Dead on Impact
The Demise of an Interfaith Lobby
by Mark Tooley
For 25 years it was the organized public policy voice of liberal religion in the nation’s capital. Interfaith Impact, based in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, had a substantial staff and included 40 religious constituencies, including all the major mainline Protestant churches, several Catholic orders, Unitarians, Jewish groups, the American Muslim Council, the National Council of Churches (NCC), and the ecumenical Church Women United. Its highest profile activity was the annual Capitol Hill Briefing, when religious activists from all over the country would flock to Washington to hear major liberal political spokesmen, such as Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
Interfaith Impact was the leader in organizing religious people behind liberal causes: a larger welfare state, abortion rights, opposition to US military initiatives, gay rights, opposition to organized school prayer, etc.
But in 1995, Interfaith Impact went belly-up. Its mainline Protestant supporters, themselves financially constrained, pulled the plug, firing the staff and engulfing themselves in two years of litigation with the organization’s executive director, James Bell. A United Church of Christ minister, Bell claimed his and the other major mainline denominations had subverted Interfaith Impact for the purpose of shutting it down. The courts, unwilling to interfere in interchurch squabbles, dismissed his lawsuit in 1997.
A Somber Mood
Today, the Interfaith Impact Foundation still exists as a shell organization with no full-time staff. Until 1999, its annual briefings in Washington, D.C. continued, organized by the NCC, the mainline lobby offices, and the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute, which provided Father V. Paul Ojibway of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement as a part-time staffer.
But last year’s briefing may have been the last. None is scheduled for this year. According to some, the mainline church offices in Washington, D.C. are virtually incommunicado. Personality clashes, a lack of leadership, financial constraints, and the absence of unifying causes in the post-cold war world have created a frosty atmosphere in the ecumenical world. That freeze was accentuated by a heavy-handed and unwelcome attempt by the NCC to fill the vacuum in the wake of Interfaith Impact’s demise.
Rebuffed by its member denominations, and now forced by steep deficits to curtail its own Washington presence, the NCC has abdicated its leadership role among the Washington church lobby offices.
Physically, Interfaith Impact’s headquarters building has never looked better. The United Methodist Building has been recently renovated, its white marble floors and walls sparkling in the bright Washington sun. But the mood inside among its religio-political tenants is somber. And perhaps nothing more embodies the decline of liberal religious politicking in the nation’s capital than the decline and fall of Interfaith Impact.
The Last Syncretism
The failure of Interfaith Impact to develop a sustainable post-cold war message that would unify the Religious Left was amply demonstrated at its last Washington “Justice in Politics” briefing held in April 1999. There was the usual dose of liberal political themes, but also more than usual homosexual advocacy and, more unusually, syncretistic worship that exceeded even Interfaith Impact’s traditional theological ambiguity.
Speakers included former US 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 US funding for the United Nations, oppose privatization of Social Security, end US trade sanctions against Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq, and enact environmental regulations in response to the supposed threat of global warming.
Although the participants were almost all Christian and Jewish, the opening worship service was led 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 said, “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 was the focus of “Justice in Politics.”
More Sexual Liberation
One aspect of that political agenda was the legitimization of homosexuality within both the Church and society. Homosexual activists and their allies were encouraged to caucus. 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 protecting 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. “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 United Methodism’s Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., 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 moaned, 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 leader 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 that “All [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 US 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.
War & Spiritual Exhaustion
Although most speakers seemed to be in consensus over economic issues, there was disagreement over the then ongoing US 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 criticized the war, not for clear strategic or moral reasons, but because they reflexively distrust United States-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 about 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 arouse 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 Christian traditions confirms many suspicions that syncretistic visions of earthly utopia, rather than any firm concept of the biblical Kingdom of God, were the primary motivator for the Religious Left’s participants in “Justice in Politics.”
But more revealingly, this perhaps final performance of Interfaith Impact showcased the political and spiritual exhaustion of America’s Religious Left. Its theological ambiguity, created initially to foster unity, has instead ensured its downfall.
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“Dead on Impact” first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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