennybacker explained. He bemoaned that the deaths of U.S. military personnel in Iraq have “no clear reason or explanation.” CLN will also target current economic policies that show “favoritism for some.”
“The soul of the nation is at stake,” Joan Brown Campbell similarly warned at the CLN press conference. As head of the National Council of Churches for about a decade, she gained publicity for turning black church arsons in the south into a national (and some say exaggerated) story. Campbell also spearheaded the return of little Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. Despite her finesse for media attention, she left the NCC nearly bankrupt.
Campbell’s management style at the NCC, where Pennybacker served as her close assistant, was controversial even among NCC supporters. She, like Pennybacker, was once active with the Interfaith Alliance.
“This is a political season,” Campbell noted. “Our policies are life and death decisions for people around the world.” She claimed that all religions oppose “exclusion” based on sexual preference as well as economic status and ethnicity.
Justice is “not just about converting one heart at a time,” Campbell insisted, nor is peace a private matter. “Changing the nation will mean changing the policy makers,” she asserted. “Does that make us partisan?” she asked. “That is for you to decide!”
“Progressive clergy never sleep and never let anybody else sleep,” laughingly noted Rabbi Steven Jacobs from the Los Angeles area. He regretted that the “face of religious America” was too often linked to the “Religious Right” or something “coming out of the White House.” Jacobs warned against a God who is created by White House staffers Andrew Card or Karl Rove or President Bush.
“God is not a partisan God,” Jacobs continued. “This is not a Christian country. And this country does not believe in only one blessing.” He said CLN would advocate a kind of religion that is “all inclusive.”
A retired lobbyist with the liberal Baptist Joint Committee, the Rev. James Dunn denounced the Bush Administration’s “faith-based” initiative to ensure equal treatment of religious charities by federal agencies as “dishonest and down-right dirty.” He referred to President Bush as a “carpet-bagger” who was brought down to Texas from Connecticut at the age of two.
When asked if CLN would take positions on homosexuality and abortion, former Unitarian Universalist Association president John Buehrens claimed the issue of sex was “used to distract the American people.” He said instead the CLN would spotlight “weightier issues” such as opposition to war and “economic fairness.” Although Buehrens noted his own organization had strong [pro-homosexuality and pro-abortion rights] views, he pledged, “We will not be divided by issues over whom God has called people to love…or the tragic consequences of unplanned pregnancy.”
Perhaps conscious of CLN’s group of largely retired and aging clergy who are associated with old liberal causes of past decades, the Rev. Otis Moss, a National Progressive Baptist minister from Cleveland conceded when asked, “There’s a risk of being called pass??©.” But he insisted that old causes, like the “war on poverty” from the 1960’s were still worthy of support, despite having been “demonized” by their opponents.
Pennybacker concluded the press conference by saying CLN would be “acting in the electoral process” without directly endorsing candidates. “We’re not retreating to non-partisanship,” which he said has “stifled” other activists. CLN has opened a Washington office headed by its executive director the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister.
When asked by Salon.com how CLN was going to mobilize followers, Pennybacker simply said, “Religious people are progressive. All we’ve got to do is give handles of expression.”
But in fact, polls show that religious people in America are overwhelmingly conservative. And the more religious they are, the more conservative they are. Pennybacker did not explain how CLN will address that demographic challenge.