Archive - May, 2008

How Politicized Faith is Like Pathetically Pliant Media

Reacting to claims by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan that the President misled us about the Iraq War, CNN veteran Bob Franken writes on Huffington Post that, “We (the media) were pathetically pliant, willing to be timid so as not to offend the White House and be denied the crumbs of access that were granted to those of us who didn’t make waves. When are we going to learn?”

Franken’s assessment is sharper and more  blunt than we’ve seen from those who practice newsgathering in contrast to commentators and pundits who offer opinion.

I was reminded of the words of United Methodist Bishop Mel Talbert in 2003 in a TV message challenging the Bush Administration to not go to war:  “No nation under God has that right. It violates international law. It violates God’s law and the teachings of Jesus Christ. War only creates more terrorists and makes a dangerous world for our children.”

His position reveals even greater moral strength and insight after McClellan’s revelations. In an AP report McClellan is quoted: “The Iraq war was not necessary. Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake.”

The AP article also claims McClellan is engaging in an act of contrition in order to be true to his Christian faith. According to the AP, McClellan writes, “I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be.”

His act of confession and contrition will not be understood by political operatives who hold to different values. His claim that the administration never ceased running in campaign mode reveals the contrasting values.  It was a government of continuing self-serving propaganda which resulted in serving the base at the expense of serving all the people. McClellan’s idealism apparently took a beating.

Values can inform political sensibilities, but politics cannot be an adequate vessel for religious faith.  It’s problematic when sectarian religious precepts are ensconced as public policy. That’s theocracy and while a few have recently have seemed to want it, it was rejected in this country early on and the nation is better for it.

While they were unyielding in attempting to advance their religious views, a few on the religious right were pliant in other ways and were rewarded with access and public affirmation by those in high positions in the administration.

But politics requires compromise, compromise that sometimes undermines the claims of faith. The cost of this identification of evangelical religion with politics is still to be determined.

Bishop Talbert staked his opposition to the war on faith claims as well, but he was appealing to a higher value–the well-being of the human community. And his plea was to refrain from doing harm, not to impose a particular religious precept onto others.

He was roundly criticized by those religious partisans who favored war. Unlike them, those religious leaders who did not support the war did not have access to the Administration. They were shut out. Not only was opposition to the war equated with lack of patriotism, it was also equated with unfaithfulness.

Faith got highjacked. I suspect Bishop Talbert understood this from the start. And I also suspect he knew the cost for his stand wasn’t mere criticism, it carried a much deeper risk—compromised integrity and the betrayal of faithfulness to higher values. And that’s what Scott McClellan is discovering now and what some, even after all this time, still don’t understand.

Politically compromised faith is pathetically pliant.

Why Mainstream Media Coverage of Religion Makes the Media Irrelevant

When we were attempting to get coverage of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church three weeks ago one reporter for a major, mainstream publication bluntly told us why his editor wouldn’t assign him to cover it even as a religion reporter.

“My editor doesn’t understand why people go to church. He will only assign reporters to cover controversy. If you see conflict coming out of this conference I have a better chance,” he said.

The bipolar template of conflict that is applied to many stories from politics to religion and much in-between, creates its own filter and outcome. I believe it manufactures the news in a way that is detrimental to those who are covered.

In this instance the fact that a 13-million member religious community pledged to join a global partnership to end a killer disease (malaria) and raise $100 million to contribute to the effort was not news. In the scheme of things a protracted disagreement over human sexuality, a disagreement that is now more than a decade old, was still “newsworthy” because it involved conflict.

It’s tiresome. Journalism has fallen into a predictable track and when it heads down this particular track it’s increasingly irrelevant. There is nothing new to say about the debate over sexuality, at least nothing new has been said that I’ve heard. So making conflict the rationale for covering an event of this magnitude and ignoring the wide range of concerns of this number of people seems remarkably out of touch.

In an excerpt from her new book posted yesterday, Arianna Huffington offers a sharp, accurate critique of the mainstream media for its coverage of politics. It seems to me her critique parallels our experience in religious coverage. More specifically, it describes the nature of coverage by national mainstream media.
The most important insight, I believe, that can be gleaned from Huffington’s critique is that the persistent framing of conflict puts the agenda of the media in front of the agenda of the people involved. It pre-determines the nature of the story and this pre-determines content. It magnifies and legitimizes extremes, providing them a larger platform than they would otherwise have. And this can lead to the impression that the extremes are more representative, or more knowledgeable than, in fact, they are because the focus is on the conflict and not on the quality of information.

Extremist groups have learned how to play this game exceedingly well. Huffington says this symbiotic relationship between media and extremes is how “the lunatic fringe highjacked America.” Pretty strong words but a critique worth considering.

On the whole, given the incompetence of mainstream media covering religion, I was not disappointed they didn’t show up in Ft. Worth.

Why Aren’t There More Religious Social Entrepreneurs?

Social entrepreneurship is touted today as a more effective way to lift people from poverty than old-style charity. From CEOs of major corporations to energetic startups, mixing entrepreneurship with social improvement is getting lots of talk.

I heard a plea recently for non-profits, in this case religious organizations, to become more entrepreneurial. It’s an interesting proposal, one that deserves more examination.

Why aren’t there more social entrepreneurs in religious groups, more specifically, among those mainline groups where I spend most of my time? If entrepreneurship is, in fact, more likely to lift people from poverty, it would seem people would be rushing to embrace the concept. But they aren’t. Many are resisting.

Why?

There are as many reasons as there are resisters, I imagine. High on the list are contrasting values. Benevolence is different from profit-making. One is about giving freely, the other is about making profit. This fundamental difference cannot be easily bridged. A few have done so, but it’s not a natural reach. Even when those who profit are the poor themselves, it’s difficult for benevolent minds to appropriate marketing and charging the poor, who are already victims of economic exploitation or others not so poor, fees for services or products.

The current issue of Sojourners offers the text of a letter by famed Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day that illustrates. Writing to New York city officials after they took a building used by Day’s Catholic Worker movement and offerred payment with interest, Day sent the check back with a letter explaining, We do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brothers [and sisters] as Jesus commended in the gospel (Matthew 25).”

For Day the question of profiting from the poor or the not poor is answered biblically and the answer is “no.”

But for others the issue isn’t resolved. The selling of bednets to prevent malaria rather than freely distributing them is only one example of a recent difference in approach. The claim is made that people will better use and maintain nets if they’ve paid for them.

An even more important venture is economic empowerment through micro-lending. It is demonstrating that the bridge can be built, especially after the growing success of the Grameen Bank and Mohammad Yunus. This form of social entrepreneurship is finding widespread acceptance among religious groups, as is fair trade.

But if the biblical injunction is interpreted as prohibition against all profit, it’s difficult to build the bridge and a second principle comes into play, as Day points out. Not only is profit counter-cultural, people who work in these groups usually see their work as a vocation. They are giving of themselves to make a contribution to the larger mission. A vocational commitment gives higher meaning to work than profiting from it. Some may even be seeking escape from the profit sector. This vocational commitment reinforces benevolent values and actively prevents a culture of entrepreneurship.

I often muse that if they were entrepreneurs, staff of many of these religious organizations would not come to work in the organization in the first place. That’s not who they are nor why they want to do the work they feel called to do. This is not exactly a breeding ground for entrepreneurial ventures.

And that leads to third obvious consideration. The entrepreneurial skills and motivation to profit aren’t present in these organizations. And it’s not only because the mission of the organization isn’t entrepreneurial, it’s also because these organizations aren’t structured for entrepreneurship. Program officers are separated from fund-raising, and often regard it as a necessary evil even if it pays their salaries and funds their programs. This is structural. Many voluntary, benevolent organizations are structured so that entrepreneurship is not possible.

I’ve witnessed this tension throughout a thirty-year experience working in the non-profit sector. Even the word “marketing” is suspect among some. It represents exploitation and selling out to values that are less than the self-giving benevolence that we all should hold dear. Can a religion remain above the consumerism that mis-shapes life toward material ends if it presents itself as yet another competing commodity within that culture?

I’ve seen revulsion of marketing take extreme form. I’ve had sharp discussions with program officers who did not want to tell important stories because they felt that merely informing donors about human need risked exploiting those in need. This is obviously an important proscription and it should be considered sensitively. I always argue that communicating with sensitivity and respect avoids exploitation, and I don’t subscribe to the most blatant examples of advertising that exploit images of people made weak by hunger and deprivation. Images of malnourished children with flies in their eyes, and often in comatose state, are exploitative and I’ve avoided them. There are other ways to tell the story of hunger.

But not telling the story is not only organizational suicide, it’s irresponsible. People facing life-or-death struggles in poverty conditions lack the voice to gain attention. They are among the most vulnerable and powerless of the world’s peoples. Forgotten and exploited, they benefit from partners who share power with them and also assist them to find and express their own voices. One important function of storytelling is to help people find their voice. It can legitimate their stories and provide access to others so they can be heard.

Broadly defined that’s marketing and communication. Each is legitimate and enables community empowerment. Both should be used by all who seek social change, not sublimated by misplaced values that denigrate them.

So I come down in a middle position that neither rejects nor places ultimate faith in these disciplines apart from values that keep them in check. But I’m more favorable than opposed.

In fact, I share the belief that we should be benevolent, especially we who live in a materially blessed society as the United States. We should also feel responsibility for others who live under less blessed conditions. And we should willingly give up some of what we have so they can have a better life.

In a global culture that is increasingly profit-driven, the challenge to benevolent souls is how to survive and achieve justice for those left out, exploited or abandoned. Benevolence is far from dead. But it’s also not the only way to create change today. It’s being challenged. And it must rise the challenge or become marginalized itself.

I’d like to see more conversation about religious social entrepreneurs in mainline traditions and I’ll write more later.

The First Digital General Conference

The marathon that happens every four years in The United Methodist Church, known as General Conference, is over. And not a minute too soon for some delegates who felt sleep-deprived and exhausted with the ten-day, non-stop consideration of legislation that guides the church.

It’s been adjourned for five days and the physical after-effects are still being felt. How it will affect the church for the long-term remains to be seen.

I didn’t blog from GC primarily because I was just too busy. Working with staff who were producing much of the daily program, meeting with delegates, attending legislative committee meetings, discussing public information needs and a host of other responsibilities made blogging impossible.

But now that it’s over I’ve had a few hours to reflect. This General Conference was clearly a turning point in a subtle, but meaningful way. It was the first conference to integrate digital media into the proceedings. Worship, program interpretation, voting and communicating were all conducted with digital technologies. During an address by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a delegate on the floor got a text message from a daughter in Europe watching the live video stream and reacting in real time. Video streaming was viewed by people in more than fifty countries. And delegates could send video messages back home through a connection at the United Methodist Communications booth.

Worship elements were interwoven in a seamless way and provided both engagement and guidance without seeming to be interjections foreign to the worshipful setting. Program interpretation took place in a way that seemed both natural and informative. The proceedings didn’t just stop to accommodate video, video was integrated into moments of celebration and interpretation, and it led us to new insight and understanding without being forced upon us. Speakers adapted to multiple screens that brought them closer to the thousand delegates on the floor and spectators in the balconies even when the physical distance between them was greater than it appeared.

My hunch is that this will prove to be a General Conference in which the way the proceedings are conducted changed for the long-term future. But it was only a start. In the future digital tools will be even more prominent but this mainline denomination, as most of its counterparts, is made up of people who are not of the digital generation and such change will likely come as leaders emerge from the next generation for whom digital life is native.

It was also notable for an intentional effort by the various speakers who made formal presentations to coordinate messages. Delegates were presented with clear, concise and coherent information that they could use in their deliberations. A day and a half of messages were coordinated to give an overview of the church, not an easy task for a decentralized organization with global reach and great diversity.

There were at least three risks: the presentations could come across as boring, manipulative or taking time away from the work of legislating. I think the risks were overcome. The presentations were lively, honest and engaging. The speakers took risks, were honest and they respected the time constraints they were given. As a result, the mission and ministry of the whole church was defined with more focus than in the past and the delegates had straightforward information about the focus areas.

This was actually the culmination of a three-year conversation about the state of the church in which people from around the world were invited to participate in face-to-face conversation, online, and through various research survey methods. An effort was made to ensure that every voice could be heard.

Sharpening messages and focusing the mission of the church was only the first step, of course. The more difficult challenge will be to actually live up to what was communicated. That will require commitment and partnerships unlike any the church has seen in recent years. But the mood of the delegates toward this focus was positive and trusting. The greatest shift called for by the General Conference is that four areas of focus–equipping principled Christian leaders for the church and the world, creating new places for new people by starting new churches and renewing existing ones, engaging in ministry with the poor and improving health globally by tackling the diseases of poverty–actually be given priority and implemented in real partnerships.

If this happens it will mark a fundamental change in the way the church functions at the general church level. This General Conference, as difficult as it was because of time constraints, gave the whole church a great gift. The gift of focus and direction.