If churches don’t wake up and do something, they may be headed for the day when the American government “will confine the free exercise of religion to the sanctuary, the synagogue, the sacristy, the narrow sanctum of worship and sacrament—the same parameters allowed religion in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
A paranoid fundamentalist speaking?
Guess again. It was William P. Thompson, the highest-elected official (Stated Clerk) of the United Presbyterian Church and a top leader of the National Council of Churches.
His warning was issued in early February to more than 300 leaders representing an estimated 90 percent of organized American religion at an unprecedented conference on “Government Intervention in Religious Affairs.”
The two-day conference held in suburban Washington, D.C., and featuring as speakers some of the nation’s best legal defenders of religious freedom, was jointly sponsored by the NCC, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United States Catholic Conference, the Synagogue Council of America, the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., and the Southern Baptist Convention. Attendance was by invitation only, but participants—a number of them battlescarred veterans of court conflicts with the government—included not only members of the sponsoring bodies but also representatives of such diverse groups as the liberal Unitarian-Universalist Association, the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches, the evangelical Christian Legal Society, World Vision International, and “new” religious groups like the legally embattled Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, the Worldwide Church of God, the Society for Krishna Consciousness, and The Way International.
As chairman of the conference, Thompson—himself a former lawyer—listed at the outset 17 actions by state and federal agencies that had troubled the sponsoring bodies in recent years. They included:
• Efforts to regulate fund-raising solicitations by religious bodies;
• Efforts to require religious groups to register with and report to government officials if they engage in any attempts to influence legislation (so-called lobbying disclosure laws);
• Efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to supervise elections for labor representation by lay teachers in Roman Catholic parochial schools (action since halted by the U.S. Supreme Court);
• The Internal Revenue Service’s definition of “integrated auxiliaries” that tend to separate church-related colleges and hospitals from the churches that sponsor them;
• Attempts by states to regulate the curriculum content and teacher qualifications in Christian schools (since halted by state courts in Ohio, Vermont, and Kentucky);
• Attempts by federal and state departments of labor to collect unemployment compensation taxes from church-related agencies that hitherto were, like churches, exempt;
• Imposition of federal requirements regarding coeducational sports, hygiene instruction, dormitories, and off-campus residence admissions on church-related colleges that had religious objections to mingling of the sexes in such ways;
• Efforts by several federal agencies to require church-related agencies and institutions, including theological seminaries, to report their employment and admissions statistics by race, Sex, and religion, even though they received no government funds, with threats to cut off such funds to those that did receive them unless, for instance, they hired staff from other religious backgrounds;
• Grand jury interrogation of church workers about internal affairs of churches;
• Placing of a church in receivership because of allegations by a few dissident members;
• Granting by courts of conservatorship orders to parents to obtain physical custody of [adult] children from unpopular religious movements for purposes of forcing them to abandon their allegiance thereto;
• Withdrawal of tax exemptions from various religious groups for failure to comply with “public policy”;
• Redefinition by the courts of ecclesiastical polity, so that hierarchical bodies are in effect rendered congregational in polity, and dispersed “connectional” bodies are deemed to be hierarchical, contrary to their own self-definition.
Commented Thompson; “No one of these developments, taken by itself, is sufficiently alarming to necessitate a convocation like this, and indeed some of them might be thought by some people to be justified. But the pattern that they form when viewed together is an alarming one …”
The conference, he said, was not called in a “spirit of panic or desperation,” or to launch a counterattack against the government on all fronts. Rather, he explained, it was to analyze what has been happening, listen to proposals, and then as individual bodies decide what to do as cases arise.
Thompson dismissed the notion that conspiratorial forces in government are working to stamp out religion, and he acknowledged that on occasion there are grounds “for justifiable governmental action,” a topic discussed in one of the many conference papers.
After listening to the speakers and discussion, the church executive returned to the podium in the closing session and issued a hang-tough call for what amounts to ecumenism, and no one seemed opposed, not even in private conversations. One fundamentalist leader, who asked not to be identified, said: “There are groups here whose beliefs I totally reject, but if we don’t stick together on these legal issues, we all may go under.”
“Important precedents,” declared Thompson, “are being set by the decisions made [by government] each day that can affect all of us far into the future.” He emphasized that such precedents often occur in cases involving nonmainstream groups because they are most “vulnerable,” and that larger, well-established bodies therefore ought to come to the rescue of such smaller groups. Religious groups, he said, should try to sift their defense efforts “into a common strategy and mutual reinforcement, lest we be picked off one by one.”
He called on the religious groups to spread the word among themselves when they are under government assault, to seek competent counsel before acting through “impulse, expediency, or inadvertence, in a way that cannot later be rectified except at great expense.” In some cases, he said, groups mistakenly moved to trial level without first contesting whether the government had a right to intervene at all. And, he said, some groups acquiesced when they should have resisted, and some fought when they should not have.
Thompson called on participants to stick together legally despite differences in viewpoint about beliefs. He cited as a case in point a current suit against the Roman Catholic church for its alleged political activities in opposition to abortion. The suit, among other things, seeks to deprive the church of its tax-exempt status. Even though there is disagreement on the issue of abortion, he said, it “does not mean we want to see that church or any other silenced, or that we will stand idly by when it is under attack for preaching and acting in support of what it believes to be the course of morality for all.”
The conference speakers presented case histories of church-and-state confrontations, discussed laws and regulations that affect religious bodies, and dispensed advice on how to deal with bureaucrats. Most counseled moderation in first contacts with the government, even though the threat to religious freedom is far more serious than is commonly perceived.
William Bentley Ball, a constitutional lawyer who has fought many religious cases, said that governmental intrusion sometimes is only a case of bureaucratic bungling, and that things can be cleared up quietly simply by informing officials of the correct rules and laws that apply.
Others among the 14 speakers included noted law professors Charles M. Whelen of Fordham and Laurence Tribe of Harvard, along with Dean M. Kelley, NCC Executive for Religious Liberty, who organized the conference.
In floor discussions, several black participants took issue with the concept that churches and church institutions should be exempt from government intervention when they have racist policies, even when those policies are allegedly based on Scripture. And Bishop Nathaniel Linsey of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church suggested that he could justify “some kind of intervention so that people can be liberated” from places like People’s Temple in Jonestown.
National Coalition for Better Television
Forces Combating Tv Smut Flex Their New Muscle
After causing the political establishment to take notice in the immediate past election, conservative religious forces are now turning their guns on not one but three giants: the national television networks. They are targeting what they consider the “gratuitous sex and violence” screened by the networks.
Partly because of the successful tangle with politics, television producers and sponsors are taking the new concentration very seriously. This time it features not only Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, but the cooperation of more than 150 organizations representing an estimated three to five million people. The group, dubbed the National Coalition for Better Television (NCBT), crosses religious and secular lines: its board members include Roman Catholic Phyllis Schlafly, the antifeminist, as well as Ron Godwin, vice-president of Moral Majority.
Donald Wildmon, chairman of the NCBT board, is leader of the National Federation for Decency, a veteran television monitoring organization. He claims NCBT is the “largest such coalition ever put together.” But he emphasizes the coalition does not intend to use its numerical clout to censor television. Instead, it believes the networks should choose what they will program, the advertisers what they sponsor, and the viewers what they watch.
Moral Majority’s Godwin agrees. “There will be nothing done to embarrass any company. We’re not going to use pressure or smear anybody’s name,” he said. What the coalition will do is monitor the networks during March, April, and May.
Prepared forms were issued to between 400,000 and 450,000 monitors. Working in teams of two, they are monitoring separate programs on separate evenings one night a week for a month. Each team will record incidents of sex, violence, or profanity, noting the sponsors of the program and the amount of time sponsored.
It’s at the end of the three-month monitoring period that sponsors may feel pressure. At that time the coalition will select one or more sponsors and ask for a one-year boycott of their products.
In the past, Wildmon’s Federation for Decency has pressured sponsors of offensive programs and, said Wildmon, “There has been a considerable amount of money lost on programs.” He cited as an example CBS’s “Flesh and Blood,” a television film including an incestuous relationship. On that one, Wildmon said, CBS lost $5 million from worried sponsors.
Godwin hopes sponsors will get the word early and the coalition will not have to resort to boycotts and other pressure tactics. Just the same, he admitted NCBT is “really aimed at informing the public and sensitizing the public as to who is sponsoring what kinds of television.”
The sponsors and networks seem, in the coalition’s view, to bear the brunt of responsibility for substandard programming. But is the audience innocent?
Godwin admitted producers “perceive an appetite” for sex, violence, and profanity. “But, in point of truth, our phones are ringing off the hooks and we’re getting an enormous number of letters. There is a genuine groundswell of outrage,” he said.
Godwin compared viewers to the proverbial frog who slowly boils to death because he doesn’t realize the water he’s sitting in is constantly increasing in temperature: maybe the public now realizes television is boiling and wants to do something about it. Wildmon added, “If you show three programs with sex, violence, and profanity, one is going to be high-rated.”
Critics of such groups as NCBT believe these organizations stifle creativity and censor programming according to their “narrow” interests. Norman Lear, producer of the ground-breaking “All in the Family,” for instance, says he abhors the self-appointed television policemen. Godwin responds that the producers themselves represent “narrow” interests. Only about 300 writers and producers determine what appears on the networks, he said, adding that not just programs but commercials present a “teen-age view of sex.”
Lear also complains about commercials, commenting in the February Saturday Review that “TV is dumping its toxic waste” when it uses 15-year-old derrieres to sell jeans. But he does not comment on the programming itself, “because I simply do not watch enough TV to say.” That, the Review notes, may be the most indirectly condemnatory thing Lear could say: “When the busman uses trains, he may be telling us how safe buses are.”
The same Review article reports the alleged plans of Moral Majority to purchase a major share in one of the national networks, plans absolutely denied at Moral Majority headquarters. “Fiction,” said Cal Thomas, Moral Majority’s vice-president of communications, about the report. “We don’t have any plans now and there won’t be any plans” to buy a network. The aim, he said, is to influence, not own the networks.
The reactions of Lear and other producers (including Lee Rich of “Dallas”) may indicate a large-scale monitoring group like NCBT is feared, or at least respected, in Hollywood and New York. Wildmon certainly believes the coalition will change television: “In the future there will be programs you can sit down and enjoy with your family, without worrying if sex or violence or profanity will insult you.” He expects next season’s prime time schedule to include less of the sex-and-violence formula.
In the same Saturday Review article, an ABC executive agreed a massive boycott could affect programming. If such were successful, she said, “They’d be putting dresses on the girls in bikinis in a hurry.”
The bikinis may go, but what about the values of materialism, racism, and American chauvinism also apparent on television? Wildmon said these may be farther down the agenda, but “to begin with we want to keep it simple.” After all, said Godwin, “You can’t go after all the wolves in the forest every time.”
There are, nevertheless, many hunters pursuing the television wolves. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have commented negatively on TV morals, as has syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “Not just the right-wing and knee-jerk fanatics are fed up.” MM’s Thomas said.
It is the right wing, however, that is moving to mobilize serious action about the quality of television. And although Moral Majority is not leading, but only cooperating with NCBT, it is its election-earned power that is causing the television moguls to take notice.
“Moral Majority is not an election year phenomenon,” said Godwin. “We are gearing up for the long haul.”
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