May 3, 2004
Save Your Breath
Martin E. Marty
"We have written previously to you voicing our concerns … about protecting God's gift of air .... We now request an opportunity to meet with you in person to discuss our concerns."
This request ranks at the top in the annals of "Exercises in Futility." The "we" represents leaders of Christian denominations whose constituencies -- admittedly in large ways constituted by "preference" and "identification" as well as "active membership" -- make up about one-fourth of American preferrers, identifieds, and members of church bodies.
These include the heirs of the colonial big three: Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal; and the frontier big three: (mainly northern) Baptist, United Methodist, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If you add the inheritors of European Continental immigrant groups, the Reformed and the (ELCA) Lutherans, and Anabaptists and "peace churches," you have a cluster of people who would like to think that the president is "president of all the people."
They make up much of the National Council of Churches, a reasonably seldom-heard-from group these decades. If you were the schedule-maker at the White House, would you give them the time of day? After all, they were virtually all opposed to the go-it-alone approach to invading Iraq. The administration did not want to hear their (or the Pope's or other's) witness then, so it is not likely that they want to hear it now. In a break with the past, the White House opens the door only to those who confirm their team's policies and deliver votes.
If you were the schedule-maker for the administration, would you sit still for Bible-quoting clerical and lay leaders who question your "clean air" policy "which seeks to dismantle the Clean Air Act?" Would you check out the Bible verses they adduce for their continued interest in "mantling" that Act? These include Job 12:10, Genesis 2:15, Psalm 82:3, Isaiah 58:10, Amos 6:2, and Genesis 9:12 -- a pretty heavy chunk of Scripture to appear in, for example, a New York Times full page advertisement (www.nccecojustice.org) the week after Earth Day (April 28).
This column can sound peevish or wistful. Programmatically and patriotically, it serves to remind the people in power today that, while their predecessors also gave precedence and privilege to those religious leaders who favored their policies, still, it was customary to gather representatives of all faiths and kinds of faiths when deliberating issues of war and peace, the environment, civil rights, and justice. Their advice did not have to be followed -- the first President Bush before the first Iraq war did not heed what these testifiers testified. But he heard them, and took their counsel and protests into consideration, leaving them fewer reasons to feel resentful and alienated, as their counterparts today have a right to feel.
I like irony and surprises, and don't mind being trapped by unforeseen outcomes after having foolishly made predictions. So I would enjoy being surprised if by the time you read this the "request [for] an opportunity to meet" is attended to.
Given the record, I'm just not betting on it.