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Every denomination needs one of these...

More on the role of religion in politics

Monday, February 18, 2008

Scott Paeth is picking up the ball on the role of religion in politics and he has a very good piece on his blog that directly tackles the question. For those who don't know, Scott and I couldn't be more different in many of our views but we both share a passion and a love for our church and neither of us are shy about sharing our feelings.

To start, Scott says...

Now, I'm not particularly interested in defending the particulars of the UCC's public stance either, not because I don't think it's defensible (fairly few things are truly "not defensible," if you care enough to try to defend them), but because I don't think we can begin to look at the particulars of how denominational offices take on political positions until we have a better sense of what principles ought to govern the positions they take.

In theory, of course, the UCC's national offices are given direction by the General Synod, though in actuality particular policy stands are often taken independently of Synod resolutions (this has to do with a, well, unique, understanding of what "local church autonomy" means when applied to some denominational agencies).

Part of the larger problem has to do with the "non-creedal" nature of the UCC. As a denomination, we don't have a set of overarching "principles" that govern our discourse. Rather, since each individual, church, association, conference, and agency can develop very different theological and social understandings of Christian responsibility, no one viewpoint can be said to be normative for the whole denomination.
This is accurate but it is also ambiguous to the point that for all practical purposes, there are no real covenantal responsibilities among the various church bodies. It also presumes that each body carries equal weight. I would argue that the covenanted bodies of the UCC outside of the local church (associations, conferences or national agencies) are NOT equal to the local church for both practical and legal reasons. For practical reasons, without the local church, there can be no association, conference or national office. According to our own constitution, the local church is afforded greater powers than the other bodies: principally they are the only body that is clearly autonomous*.

While this seems legalistic, it is a very important point in how our denomination is governed and the decisions that are made with regard to political activism. Let's be clear: The national office and agencies of the UCC (including the Conferences and Association) are independently governed but they are not autonomous and in fact carry a greater responsibility for acting in covenant with the other church bodies and particularly with local churches. Given the diverse political population of local churches, these church bodies have an inherent responsibility to act prudently in their political activism.

Scott makes an excellent point:
So we should always proceed with a large dose of humility when we venture into the the political complexities of the world as a denomination. Rather than speak self-righteously from within our own finite sphere of certainty, we should be clear on the limits of our own understanding, and seek to become a forum for the discussion of general principles of social action, choosing those of most pressing concern, and that fit most clearly without our self-understanding as a denomination.
Scott mentioned the comments I made regarding the Puerto Rican Terrorists. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the points made about the terrorists (and specifically Alejandrina Torres) by the national office are accurate and faithful: They are oppressed and they seek independence and justice. Is that all that is required for action? There is no disagreement that Alejandrina Torres was a member of a group (FALN) that injured, maimed and killed many, many people. She was videotaped building a bomb and was ultimately convicted of numerous related charges. Contrary to what the national office says, there is no record that she ever apologized or even admitted to her crime. If there was ever a need for humility to be attached to a justice issue, this is the one. What about the victims of FALN?

In the broader UCC body, we cannot simply dismiss our odd support of Torres as the product of the "flawed and fallible creatures" in the national office - and then do nothing about it. By ignoring this issue which seems wrong on so many levels, we diminish our credibility on justice issues that seem so right.

One last point on Niebuhr: While a number of people hold Niebuhr in high regard for his criticism of the Soviet Union during the cold war, Niebuhr's greatest criticism was reserved for his own faith and for his own people in the ultimate display of humility. If we look around the leadership of the UCC today, is there a single leader with this kind of courage?

*There is a blurb that states "The General Synod has the following powers, provided, however, that no power vested in the General Synod shall invade the autonomy of Conferences, Associations, and Local Churches..." but there is no autonomy defined for the Conferences or Association in the constitution).

UPDATE: Steve Swope reminds me on the message board that "there is clear legal basis for stating thatAssociations, Conferences, and the Synod are equally autonomous with the local congregation." Steve is right that there is a legal precedent and long held practice that gives equal weight among the covenanted bodies. That doesn't mean that it is right or faithful to the letter of the constitution. How well has this interpretation served the denomination since it's founding?
posted by UCCtruths, Monday, February 18, 2008


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