A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
"Isn't it amazing how the liberals took over the denominations?"
"Yes but now God's people are going to take them back."
Overheard in the hall at the Confessing the Faith conference in Indianapolis
October 24-26, a gathering of conservative mainline Protestants.
When I told someone about my trip to Indianapolis to report on the conservative Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ members gathered for the Confessing the Faith conference, he asked, "Do they really think they are working for peace and justice?"
The answer is, "no, not at all." They think they are reclaiming the apostolic faith, renewing the faith of their fathers that has been corrupted by liberal modernism that has produced a world of soft porn TV and urban violence, a world of abortions and "the homosexual agenda."
The most striking thing about the gathering is perhaps to contrast it with Claiming the Blessing. It was multi-denominational, it was multi-issue, it was supported by well-funded and relatively mature alternative institutions, from a seminary to a think tank to parachurch organizations to publishing houses. Claiming the Blessing is fairly unique in that it's a coalition of three groups around a single dominant issue, in one denomination.
The takeaway: these people network, find larger common cause, organize and mobilize more effectively than progressives. That's a fundamental truth about the fundamentalists and progressives. You can map it on the internet by doing a Google search on abortion-right to life; 112 sites show up, almost all of which are linked to each other. They know what they are doing. Do the same search on Abortion-freedom of choice and only 62 sites show up, almost none of which refer to each other. The left exists as isolated islands. That difference in approach, that networked approach, allows the conservatives to grow faster. A year ago that same search found 45 sites on right to life and 35 on freedom of choice.
What I found in Indianapolis was a powerful, networked, dedicated learning community taking a patient, long-term strategic approach to taking back the institutions of the mainline churches. There was absolutely no talk of splitting or leaving the church. They are convinced they are right and are willing to work long and hard to reclaim what they think is theirs.
I learned some big things. First, the threat of a split is a scam. They are not planning to leave; they are not planning to turn their alternative institutions into more than alternatives, other than alternative ordination, which they plan to increase. The two political strategy sessions I attended, one on strategy, the other on grass roots tactics, focused on giving their frustrated faithful reason to hang around and be patient as they try to take over the institutions, on providing success stories and techniques.
When they use the language of splitting or schism, they want to scare their target and ours, the "Moveable Middle". Like a lot of political speech it's not what they say, but the effect of what they say that we should look at. If they raise the fear of a split it could freeze the MMs and keep them from voting for same sex unions.
How do they plan to gain power? With unbelievable patience and through a deep analysis of how power works in the denomination, probing for the vulnerabilities and waiting to strike till they have power. The basic technique outlined in both political sessions - which, incidentally, and as they indicated, not accidentally, were the only two sessions not taped is to eagerly take on low level committee work in the church, in the diocese and at the national church level. You could get tapes on their warlike spirituality sessions, like "prayer our underused weapon," or on ministering to the sexually broken that helps people "overcome homosexuality". But you couldn't get tapes on the strategy and tactics they are employing to gain power within the denominations.
Work for years, making your way up the committee hierarchy, from the committee caring for the cathedral grounds to the standing committee. Make common cause on the issues you can with the liberals and progressives, become known and trusted. Don't be under cover; tell them you are an evangelical or a conservative because it will change the tenor of the conversation of the committee and its agenda. Wait a decade or more, and then, as one United Methodist speaker said, when you have enough power on enough boards, enough votes to call in and enough people who've built relationships with board members, strike on a key strategic issue like the presidency of a seminary. They call the seminaries the wellspring, grabbing it and grabbing Sunday school were key objectives.
Second lesson: they are everywhere. Jim Simons, rector of St. Michael's in the Valley in the diocese of Pittsburgh, has risen up to be on two significant national bodies, the 12 person council of advisors of the president of the House of Deputies, which meets three to four times a year with the presiding bishop and the president in attendance, and the committee that schedules every piece of legislation, resolution or any other calendar item at General Convention. "As someone serving on a parachurch organization, (the American Anglican Congress) it's nice to have the inside track; I can say this because this session is not being taped," Simons told his session. I tried to slink a little lower in my chair and not be noticed. Never really been a spy before; don't really like the feel.
Simons went on to say that they had a conservative on every committee or interim body of the national church and that he'd gotten an email the previous day from our very own Louie Crew suggesting running the "very conservative" Herb McMullan for executive council. That email was a victory for their patient strategy of working their way up the denominational volunteer hierarchy, building relationships, Simons said.
"Do what it takes to work your way into the system; do the stuff no one wants to do, be diligent and pay your dues," he told them.
Lesson three: find the weak and vulnerable points in the system. Simons ran and almost won a spot on executive council last convention, but has since discovered that the provinces occasionally get an automatic spot that no one contests. He'll try that next time.
Church property is another key point for all the conservatives. They are doing research and coming up with a plan to somehow encumber property that they think will prohibit the next Jane Holmes Dixon, from exercising her power over a church building. They are looking for "creative ways to retain property and create disincentives to people like the former Bishop of Washington from taking it over."
This is one of the most consistent themes in their approach, a war college like dissecting of the ways in which they lost and finding the weak points in the opposition that could enable them to win next time around. Probably the most interesting one of those techniques is the lesson they learned from progressives' use of the AIDS Quilt, which I will talk about a little bit later. These are smart resistance techniques. I was reminded of the Bosnians who figured out that the American stealth bomber was great at hiding from radar but was not set up to block out cell phone signals, so they placed people on the hillsides saying to each other, in Bosnian, "can you hear me now" till their gunners literally got a picture of the stealth bomber and shot it down.
The more I was around them, the more I admired their ingenuity and persistence while at the same time I got more and more scared at what they relentlessly want to accomplish. It was kind of like getting to watch the Nazis try out the techniques of blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War before they unleashed them on the rest of Europe; amazingly inventive yet frightening and deadly in their effect.
Similarly, they are researching elements of the agreements the Episcopal Church has with the global Anglican Communion for loopholes. Rev. David Anderson, an Episcopal priest who's one of the leaders of the American Anglican Conference, a group by the way, which says it will have 1,000 trained delegates at the next general convention, says they are looking to "create a constitutional crisis by studying canon law carefully to ascertain the loopholes that tie the national church leadership in knots. There will come a point where conservatives can get away with a lot because the cost of coming down on us is too high. It's like fishing with a light test line; you have to know when to reel it in and when to let it out."
Interestingly, the tactic they are talking about is exactly the kind Jack Duval, director of the International Center of Nonviolent Conflict talks about that the smartest non-violent anti-war activists are using; "driving up the costs of maintaining control." They use the same tactic in letter writing, bragging about writing a single letter that will send the progressives into a fit and make the denominational bureaucracy have 10 committee meetings. For them that's a win.
Diverting focus from issues important to progressives is also important. The issue of Sudanese and Pakistani Christian human rights is an explicit diversion (the institutes for Religion and Democracy, the conservative think tank, sponsors the Alliance for a New Sudan). For a picture of George Bush smiling with them after he signed a new policy against genocide in Sudan see their site http://www.ird-renew.org/.
Sudan serves two purposes, they said at the conference: 1) it diverts attention away from Palestine and Israel; having committees focus there and not on the west bank is an explicit tactic; and 2) they also say being out front on issues like this allows them to make common cause with progressives on a human rights issue. Building relationships through issues like that is, they revealed in strategy sessions, a key to their plan to gain control of the denomination by working their way up the committee hierarchy.
Intriguingly, they said putting progressives into internally conflicted positions, where we don't know which side any particular conservative is on is something they are intentionally aiming for. If you don't know how to evaluate them as individuals or their stance because they champion some justice issues while they are dead set against others such as sexuality or avoiding pointing the finger at Israel, they have succeeded.
If you are confused, they said in Indianapolis, and your resistance is lowered, then they have accomplished their aims.
The conservative United Methodists used a variant of the "cross up the progressives through what they believe" tactic on gay issues. First, they embedded the issue of "homosexual conversion," in other conversion issues, with attractively laid out testimonials by a former KKK leader from Mississippi now working for racial reconciliation, a woman who aborted her child who now devotes her life to working with at risk neonates, and then plopping in a "converted" lesbian or gay man.
At the United Methodist General Conference those tactics allowed them to get a resolution passed outlawing discrimination against "converted gays" as a potentially persecuted minority. "We get the liberals conflicted," they said. "They have a strong belief in inclusion of any group and they have a belief about sexuality. Inclusion wins." And they have gained ground in their battle to make being LGBT into a "sinful choice" rather than a natural expression of gender preference.
They also try as much as possible to get a woman or a person of color as their spokesperson because they know it's harder for progressives to challenge them. "They can say things a lot stronger than a bald headed white male can," they said, "and fighting with them shames North American Christians." They also use young people in the same way.
Fourth lesson: these testimonials are part of a larger strategy that they learned from progressives when the AIDS Quilt was presented at General Convention. Remember, every time they lose they pore over the loss and try to reverse engineer it. Their lesson: Non-legislative events often shape the debate and are more powerful than the debates or explicit lobbying.
With a lip curled deeply in disgust the Rev. John Guernsey, rector of All Saints in Woodbridge VA, recalled seeing the quilt and the impression it made. "They laid it out, and it was huge, and we knew what it was about but who could be against these dead people? And they shaped the debate on sexuality at that convention."
They are also doing all they can to tag progressives with wedge issues; issues that move the middle because they are extreme or can be depicted that way. If a particular progressive makes an outlandish statement, they circulate it, suggest it as sermon fodder and mobilize against it. They said they are figuring out how to use the scandal in the Catholic Church over priestly abuse against gays, but didn't have any campaigns on that ready yet.
Meanwhile, they have learned to manage their image to the point that they are fairly successful at not being tagged by progressives with similar, inflammatory, mobilize-the-faithful or move-the-middle wedge issues.
Though they are classic fundamentalists, in that they are militant, separatist and literal where possible, they have become adroit at presenting what they called a "winsome witness;" a soft and friendly face to the public when they are fighting tooth and nail on an issue. They have volunteer chaplains designated to counsel and pray with their floor battlers when they sense them becoming irritated, frustrated and combative, calm them down and get them smiling and seeming unperturbed.
But unlike the fundamentalists of 20 years ago, they are aware of managing how they are perceived and have become subtle at not presenting a single issue as a target. For example, a Presbyterian group called "One by One," campaigns on sexual issues. They have brochures against sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and pedophilia. But if you want to join, the only real issue on the membership brochure is "conversion of homosexuals."
The point is, they line up two or three things you can't disagree with, and that you would even make common cause with. Then they take action on the single issue that's really at the heart of their agenda. But you haven't been able to target them on that single issue because they immerse it in issues you agree with. Obscuring their real purpose, surrounding it with stories that cause even people in this room to agree with them has become a key technique.
"What sells now is Oprah spirituality; people telling their stories. The liberals can't disagree with them and they ignore them because they are not strictly on the legislative agenda they are pursuing, but using them enables us to shape the debate," said one of their leaders.
I don't know what will happen with the issue of same sex blessings at general convention. But I do know that if progressives use only straightforward, linear focused legislative techniques to win the day for justice, we could lose without really knowing what happened to us. The real battle the conservatives are fighting is behind the scenes in the arcana of canon and property law and Anglican Communion covenants, on committees where they build relationships and in soft focused testimonials and multi-pronged efforts that make it hard to pick out the target.
They have taken the lesson of the AIDS quilt to focus on emotional events outside the legislative hall that shape the debate. From what I've seen, they are playing a deeply sophisticated and subtle game and playing it in a relentless and patient style, determined to take the time it takes to win. Are progressives playing at that level? Are we willing to?
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