The Bishops and President Bush

The meeting yesterday of five United Methodist bishops with President Bush is an encouraging first step. Hopefully, it will open the door to getting the voice of these mainline Christians into the discussion of public issues. Bishop Weaver, the president of the Council of Bishops, is expressing the hope for further dialogue with public officials on the matters that make for a better world.

The absence of the mainline, moderate voice in public discussion is widely recognized. The manner in which mainline leaders study and speak is at odds with the shoot-from-the-lip media style that gets attention today. That’s a disadvantage they must overcome simply to be heard.

And I’m not critical of this style, I believe it’s served the church and the society well over the years. But the challenge is how to be heard when you’re moderate and measured rather than bombastic and extreme. Bombast makes headlines. Extremes grab soundbites.

In a world where media shape perceptions, if you are not seen or heard, your ability to shape public opinion is almost impossible. Influence in other ways, of course, is an option. Meeting with public officials and lobbying for policies is a proven method. But you need support behind you and more often than not that comes from public perception, or at least the ability to communicate broadly with constituent groups.

When, during the last election, there was a concerted attempt to organize pastors of local churches to support the Republican party candidates and to distribute mailing lists of local churches to the party, it was clear that some political operators are playing hardball.

Further, the public comments of people such as James Dobson demonstrate a willingness to use rhetorical flourish that is out of character for mainstream leaders. In that regard, the challenge they face is how to get a hearing without resorting to such tactics.

That in itself will need to be an ongoing conversation. But, for now, I’m proud of the bishops for the way in which they have handled this meeting with the President. I’m pleased that the President met with them. I think this is a good first step and I am hopeful it will lead to other steps that will result in the participation of mainline leadership in the discussion of public policy that will make the world a safer, more compassionate and more humane world for all people.

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