Taking Back the Faith
I ask if some ministers today are fearful of speaking out because of the current atmosphere of divisiveness and the intimidation by the Bush Administration and their religious right followers. "Absolutely," says Edgar.
The question I ask is: How do you instill courage and the ability to risk in pastors today? In the 1960s there were a number of pastors willing to be fired over the war in Vietnam and the issues of segregation and civil rights. I see a negative trend recently that many pastors are waiting to retire or don't want to rock the boat in their congregations. They love to tell Bible stories as opposed to taking their spiritual gifts out of the Scripture and relating them to life and work issues. Ministers are under that kind of threat, balancing their call by God to their vocation to the poor and nonviolence and justice with the practical call of where do they get the money to pay their mortgage--it's a serious challenge.
I ask if there's anyone comparable now, in liberal religion, to William Sloane Coffin. Edgar says:
There's a cluster of people who meet every Thursday by telephone. It just started in the last two years, with Jim Wallis, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, David Beckman of Bread for the World, George Regas, who was pastor of the big Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Jim Forbes of Riverside Church. The problem with liberals is we don't follow very well. We brand our organizations instead of our issues; the religious right is better at branding their issues. We've changed over the last three years, and said there really are only three issues--poverty, environment, justice. All others are important, but we have to brand those issues until we actually see changes in the trend lines on poverty, on the healing of the earth.
"What about the war in Iraq?" I ask. Edgar replies:
It's first... I led a delegation to Baghdad, and we sent delegates to talk with Tony Blair, Schröder, Putin, Chirac and the Pope. Three thousand five hundred people gathered on Martin Luther King's holiday in 2003 to oppose the war, before any body bags were coming back. It was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, and another event at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. With Vietnam it took years to get opposition to the war, but here before it started most religious leaders were opposed to war--except our conservative colleagues, who were reading the Scriptures through the eyes of Armageddon.
We fell asleep in the 1970s, laughed at the early formation of the Moral Majority--we didn't take them seriously. Now the Methodists have a $2 million campaign to try to get people to come to their churches.
The Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ also have recruitment campaigns, using TV advertising. Now mainline Protestantism has discovered the Internet, whose most successful websites are operated by the churches and organizations of the religious right, which has had them up and running for years. They rule the radio airwaves, and as for television, Jan Love of the Methodist Women's Division says:
Twenty years ago, the mainline Protestant churches made a decision not to get heavily into television--and that was stupid. We didn't know how stupid at the time. Bob Edgar has got us on the Internet. He has also organized meetings with high-level Christian leaders and progressive movements across the country, trying to see if there's a common strategy that can be articulated across the denominations. Bob Edgar is at the heart of those things. And Bill Moyers has helped pull one of these together.
Bob Edgar's work has stirred the religious right to label him "Antichrist," which now must be a term of honor among spiritual progressives.