The Gospel according to Norman

By Mark Tooley* Excerpted.

February 2002 – Television producer Norman Lear’s People for the American Way has created a new political lobby for left-wing religious activists. Called the Progressive Religious Partnership, and headed by renowned liberal organizer Ralph Neas, the new coalition styles itself as a left-leaning version of the once-vibrant Christian Coalition. 

“I can’t fight all of these Christian preachers on TV with all the Jewish money,” Norman Lear supposedly told Episcopal priest George Regas, a co-founder of the partnership. “So you must raise some Gentile money.” Regas shared the remarks at the partnership’s opening convocation this spring in Washington, D.C. 

Judging from most of the remarks at that gathering, the partnership is not likely to be known for its moderation. Besides touting traditional liberal causes, such as gun control and expanded welfare spending, partnership leaders demanded homosexual marriage, government subsidies for abortion, and reparations for slavery. 

Ralph Neas boasted that People for the American Way had spent over $200,000 organizing the partnership because it realizes that it cannot change America without first changing America’s religious climate. The “Religious Right” has dominated America’s political discourse for too long, he and many others alleged.

Regas suggested that religious conservatives had been short on “compassion” and “justice.” But others were less restrained in their critique of conservatives. United Methodist minister James Lawson of Los Angeles slammed the Religious Right as a “theocratic, fascist movement that emanates out of racism, sexism, and violence.” 

The partnership aims to combat these “isms” with its own brand of politics that are decidedly left-wing but still “rooted in the sacred story,” according to Regas. Central to the movement is a balance between its demands for “economic and sexual justice.” 

“We will not sacrifice one agenda for the sake of the other,” Regas asserted. “We boldly set forth our affirmation of gay marriage as part of God’s design which we will bless before the throne of Almighty God.” 

A number of radical Roman Catholic dissidents were present to endorse the partnership’s vision of “sexual justice.” Among them was Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, who warned that the Religious Right is an “international phenomenon” often fueled by “extreme interpretations of Catholic doctrine that discriminate against women.”

Marianne Duddy was another prominent radical Catholic voice at the partnership meeting. Duddy is the executive director for Dignity, a pro-homosexuality caucus group for dissident Roman Catholics. “On this issue [of same-sex ‘marriage’], the Roman Catholic Church has joined forces with the Religious Right to ensure the perpetuation of civil oppression and discrimination,” Duddy lamented. 

She boasted that she had celebrated a “wedding” with her lesbian partner during a Catholic mass.

Roman Catholic Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-director of the Quixote Center in Brentwood, Maryland, opened the partnership’s gathering with an invocation. She prayed to “You who are both Mother and Father,” and cited “our spiritual ancestors,” including Jesus, Mohammed, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, and Bishop Oscar Romero. “May our … world learn that your love embraces everyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, class, culture, age, physical challenges, or sexual orientation,” she prayed. “And may we respect the moral adulthood of each of us, women and men in making choices that affect our lives.” 

The Rev. John McNeill, co-founder of Dignity, was another dissident Catholic speaker for the partnership. He gave public thanks to God for God’s “great gift” to him, which was the “presence of a gay lover in my life for 35 years.” 

The two great “liberation movements” of our age are women’s liberation and “gay” liberation, McNeill said. Both are the work of the Holy Spirit, who is “preparing the world for an increased infusion of Herself into the hearts of the faithful.” 

Catholic Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis of Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, offered to the partnership gathering her own brand of eco-friendly, pantheistic spirituality. “From the beginning the universe has had a non-material inner dimension and that has been evolving with its physical complexity,” she theorized. “If consciousness and soul show up in the human six billion years later, it’s because it was inherently there in its potent form all along,” MacGillis claimed. “And [it is because] this whole thing is an unbroken sequence of events, and that the human is one with and embedded in the whole. Any belief that says the human is radically disconnected from the other-than-human is the dysfunction.” 

Protestant extremists
Catholic radicals were prominent at the Partnership event, but mainline Protestants had their fair share of the limelight. Katherine Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest from Massachusetts and president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, called abortion providers the “saints and heroes” of our day. 

Ragsdale declared that the “vast majority” of religious people are pro-abortion rights, including Roman Catholics who are overshadowed by their anti-abortion hierarchy. 

The Rev. Regas was more vitriolic than Ragsdale in denouncing pro-lifers. “Deep in my soul I believe there is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child.” Forcing a woman to have a child is “legalized rape,” Regas insisted. 

Defrocked United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech, who lost his clergy status after he violated Methodist church law by celebrating a homosexual “wedding,” complained that the church’s sexual ethics were not based on the teachings of Jesus but on “Jewish, non-Christian philosophies.” 

“I think it’s because of the women’s movement that we have gotten to the place where we can talk about same-gendered marriage,” Creech said. “The resistance to same-gendered marriage is still that old patriarchal model that contains rigid gender roles that are imposed on all people.” 

Carol Shields, who co-chairs People for the American Way, accused Methodist conservatives of exploiting homosexuality to “further a larger and larger schism” in their denomination. They were perpetrating a “big lie,” she alleged. Similarly, conservative Southern Baptists exploited the “big lie” of belief in scriptural inerrancy to facilitate their takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

“It ain’t about morals,” Shields assured the crowd. “It’s about these schisms in the church which translate into political secular power …. These people don’t care who gets hurt and praying for them doesn’t help.” 

Predictably, several partnership speakers propagated conspiracy theories involving the close presidential election last fall. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State revealed that the Religious Right had cut its deal with George W. Bush well before the election. The appointment of John Ashcroft to head the Justice Department was proof enough. 

“John Ashcroft is not just a deeply committed Christian,” Lynn said. “John Ashcroft [has said] that Jesus was not just the Lord of his life, which many folks would say is true, but that Jesus was the king of the country.” Lynn doubted that the attorney general would enforce laws that violate his allegedly strident religious views. 

Confusion about the country’s founding documents and principles was evident among other speakers. “The last time I read my U. S. Constitution, every person in this country had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Episcopal priest and homosexual activist Steven Baines, who was actually quoting the Declaration of Independence. “And no matter whether the person that I choose to love is a man or a woman, if that brings me happiness and I choose to love that person, that is a constitutionally-protected right for every United States citizen.” 

Radical rant
Perhaps excelling all other speakers in flamboyance, Union Seminary (New York) professor Hyun Kyung Chung introduced herself as a “recovering terrorist” who used to dream of bombing the U.S. Embassy in her native South Korea. When her equally radical husband became a Christian “fundamentalist,” she was traumatized but did not abandon her politics or her theology. She divorced her husband and launched a career as a radical feminist theologian. 

Bemoaning the complacency of middle-aged women in the U. S., Chung had some advice for them. “Maybe we should ask women to stop taking anti-depressants and become a mad woman,” she suggested. “Maybe so mad that we go to the Pentagon and we go to Washington and we go to gun shows and all these armament-making factories,” where women can “smear our menstrual blood and say you should die.” 

“We don’t comb our hair,” Chung told a laughing audience. “We don’t wash our hands. We don’t make love to our husbands. We don’t take care of our children. Just become real mad women. It would change America.” 

The audience of several hundred partnership supporters was amused and enthused by Chung’s rant. 

With the organizational skills of Ralph Neas, the money of Norman Lear, and the antics of Professor Chung, the new Progressive Religious Partnership is bound to make a splash. It is equally bound to be entertaining. 

But religious conservatives need not worry too much. It lacks one crucial ingredient: large numbers of devoted churchgoers eager to follow its lead. The kind of rhetoric emanating from Ralph Neas and the other partnership leaders will appeal only to a shrinking left fringe of America’s mainline denominations. The money for the new partnership may come from the secularist constituency of People for the American Way, but the religious masses will not rush to join up.  undefined  

* Mark Tooley is the executive director of UMAction, a committee of Institute for Religion and Democracy, an independent agency working for renewal in mainline denominations.