AUGUST 18, 2003
Martin E. Marty
A few weeks ago, while I was hiding in the mountains of Oregon and Colorado, Sightings published a critique by Andrew Weaver of "a gaggle of so-called 'renewal groups'" financed by the political right-wing. They were targeting three mainline Protestant denominations and, in effect, trying to take them over and through them affect political and cultural life. Last week Sightings published a counterpart piece by Mark Tooley, who directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). Weaver fingered the IRD as the main agent behind take-over efforts and as the main beneficiary of right-wing foundation funding. Tooley talked about hyperbole and bellicosity, and matched Weaver's temper, degree by degree.
The writing of both main contenders was mild compared to words from their supportive readers on both sides of the issue. Most of their communications to us were of the "How could 'Sightings' publish anything that volatile and distorting?" These subscribers/readers tend to expect from our in-house columnists writing in a cooler genre, since our main mission is to do some sighting and then help frame issues for further inquiry. That we may not always succeed in being fair-minded, balanced, and cool goes without saying, but the effort is genuine.
I bring all this up not to take sides ("let you and him fight"), though I know where I'd side if I'd side. Nor is it to chastise Weaver and Tooley for heating up cyberspace and keeping editor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez busy downloading and forwarding responses. Instead, I use this occasion to comment on two things we notice here where we do our sightings.
First, infighting within denominations inspires inflaming rhetoric unmatched by most of that in politics. Somehow, when people invoke the name or cause of God they tend to demonize "the other" more readily than they do in the affairs of the republic. On such premises, for instance, discuss stem cell research or homosexuality or policies toward Israel, and soon you will be debating what God had in mind back in creation or has in mind with the second coming of Christ to Israel. Pity would-be reconcilers on such fronts.
Second, such rhetoric points to the fact that the "day of denominations" is not over. People fight fiercely over their fates and meager spoils. And we see that denominations do not belong simply to the private sphere but they lead public lives and what they say and do has a bearing on the cultural and social worlds.
Forty-seven years ago when I began my "boot camp" reporting at The Christian Century, the editors sent me to quite a few denominational conventions. There I gained my fundamental insights into their wonders and their woes. In some ways they replicate each other: the first day, worship is rousing, the greetings are warm, the reports are often inspiring, the appeals appealing. The second day the "parties" line up -- every church body includes polarities and partisanships -- and by the third day they start voting. By the time the voting is over everyone is ready for adjournment, the singing of the doxology, and the return to the quieter zones of local church life, with its gaggles and glories.
And we'll keep our eye on them, their wonders and, yes, their woes.